Touring the educational corridor

Charter schools and alternative approaches attempt to redefine education in West Las Vegas

Eugenia Laurel teaches creative writing at Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy.
Photo: Iris Dumuk

New York-based Edison Schools, the nation’s largest and most controversial for-profit school-management company, roared into town in 2000, winning the right to manage seven campuses, including one of the state’s most troubled—West Middle School. Burrow into a surly patch of the city, off of Lake Mead just west of Martin Luther King, and there is West. North of the school is Buena Vista, a shuttered apartment complex politely described as a mini-Beirut; to the east, the FBI’s gleaming new headquarters occupies a patch of desert that was once a popular disposing ground for used condoms and spent shell casings.

Opened in 1997, West quickly earned a reputation as a place overrun by hundreds of underachieving, misbehaving students. Edison was supposed to reform West by turning it into a charter school and investing an additional $1.4 million above the state’s per-pupil allotment. The increased autonomy and extra funding were supposed to show what additional resources could do for a struggling campus.

Didn’t work.

By spring 2006, Edison was on its last legs, done in by spotty academic results. The School Board yanked the contract, putting West back under the district’s auspices. In came a new principal, Mike Barton, and inner-city-specific programs that had resurrected schools in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Barton got Edison’s same leeway to revamp curriculum, hire (and fire) staff and make budget decisions. He switched the goal from zippy reform (Edison’s goal) to steady progress.

The school’s new name (the Preparatory Institute School for Academic Excellence at Charles I. West Hall) reflected its new focus. Almost immediately, order was restored. West felt less like juvenile hall and more like a school. Two and a half years later, the learning-conducive environment holds. Teachers control classes. Students stand when visitors enter a room. Disciplinary issues have plummeted. Hallways that doubled as battlegrounds are free of horseplay and roughhousing. Stacy Norsworthy, 17, himself a reformed troublemaker, says lunchtime is orderly. “There used to be food fights every lunch.”

West is also different academically. The school day and school year are longer than on traditional campuses, and there’s a voluntary summer semester—600 attended this year. The northeast wing has been converted into smallish, 400-student high school, where students like 11th-grader Elizabeth Chaibez, who has already passed her proficiency exams and is eyeing college credit in West’s dual-credit programs, are the norm rather than the exception. The high school has a waiting list. One day, Barton hopes to have an elementary school on land fronting the campus, thus allowing West students to spend their entire academic careers in one place. This way, he says, “We can take full ownership of their education.”

Kindergarten music class.

Kindergarten music class.

Yet for all of the new programs and positive changes, West still lags in that all-important area by which schools are measured: standardized test scores. Seventeen percent of West’s students met proficiency in math in 2005-06, Edison’s last year in charge. That number jumped to 25.8 percent in 2006-07 and 26.49 percent in 2007-08, or about half the school district’s averages in math. In science and reading, countywide scores generally double those at West. Barton worries that critics will ignore the upward trend in test scores and focus solely on the school’s overall failure.

“It irritates me that some schools don’t show any academic growth, but they make adequate yearly progress [a federal standard measuring proficiency] because they were already above AYP,” he says. “But look at where we started from. No, we didn’t make AYP, but we’ve made dramatic improvement.”

Unfortunately, dramatic improvement may not be enough. The prospect of state takeover looms; the Nevada Department of Education can fire staff after five consecutive years of underachievement. Nowhere are the educational stakes higher than at West and four other alternative education programs that constitute what some are calling the educational corridor.

Running west from Lake Mead Boulevard at H Street, north to Martin Luther King Boulevard, west to Carey Avenue and circling back to MLK, the mile-wide swath is home to some of the state’s poorest children and worst-performing schools.

In the last seven years, three charter schools have opened, and two older, public-school campuses have been given greater autonomy. Never has there been such an influx of resources into this area—millions of public and private funds invested and scores of volunteers recruited. Educators and parents who long argued that inner-city kids could excel if given sufficient resources have their wish.

All eyes are on West Prep, the 100 Academy of Excellence, Rainbow Dreams Academy, Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy and Booker Empowerment School. Education officials want to see improved test scores. Lawmakers want to see returns on public subsidies. Critics want to see if they’re any better at lifting achievement and reducing disciplinary issues.

