It’s All About the Kids

“It’s all about the kids.” The more I heard teachers and leaders speak those five simple words, the more I knew I was in the right place to witness the power of a single school to change the lives of its students and provide hope to a community.

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of visiting with Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Principal Neddy Alvarez and her dedicated staff at Western High School, located in the Clark County School District, in Las Vegas. With help from a three-year, $2.5 million School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the U.S. Department of Education, the school has seen improvements in student achievement and in the number of students who are on track to graduate on time. With support from district leadership, in the first year of implementing their SIG grant, the school reports it has increased the number freshmen who are on track to graduate from 60 percent in 2010-11 to 80 percent so far in 2011-12, and is on pace to greatly exceed the school’s goal of increasing by 10 percent the number of seniors who are on track to graduate.

Western’s progress illustrates that change is possible when courageous leaders unleash bold and creative strategies that put the needs of students first. With a newly-awarded SIG grant, Principal Alvarez began implementing the turnaround model, one of four intervention models required under the SIG program.  The school undertook a comprehensive effort to completely transform the culture of the school and added a motivated group of talented teachers.  Western altered the school day to add opportunities for students to get additional credits toward graduation and created smaller learning communities. As part of these comprehensive changes, the school’s leadership also focused on four core reforms to transform their school.

First, improvements started with a fundamental and deliberate shift in the relationship between the school and students to create a caring atmosphere at the school. Using the “Capturing Kids’ Hearts” strategies, school leadership and teachers began building a trusting environment and students and families described seeing changes aimed at improving student outcomes and ensuring the success of every student.  The school day was altered to add more options for students to obtain additional credits toward graduation. Students and teachers were grouped into “houses,” so that smaller cohorts of teachers and counselors could create one-on-one relationships with students.  Teachers and counselors said that the altered school day provides time to address student’s individual concerns and develop individualized learning plans to put every student on a path to graduation.

The school also made changes to foster a more nurturing school environment for parents and to encourage real dialogues between parents and the teachers and leaders at Western. Funded in part through the United Way, the school created a family engagement resource center to get parents more involved in their children’s education, particularly parents of English language learners. Parents like Ally Gaona and Martha Mendez told me that they had a voice and the tools to engage in their children’s learning and that they recognize that the ultimate responsibility for their children’s learning must rest with the parents.  Parents were passionate about these positive changes and said that these changes signaled to the entire the community that the school was serious about family engagement.

Western’s leadership told me that another core change in the school culture occurred with the implementation of data-based instruction. Using student performance data information, teachers and counselors worked together within the “house” structure to create targeted interventions for individual students.  Teacher and student performance data were also used to identify where teachers were thriving and where improvements could be made. The data not only helped teachers engage and improve student learning, but students said it gave them the opportunity to take ownership over their own outcomes. Teachers and counselors could point to tangible results and students could see exactly where they stood and where they needed to be to achieve their desired results.

Another key aspect of Western’s reform efforts was the school’s adoption of the “workshop model” of instructional delivery. Under this model, teachers focus on facilitating student learning rather than lecturing. Teachers described the changes as making classrooms laboratories for thoughtful conversations, student-led initiatives, and group projects. Motivated teachers said they saw students excited about learning, and that the workshop model allowed them to dive deeper into classroom content, and provided a mechanism to instill invaluable critical thinking and problem solving skills. Since the implementation of this model, teachers are spending less time managing behavior and more time facilitating learning – Western has seen 300 less infractions and 14 less expulsions so far this year compared to 2010-11. Students are invested in their education and according to one teacher, are “no longer questioning if they are intelligent, but how they are intelligent.”

Lastly, I saw Western’s teachers and leaders committed to continually improve their craft by engaging in their own professional development. By integrating real-time data and feedback from classroom observations into collaborative sessions, teachers and leaders worked together to share best practices, utilize peer coaching, and improve instruction. Principal Alvarez emphasized that the creation of a transparent accountability system with the singular focus on improving outcomes for students allowed teachers, some of whom had been skeptical of the changes, to embrace the workshop model and the broader reform efforts. She stated that nothing helped more than seeing the real-time improvements in the data measuring the students’ performance.

With the school’s early success a common goal has emerged. Everyone understands that every day, students must not just master the academic content, but also must learn the skills and identify the tools necessary to continue their education and pursue a career. The school created a STEM College-Readiness Academy where classes, such as nursing operations, directly relate to employment prospects in the community and programs at local postsecondary institutions. Students say they know they are being given opportunities to learn valuable skills in the rapidly expanding healthcare field and are aware of the academic records they will need for admission to community colleges and universities like the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Having teachers, parents, and students understand the link between student learning and future employability and careers is vital not just for those at Western but for the greater Las Vegas and Nevada community. Prior to visiting Western, I participated in the White House Business Council’s Urban Economic Forum where local entrepreneurs and leaders in the Las Vegas community emphasized the importance of having an educated workforce to diversify Nevada’s economy and sustain economic growth. With unemployment at over 13 percent and a high school graduation rate of just 50 percent, Nevada represents what is a broader nationwide threat – we must acknowledge that our schools are in crisis and understand that the only way for the US to remain competitive in the global economy of the 21st century is to take on the challenge of improving America’s education system.

I want to thank all the parents, teachers, and the school and district’s leadership for their graciousness and hospitality, and for inspiring me with their continued efforts on behalf of all the students they serve. I encourage educators and policy makers to continue to watch for lessons on how we can dramatically improve our struggling schools. GO WESTERN WARRIORS!

Tony Miller
Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Education

To see photos of this event visit the Las Vegas Review-Journal.


  1. The only thing I agree with is that teachers should have ownership over their own professional development. We know what areas we need to engage. Outside consultants and corporations should only be welcome when a school wishes.

  2. There is so much wrong with the educational system, that this article is so untrue. It is a smoke screen. If this is a system that is working, maybe it should be looked at as being adopted. I agree with Norm!

  3. “Western’s progress illustrates that change is possible when courageous leaders unleash bold and creative strategies that put the needs of students first.”

    That’s wonderful, but I suspect the $2.5 million grant had something to do with it. What’s happening in Chicago right now is that schools are expected to “unleash bold and creative strategies” without reasonable funding. As teachers, we are desperately TRYING to put the needs of students first, but the board is so much more focused on the needs of politicians. Without proper funding, most bold and creative strategies simply cannot be realized.

  4. I wish it were “all about the kids.” Unfortunately, it is really about budgets, building square feet, taxes, 6-figure salaries, hefty retirement packages, status, ego and committee politics.

    Physicists have recently warned that the future of American science is in serious trouble.

    American colleges and universities have too great an influence in the development of young minds destined to be technicians, engineers and scientists. Since institutions of higher learning are now dominated by foreigners, narrowly-focused scholars and statisticians they are poorly equipped to nurture enthusiastic young minds at the same level as peers, mentors, parents, grandparents and articulate neighbors.

    The old tinkerers, creative gadflies, father figures and “Elmers” that have produced science talent in past generations has been systematically removed from the formative years of our nation’s students. The details learned in these environments almost never take place in modern schools at any level. Since it is almost never taught, it is seldom ever learned.

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