Nevada District Finds Success in Turning Around

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of vising Dilworth STEM Academy for 7th and 8th graders in Sparks, Nevada to meet with Washoe County School District (WCSD) leadership and school staff. This district serves 63,000 and has had amazing success in turning around what just two years ago was an underperforming district. My congratulations go out to 2011 Nevada Superintendent of the Year, Dr. Heath Morrison; Deputy Superintendent Jane Woodburn; and President of the 2011 Nevada School Board of the Year, Ken Grein, and their dedicated partners and staffs. And a special thanks to Principal Tom Wortman of Smithridge Elementary School, Principal Wanda Shakeenab of Sparks High School, and Principal Laura Petersen of Dilworth Middle School who took the time to spend their morning with me.

In Nevada, where the dropout rate is 24 percent above the national average, WCSD’s high school graduation rates in 2009 were below the state average, and the district was in desperate need of help. Dr. Morrison put in place a strategic plan with the goal of getting every child to graduation, supported, in part, by a U.S. Department of Education School Improvement Grant (SIG) and a $9 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant. Despite cuts in funding from the state, Dr. Morrison and his committed team set ambitious goals and began instituting innovative solutions to drive dramatic change.

The district expanded early learning programs, focused on developing a workforce-ready curriculum, and stressed the importance of professional learning communities grounded in student learning data to inform and improve instruction. District leadership also enhanced its teacher evaluation system to better recognize key drivers of student learning.

Partnerships were formed with local colleges and universities to help inform curriculum development and ensure that students graduated ready for college without the need for remedial courses. With the estimated cost of remedial education being $5.6 billion nationwide, these are the kind of efforts we need to ensure that our students are fully prepared to not only get to college but to graduate from college.

Equally as impressive was the work that was done to educate and collaborate with the community. Working with business leaders, parents, and advocacy groups, the district created “Parent University,” with twenty-two organizations to offer over 200 classes to help families help their children succeed.

And the results are staggering. After four years of stagnating graduation rates, the graduation rate in WCSD has increased 14 percent to 70 percent in just two years! Every single school in the district has improved, and the district overall has seen the most growth in graduation rates among black and Hispanic students, as well and English learners.

While we sometimes hear that a focus on outcomes can limit innovative thinking and student engagement, WCSD students are more engaged than ever. The district’s High School Signature Academies serve as hubs for learning, and focus on areas such as health sciences, digital technologies, and sustainable resources. In Nevada, where the unemployment rate is 13 percent, the highest in the country, these academies are providing the skills necessary for the 21st Century workforce. Any 8th grade student can apply to attend these academies, providing students the choice and motivation to challenge themselves and actively engage in learning.

This work is not easy, but it is vital. The district made courageous decisions and formed crucial partnerships to ensure success and their work deserves to be commended. In a state where currently only 1 in 10 high school freshmen go on to graduate from college, WCSD has demonstrated that in the words of Superintendent Morrison, “demography need not be destiny” when it comes to providing a world-class education for all students.

Tony Miller is Deputy Secretary of Education


  1. For education to thrive in the US we need to work from the bottom up. We should be more responsive to the community and adjust teaching techniques to nurture a child’s love for learning. We need to develop curriculum responsive to the great minds of Brunner, Dewey and Steiner. The child is more than an algorithm or a string of morphemes.

  2. I really hope their plan of getting every child to graduation works. It would be awesome! Alots of work though but nothing is impossible.

  3. I confess to not knowing particularly the ins and outs of US education, living as I do in the UK. It does however seem to me that education in the west has not progressed in its fundamental structure since the 1800s. Furthermore, we in the UK, have no obligatory, basic, constitutional and economic education (i.e. pre-16). You empower democracy with education and it is a shame to see that in this climate it is an underestimated part of society. It’s ludicrous.