How things pan out could well be a referendum on the scholastic aptitude of low-income students.

Charting a new course?

The concept of school choice entered the public lexicon in the 1970s as educators, searching for ways to boost campus autonomy and give administrators more rope to run their schools, examined tools like charter programs, site-based management, magnet programs, vouchers and privatization. Minnesota passed the first charter-school law in 1991. California followed suit a year later. Nevada joined the club in 1997. Per state law, charter schools must be sponsored by state government, a college or university within the Nevada System of Higher Education or a local school district.

While they enjoy more autonomy than public schools and are often associated with charitable fundraising foundations, charter schools are subject to the same state laws, regulations and policies and receive the same per-pupil funding allotment.

Autonomy has been equal parts boon and bane. Underperforming charter schools have shut down all over the country. Voicing concern about the performance of existing charter schools and the number of applications for new programs, both the Clark County School District and the state Department of Education enacted moratoriums, prompting accusations of protectionism from charter proponents. State Board of Education chair Marcia Washington says the board lacked the personnel to monitor a dozen new school programs.

“We were unfairly branded as anti-charter school, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” she says. “Lots of people are getting into charter schools for the wrong reason. It’s a money-making deal, and it’s not being done for the students.”

Of the eight charter schools in Clark County, Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy is the most well-known, thanks to its namesake founder. A favored stopover for visiting dignitaries, this funkily designed fortress on Lake Mead and J Street is home to 589 students and has elementary, middle and high school components (12th grade will be added next year) and accoutrements galore: a dance studio, an under-construction TV-news studio. A bridge connects the high school and the gym. Students can only cross it after they graduate. “It’s the physical symbol of my life’s goal,” says 14-year-old freshman John Jones during lunch break. He’s happy to be back at Agassi after living in Wisconsin for a few years. “My grades weren’t where they should have been in Wisconsin. Now they’re getting back.”

Administrators tout Agassi Prep’s code of respect, mandatory parent involvement and greater teacher accountability. School days run two hours longer than on public campuses, and the school year lasts 10 extra days. If a student spends an entire K-12 career at Agassi Prep, he or she will have had an extra four years of instruction, officials say. The 25-2 student-teacher ratio in the elementary school is the envy of the district, where 35-1 is common. Every high-school student takes college prep courses, part of what high-school principal Dottie Smith calls a “college-going and college-finishing culture.”

A block east of Agassi is Rainbow Dreams Academy, a K-5 charter opened in February and created by Dr. Anthony Pollard and his wife, Dianne. The couple founded Rainbow Medical Centers urgent-care clinics and created Rainbow as an alternative to underperforming public schools nearby. Rainbow’s curriculum melds core subjects (English, math, science, social studies, reading, computer technology, physical education, fine arts) with specialty offerings such as Spanish, sign language, dance and African-American history. Students grow food in the courtyard. Principal Carolyn Threats walks the halls daily, talking to as many of the 153 students as possible. Her staff mostly comprises school-district veterans. “We have more than 200 years of teaching and administrative experience.”

Go west on Lake Mead and south on Comstock and there’s the 100 Academy of Excellence, which opened in 2006. The school marries the phonics-based curriculum of Virginia-based charter-school operator Imagine Schools with the civic activism of the 100 Black Men of Las Vegas. There are 602 students in grades K-8. Administrators put a premium on caring for “the whole student.” The Three Square food-service organization provides food for those in need. Doctoral candidates in UNLV’s psychology department counsel students. “We can’t forget that they’re still young people,” principal Hugh Wallace says. Which is why fun is actually written into the school’s curriculum (and promoted in press materials). At an assembly for third-graders, employees from the Mad Science program play tricks with dry ice.

Assemblyman Harvey Munford is a charter-school skeptic. He says he knows of at least two additional charter-type schools in West Las Vegas, including a shoestring program run out of a nearby community center. Munford says state lawmakers opened the floodgates in 2005 by removing the cap on the number of charter schools allowable in at-risk areas. It’s been a free-for-all ever since.

“I don’t know if students are getting more qualified teachers at these schools. Agassi Prep does a lot of recruiting, because they have a stronger fundraising foundation. But what about the rest of them?”

