Michael Barton has taken the reins of the worst-performing school in the state. Armed with new programs, can he succeed where everyone else has failed?

Damon Hodge

"She swung at me first!" The short, wispy middle-school girl favors Raven-Symoné and looks about as threatening as the ex-Cosby Show kid. In this case, looks fool. As the preteen demonstrates the retaliatory swat—really a winging slap more than a jarring punch—she narrates the blow-by-blow for the adults in the office at Charles I. West-Edison Jr. Academy: First there was smack-talking, then threats, then fists.

"She hit me, so I hit her back."

The girl was suspended, and now her mom is here. Judging by the mother's combative tone, the other girl received some lesser punishment, and she wants to know why. Better yet, she wants new principal Michael Barton to tell her why to her face: "I'm not leaving till we see him."

Barton comes out of his office a few minutes later. Thirty-one years old and slim as a marathon runner, his preppy dark slacks and light-colored shirt make him look like a cross between a College Republican and a Chaps model. His Spanish-speaking secretary chats with a Hispanic father and daughter. A black woman answers calls; another pecks away at a computer. Two black men pass through—one wearing a tie, the other a tool belt. The upset mom and suspended daughter wait on the couch. Barton's the only white guy in the office.

Yet he works the room like a pro. Each person gets some sort of acknowledgement—a smile, head nod, greeting or kind word; his demeanor is cool. Seeing the irate mom and daughter, Barton, an eight-year school district veteran in his second principal's job, promises he'll be with them soon. He closes his office door. Two minutes pass. The door opens. Barton invites mom and daughter in. The door shuts. Three minutes pass. The door reopens. Mom and daughter emerge, both smiling like nothing ever happened.

Having seen similar situations erupt at West, I begin to wonder if maybe he is the right man for the toughest education job in the state.


That incident occurred two months into Barton's tenure—he was appointed in March to replace retiring principal Jimmie Jones—two weeks before most Clark County schools let out for the summer and during the last days of the Edison Schools' five-year contract at West. Instead of turning the school around, as was hoped when the school district chose the controversial New York-based for-profit company to run seven local campuses, Edison made modest improvements at a school that needed an extreme makeover. West has struggled since it opened nine years ago. Principals have come and gone. Some teachers stayed two weeks, maybe three, then broke camp at the first opportunity, to other schools or even out of state.

The good students have always been overshadowed by the bad ones, who bully peers, talk back to teachers and fight. The good programs—at one time, West's band was among the best in the state—either were discontinued or ignored. And on state standardized test scores, that all-important metric by which your district, county or state is judged, West sucked.

As expected, the first test scores were so-so. In the 1998-99 academic year, 30 percent of students met state requirements in reading, 26 percent in math, 28 percent in language and 31 percent in science—each about half of state averages. The numbers of students meeting standards were on the way down by the 2001-02 academic year: a 4-percent drop in language, a 2-percent dip in math and a 6-percent decline in science (there was an uptick in reading, from 30 percent to 36 percent). Even the good news in 2005—29 percent of students meeting state math standards, up from 18 percent in 2004, and 29 percent up to par in reading, up from 19 percent—was attributed more to the school district pouring resources into teacher training than to Edison's impact.

Edison's legacy at West smacks of failure. Three years ago, 25 students requested school transfers to better-performing schools (a privilege granted by the federal No Child Left Behind law), making it second only to Jim Bridger Junior High's 32 requests. And for three consecutive years, the school has landed on the "needs improvement" list, making it eligible for takeover by the state Department of Education.

But it's probably unfair to put all the blame on Edison. Nothing—not new administrators or teachers, not funding for programs to address behavioral issues, not parents, grandparents, citizens, activists and community groups—has been able to deliver the "world class education" promised by the murals painted on walls all over campus.

West is an educational Rubic's Cube and no one's been able to align its colors. It was the first middle-school campus built in predominantly black West Las Vegas in 30 years, the culmination of hard work and countless parent-led battles with school board trustees and district administrators. It was designed as a neighborhood school, where students in nearby elementary schools would attend instead of being bused out of their neighborhoods. Activists hoped it would be the impetus for building a high school in West Las Vegas, so students could spend their entire education close to home. Since West was close, or so went the thinking, parents would not only walk their children to school but, as in other parts of town, they'd volunteer, tutor, oversee lunch, become active in the PTA. That generally hasn't been the case; parents have come to the campus to nitpick teachers and pick fights with administrators.

