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.

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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