Such comments reflect a turf-war mentality that many say has taken root. The old guard (public education) refuses to cede ground to the advancing competitor (school choice). It all comes down to money, Wallace says. Where students go, per-pupil funding follows. “There’s competition now. And if you’re a monopoly, like the school district is, you don’t want competition.”

What’s old is new again

Time hadn’t been kind to Booker Elementary, which opened in the mid-’50s on Martin Luther King Boulevard between Carey and Lake Mead. Buildings quickly fell into disrepair, and blight engulfed the surrounding neighborhoods. Indigents used to wander on campus and try to bum cigarettes from teachers. Gangs often shot at each other from across the playing field. Booker was demolished in 2005 to make way for a new campus (opened in August) that centralized common areas in the campus’ interior. “We haven’t had a lockdown since we reopened,” principal Beverly Mathis says.

In August, Booker joined 13 other campuses with empowerment-school status. The designation provides increased autonomy and additional funding, up to $600 per student. The money has reduced class sizes, added 29 minutes to the school day and five days to the school year and provided incentive pay for staff.

Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy

Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy

Meanwhile, at West, Barton has only 400 students; the program is eight times smaller than its public-school counterparts. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this in a public school,” he says. To address the dramatic shift in the racial composition of West’s student population, from majority black when it opened in 1997 to half black, half Hispanic, Barton has used the charter-school-like flexibility to hire more Hispanic staff.

In a portable adjacent to West Prep’s main building, physical-education teacher William Campbell leads Men Mentoring Men, a program catering to black males, who were responsible for 70 percent of the school’s behavioral infractions. The boys listen as Campbell weaves homespun homilies about respect into a lesson on their moral obligation to report shoplifting. Such programs are needed in schools like this, Campbell says, because social issues tend to have academic consequences. “Kids in other schools don’t have drive-by shootings to worry about.”

Controversy over school choice

In the late 1990s, more black parents began taking their children out of underperforming neighborhood schools and putting them in specialized programs. Partisanship soon entered the issue. Conservatives and their free-market approach to education (vouchers, private school, charters, etc.) on one side; liberals and their call for increased support of public education on the other.

The historical struggles of black students made it an easy choice for some parents to try to get their children into Agassi Prep when it opened in 2001. That same year, Clark County black fourth-graders scored in the 26th percentile in science, and black eighth-graders finished in the 28th percentile in science, the worst among all ethnic groups.

In 2005, blacks scored 21 points lower than whites in math (240 to 261). From 2003 to 2005, the achievement gap between blacks and whites in Nevada grew five percentage points for fourth-graders in math and three percentage points for black fourth-graders in reading.

Kevin Chavous, a distinguished fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, says school choice became a viable option for parents resigned to underperforming inner-city schools.

“The worst thing in the world is to engage in a one-size-fits-all approach. The push has to be learning environments to meet the vast array of learning modalities that children will respond to. I would err on the side of diversity in educational offerings, in approaches, in engaging in nontraditional approaches, in having diverse environments.”

A quiet lament at first, the issue of campus diversity—the racial makeup of schools—has come to nag charter schools like a hangnail.

The changes have had a galvanizing effect. Two years ago, 100 students transferred out via a provision in the federal No Child Left Behind Act allowing them to attend better schools. Last year, 29 students left. Barton expects fewer this year.

Charter schools generally accept the majority of their students through lotteries, often giving preference to neighborhood youth and those with siblings already enrolled. In too many cases, critics says, the result has been campuses dominated by one ethnicity.

Most charter schools are likely to serve minority and low-income students, according to a 2004 federal Department of Education study. The campuses in the educational corridor reflect this reality. They’re either predominantly black (96 percent at Agassi, 96 percent at Rainbow Dreams, 94 percent at 100 Academy) or, as at Booker and West, half black, half Hispanic. By contrast, the 308,000-student school district nearly mirrors Valley demographics: Hispanics make up 39.9 percent; whites, 36.1 percent; blacks, 13.9 percent; Asians, 9.3 percent and Native Americans, 0.8 percent.