  4. For education to thrive in the US we need to work from the bottom up. We should be more responsive to the community and adjust teaching techniques to nurture a child’s love for learning. We need to develop curriculum responsive to the great minds of Brunner, Dewey and Steiner. The child is more than an algorithm or a string of morphemes.

  5. These people could lead workshops, help teachers engage with parents more effectively using social media, consult to administrators on management effectiveness

  6. My wife teaches 6th grade in one of our poorest counties. That said the kids there are are much more inclined to want an education.

    She worked for many years in our state capital before transferring to this rural county. The students there are much more centered and respectful.

    I was a bit surprised that this year her school received Apple IPads for student use. The kids love them because they now learn in a way that is fun for them.

  7. This is very good progress. I wonder though why the WCSD doesn’t engage volunteers more readily? They don’t have any opportunities posted through the volunteer service links via, and they don’t respond to email offers of help. Seems they could use a volunteer program and a coordinator to engage the many smart, experienced people in the area which attracts successful semi-retired individuals who care about improving local education. These people could lead workshops, help teachers engage with parents more effectively using social media, consult to administrators on management effectiveness, and more.

    • Sharon-

      The WCSD does have a Volunteer Services Office and can be reached at (775) 851-5655. We at Smithridge Elementary utilize these volunteers on a daily basis. Thank you for your interest!

      Dean of Students
      Smithridge Elementary

    • Yes, the (semi)-retired must be engaged with the local/national effort to deliver for every school and community.

      As an anecdote , (semi-)retired nature guides (equivalent to Audobon Society) I requested to instruct and guide primary kids in real-life sciences with structured and scientific information as the lesson plan, first responded that the kids would be uninterested. But, the kids found 20 more species of mushrooms than the adult professionals or experts on the same walk, one day apart. And the kids are gentle, unobtrusive, accurate and meticulous, doing their utmost, making their best effort.

      So the alliance considered uninteresting and tedious by those with jaded opinion, turned out to be great fun and very valuable. The kids impressed the nature club very much and the engagement was the crucial and vital step: would the adults consider and engage the kids with what they both love (ala Montessori Method, though Pokemon is a also a good example of where commercial activity capitalized on children’s love of learning basic biological and scientific facts and structures/relationships)?

      The kids had the time of their life on these excursions identifying mosses, mushrooms, edible plants in the spring and summer (eaten on the go as well as cooking and eating together), life in a pond, and life under the sea shore. It is also great fun for kids to collect seeds in fall (from plants they know already – insect cafes) to be seeded around school and the community to improve the air and water quality, which kids also love to observe, measure and record, as well as all the species their custodial care immediately attracts – also larger mammals if urban architecture & planning includes spaces for nesting, shelter, as well as green mobility, where again the semi-retired can contribute greatly.

      Also, the group you reference can do alot to execute the STEM initiative, including improving it by realizing a full STEAMM transformation (adding arts and music to the core STEM, with money or time).

      Also, the (semi)-retired group can help realize full technical reading literacy for every child at every school, given an organized and strategic effort, i.e., everyone doing what they do best, instead of wearing all hats b/c of a lack of coordination.

      Finally, this group can shout- out to the Congress to do their work, too, and get this party going, USA-style! Including that Jobs Act gets passed so every child is cared for during school (teachers, good instruction) and in a school that is safe (clean air, water, temperature, lighting conditions and nutrition, acceptable as a base-line learning environment> primary custodial duty).

      • Dump the DEA. The congress can do this and spend that money on teachers and good education. Get the federal government out of schools is a better idea. The states are the ones with the power to make the curriculum advantageous to the students and should have the freedom to pursue the methods that will make the students ready for college or job ready careers. The current system is so broken due to federal interference and bad administration. The administrators and teachers need to have performance reviews yearly. NO tenure. It is just wrong when some of those at the administrative level making more money than the President of the US.
        The education system is NOT a social welfare department. Stick to education in a safe environment. The parents need to step up at home and provide physical care for the kids. The school needs to spend the limited funds that they have educating the students, not being the nanny state.

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