As soon as the school opened in the fall of 1997, there were problems. Books were late. There were no computers and scant classroom equipment. The bells and the intercom didn't work. The kitchen was inoperable.

West's history of troubles isn't lost on Barton. "I know I'm young, but it was my choice to come here. I applied for the job," he says. "At West, 100 percent of the students are on the [federal] free and reduced lunch program. I knew what I was getting into. I wouldn't have take this job if I didn't think I could make a difference."


Barton is an anomaly on campus. Almost none of his students look like him: 93 percent of West's nearly 900 students are minorities—55 percent are African-American, 38 percent Hispanic.

Why bring race into it? Because Barton knew that, at some point, it might be a bone of contention. The inevitable questions arise: Can a white man identify with minority students? Can he effectively teach them?

West has a speckled history of race relations. In 2001, one teacher told students that, as a child, she recited the phrase "eenie meenie miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe" and went "nigger fishing," a reference to the practice of Southern blacks, too poor to afford rods and reels, using cane poles to fish. So Barton knows that race is an underlying theme here, his success or failure a referendum—fairly or not—on a white man's ability to connect with minority students.

"My last school was 100 percent minority," Barton says. "This has been the worst-performing school in the state for the past three years, and I think my talents are best served at an at-risk school. Kids are kids, so I've tried to hire the best role models for them."

It's June 13, the first day of Barton's tenure as principal, and in some ways, the school is as new as he is. No, there's nothing physically new about the place. It's still at 2050 Sapphire Stone, in the heart of a struggling inner-city community. Yes, it still draws many students who come to school with everything but learning on their minds. Dad may be in prison. Mom may be on drugs. Fridges might be empty, cupboards bare, bugs everywhere. Some live nomadic lives, shuffling between relatives. Some need glasses, hearing aids, dental care and counseling as much as they need an education. Others just need to see positive people because home life is filled with negatives—at a mock college fair at West last year, one boy had the word "Piru" on his skin, a reference to a nearby Bloods gang, and another said he was "a Donna," or a young member of the Donna Street Crips.

What's new at West starts with the name. Gone is Charles I. West-Edison Academy, replaced with a lengthy moniker that's one verb shy of a sentence: Preparatory Institute School for Academic Excellence at Charles I. West Hall. Edison's programming is out. In its place is a hybrid educational model combining the Foshay Learning Center (a Los Angeles middle school that's been successful with a student demographic similar to West's), and the Talent Development programs developed by Johns Hopkins University researchers and used successfully in several Philadelphia schools.

Respect is a big part of each of the models. It was on full display Tuesday as West Prep students, wearing blue or white Polo shirts and khaki pants and shorts, marched in single-file lines on their way to classes. Yes, class on June 13. Welcome to the third semester.

While most of their peers are enjoying summer, the 440 students who voluntarily signed up for the additional session are reading novels, studying U.S. history and earning high-school credits; they will do so through July 28. They'll have one month off before starting all over again.

The changes don't end there. Come fall, Barton says, West Prep will have ninth-graders. A higher grade will be added every year through 2010. On the north side of the school, visible from Lake Mead, a "Family Dollar Coming Soon" sign stands totem-like amid a fenced slice of desert. Recently purchased by the school district, the land will house West Prep's elementary school. The eventual goal is to create a K-12 campus.

"We have 52 elementary schools that we've drawn from, 52, and that makes it tough to have ownership" Barton says. "The elementary school will allow us to have ownership. And with a middle school and high school, we stay with students throughout their academic careers."

The new West Prep will have the ability to experiment: gender specific classes in math and science (coming in the fall); internships for eighth-graders; an after-hours school to let students build credit; creation of the Ninth Grade Success Academy, a talent development program described as a school within a school with career academies similar to magnet programs, as well a "double dose" curriculum to acclimate students to high-school course work.

Of course, not everything is different. Like any middle school at lunch time, West Prep can be noisy as an airline runway. Students try to lollygag in hallways. But you can feel the difference in respect. Students stand and smile when I visit Forestine McCuien's English class. It takes awhile for the students in John Ford's U.S. History class to notice the visitors and stand.