“The world ain’t all black,” longtime school-district critic Louis Overstreet complains. So why should a school be? Other cities have all-white charter schools. Imagine Schools’ new northeast Valley campus will be predominantly Hispanic. “Public schools offer a well-rounded education, with sports, arts, etc., and prepare students to interact with people from all walks of life.”

Overstreet, who usually dismisses local public education as inadequate and culturally insensitive, calls school choice a red herring, something that takes everyone’s eyes off the real issue of improving public education. Giving a parent a pretty brochure and promising their child a world-class education are two different things. Every new program won’t have the benefit of a big-name benefactor like Andre Agassi, he says.

Sonya Horsford, an assistant professor of educational leadership at UNLV, says those programs can provide smaller class sizes, individualized attention, more focused instruction—all of which are missing from most public schools. The danger in falling in love with school choice, she says, is that it can become the choice among low-income families in troubled environments. Those same neighborhoods are often rich in “community cultural wealth,” she says. Neighbors and friends step in when parents are absent or irresponsible.

“It’s easy to look at low-income homes as deprived, but some of these issues, such as parents not being as involved, are present in higher-income homes,” she says. “We should be focusing on ways that parents and kids can work together, not worrying about spreading blame for why kids in certain areas may struggle.”

Thirty-six years teaching in the school district has convinced Munford that public education, despite its challenges, works well. Allowing an unlimited number of charter schools in West Las Vegas undermines confidence in public schools, he says. He envisions parents demanding one near every neighborhood, until they’re as ubiquitous as churches.

With all the school-choice programs and churches, Munford says, “We should be the most educated and spiritually endowed people in town. … Sure, our public schools may be inadequate ... but that doesn’t mean we need so much aid and assistance over here and that we need all these charters schools to come over save our kids.”

Expressing concerns

There are legitimate concerns about whether school choice is the answer to a failing public education system. There are nearly as many failures as successes.

A 2004 federal Education Department study of charter programs in five states found that these schools were less likely to meet state performance standards than traditional public schools. “It is impossible to know from this study whether that is because of the performance of the schools, the prior achievement of the students or some other factor,” researchers wrote.

More than half (186) of the district’s 308 schools made AYP in the 2007-08 academic year. Of the five programs in the educational corridor, three—the 100 Academy, West Prep and Agassi’s high school—didn’t. (Rainbow Dreams wasn’t open in time for testing.) The three have appealed the designation, claiming testing flaws.

There have been other problems. West endured disciplinary issues and racial episodes. In 2001, shortly after Edison took over, a teacher made racially questionable remarks to students. Agassi suffered mass teacher defections and firings (15 in all) in 2004. Teachers were ill-equipped to instruct and discipline minority students, parents said, and administrations punished misbehaving students by making them scrape scuff marks off the floor. Since then, West and Agassi haven’t made negative headlines.

Earlier this year, state education officials reamed the 100 Academy for financial irregularities. Enrollment miscounts cost the school $176,000. A food program ran an $85,000 deficit, and the state Board of Education criticized the academy’s procurement procedures. Vicki Frazier-Williams, regional vice president for Imagine Schools Nevada, says administrators addressed all outstanding issues. Three former educators have been installed on the governing board. As for the sub-par test scores, everyone is working hard to lift them.

“These children were failed before they reached our doorsteps,” she says. “Now we have to take care of them. This is not an indictment of the public-school system. I don’t want to leave the impression that we’re accepting dumb kids. But we test from a baseline, to see where kids are, not where they should be. No Child Left Behind and critics don’t give teachers credit for helping students improve. That perspective is missing.”

Washington, the chair of the state education board, says the moratorium allowed the board to reassess and determine how to better help new charter schools. “You need strict guidelines to oversee their financial operations. You need to make sure regulatory oversight is in place. You need to make sure the right educational moves are being made. One school wanted children from K-5 to be on the computer all day. That doesn’t make for a strong student and doesn’t enhance social skills. I don’t know if the parents at these schools are being trained what to look for in order to make sure they know what to do to assist their children with learning.”

Another major concern is brain drain. Overstreet says West Las Vegas charter schools have the option of cherry-picking the best students from the public sector. An anonymity-seeking former administrator of a nearby school claims Agassi Prep poached heavily from Kit Carson Elementary when it opened in 2001. “They took all the top third-graders. That’s how Agassi made AYP so soon.”

Ben Sayeski, chief education officer for the Agassi Foundation, says stories like this divert attention from the real stories of student achievement at Agassi. “It’s unfortunate they are being told.” (Because of the district’s hyper-transiency, spokesman Michael Rodriguez says, it is difficult to directly correlate public-school enrollment drops with charter-school openings.)

An administrator at a middle school several miles away says Agassi’s deep ties in the community hurt the ability of public schools to raise money. “Agassi hogs everything up. When you go to ask for support, they say they they’re already supporting Agassi.”

A mini controversy erupted last year when Republicans on Capitol Hill tried to remove a $200,000 earmark for technology improvements at Agassi. Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley saved the funding. But the episode raised a reasonable question: With Agassi’s deep pockets, why should his school get a public subsidy?

Agassi Foundation chief operating officer Julie Pippenger defends the earmark. She says the foundation annually gives $3.5 million to the campus. “He [Agassi] shouldn’t be expected to pay for everything.”

Other schools in the corridor have received additional taxpayer funds. The City of Las Vegas kicked in more than $1 million to help build Rainbow Dreams, according to the school’s website.

Infamously sharp-tongued and acerbic about everything school-district-related, Edward Goldman says charter schools should be cut some slack. Goldman is associate superintendent of education services, overseeing the education of 40,000 of the district’s most at-risk students. He picked Barton to lead West Prep.

“Because of the state law allowing an unlimited amount of charter schools in an at-risk area, you can understand why they’re proliferating there. You won’t see this happening in Summerlin. But because they are there, parents who can’t afford to send their kids elsewhere get a choice,” Goldman says.

These additional resources are not a guarantee of success or failure, Goldman says. “If you have a student from kindergarten, and if they don’t improve by the sixth grade, then your program has failed, and you are to blame, and you can’t make any excuses.”

The clock is ticking

Administrators at the schools in the corridor acknowledge that the pressure is on. “There’s a great sense of urgency to reach these kids quicker,” says Sayeski of the Agassi Foundation.

Mathis says it’s fair to make wholesale changes if programs prove ineffective. “If test scores at Booker lagged for five years, sure, come in and look at what needs to be done, even if it’s replacing administration. People are investing in us because we are promising to be accountable. We’ve always been accountable at Booker, but we didn’t always have the resources. Now we do.”

Until they can show and prove, Munford says he’ll oppose any more charter programs in West Las Vegas.

Test results in the educational corridor are encouraging. Agassi’s elementary and middle school made AYP, and officials are confident in the high school’s reclassification: Sayeski says juniors’ test scores should have been included.

West is making steady progress—six- to-eight-point gains in recent years.

Booker made AYP, but Mathis is focused on stabilizing fluctuating test scores. Forty-eight percent of third-graders met proficiency in reading n 2006; 66 percent last year, but only 61 percent this year. There was an 18-percentage-point drop from this year to last year in math achievement among Hispanic fourth-graders.

The 100 Academy will probably have the hardest slog of all: 71 percent of its students tested below grade level in reading, 87 percent in writing, 77 percent in math and 85 percent in science. The school is seeking modest 5 percent jumps among black students in reading and writing and a 3 percent bump in math. At mention of the horrible test scores, Wallace, the principal, trots out an award: Apparently the academy won Imagine Schools’ most improved award this year.

Overstreet predicts some of the schools will fail. But Chavous says that’s the beauty of the charter-school movement. “You can’t shut down traditional schools.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith W. Rheault says West has time—at least two and a half more years before the state would consider a takeover.

Charter schools have a shorter time frame: next year. Lawmakers will reevaluate programs in 2009. Administrators at these schools chose to work with inner-city students, so they know what they’re up against, Rheault says.

“This is taxpayer money. They have to be accountable. If they fail, I assume that the problem wouldn’t be with the students. It could make it harder to access resources for the next people who come along.”

So the clock ticks in the educational corridor. And students go about getting an education, oblivious to the fact that an entire area of town and an entire educational philosophy rests, unfairly or not, on how well they regurgitate what they learn.


Previous Discussion:

Top of Story