The gains made at schools using all or some of the Talent Development model don't surprise Mary Maushard, communications director for the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. Researchers at the center developed the Talent Development Middle Grades model being deployed at West Prep. Designed for K-8 programs and middle schools, its tenets include professional development and in-school coaching for teachers and all-day remediation programs for students; establishing small learning communities (West has a 25-to-1 student to teacher ratio; the school district average is 32-to-1); and operating safe campuses. The model has been used successfully in a handful of Philadelphia schools. "It's really designed a whole-school reform model."

Data from the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, also at Johns Hopkins, reports academic improvement among ninth-graders and higher 11th-grade standardized test scores among students in talent-development schools.

After visiting the Foshay Learning Center, Barton says trustee Shirley Barber and Associate Superintendent of Education Services Edward Goldman were sold on the program. Foshay's program has produced a three-year improvement in SAT 9 test scores and the second highest growth in the number of students taking advanced placement exams in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a 181 percent increase from 1998 to 1999. Barton says combining the programs gives West Prep a great chance to succeed.

Barton thinks the Foshay model, a successful K-12 program (the elementary school is adjacent to the secondary programs) with strong ties to the University of Southern California, can be duplicated here. He wants West Prep to be the first K-12 program linked with UNLV. Student teachers would be able to visit the campus and see how K-12 educates. Researchers could do studies and gather the empirical data they need, see the benefit of working in a school like this.

To let neighbors know about West Prep's new programs, Barton appeared on a KCEP 88.1-FM talk show and held monthly meetings, two meetings in April and one in May—and there's one planned this month—and sent staff to knock on doors. He's considering creation of a phone bank, earmarking a Saturday or two to talk up West Prep to parents in the surrounding neighborhoods. What good is having potentially life-changing educational programs if no one knows they exist?

"By allowing us to do this, the district is showing a good-faith effort to avoid takeover by the state," he says.


But is Barton the right person to lead the new West Prep?

If you ask him, yes. Serving a stint as principal of Global Community High School prepared him—he was an anomaly on that campus, too. Global serves immigrant students ages 12 to 21. The curriculum centers on English proficiency and acculturating students into the American way of life, or "biculturation," to use Global lingo. More than 60 percent of the student body were Hispanic immigrants; students came from all over the world. At the same time he ran Global Community, Barton was principal of Morris Behavior School, where troubled students kicked out of regular schools were temporary placed. Double principal duty, he says, enhanced his cultural sensitivity and steeled his resolve to work with at-risk kids.

"Global Community was actually Horizon, a school for kids who couldn't make it to class for some reason [caring for a baby, working]. We didn't have enough kids at Horizon. So we [he and school district administrators] decided to implement Global Community because saw a need. [Students who couldn't speak English] could come to Global and graduate from high school. It made me feel great." he says. "Morris Behavior was for kids who needed help getting back in their home schools. We very successful. We had a 2 12 percent recidivism rate of students coming back. But the Horizon program really made me want to stay in an at-risk school. Some of these kids are looked at as throwaways and they're not. They may have made mistakes, but they deserved a second chance."

An Air Force brat, who spent the majority of his young life in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—there since fourth grade—Barton was a product of decent-but-not-very diverse public schools.

In his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, he began thinking about educational inequality. About how schools in urban Philadelphia lacked the amenities of those in, say, Harrisburg. One affluent school might have everything it needs to ensure student success. Ten miles down the road, in a crumbling, underfinanced inner-city school, education took a back seat to survival: "I started thinking about kids. I'd go into schools, especially affluent schools and at-risk schools. The affluent schools got the best teachers, but the best teachers should've been in the at-risk schools."

His first job out of college was teaching at Ullom Elementary on Mountain Vista and Tropicana, "an older school, borderline at-risk that's about 50 percent Hispanic." After five years there, he spent two years as dean of Thurman White Middle School, a Henderson school that was the exact opposite of Ullom: mostly white, affluent, with involved parents. His experience at Ullom left the bigger impression. At-risk youth deserved top-notch administrators and teachers. "I have a drive to help at-risk youth succeed," Barton says.

That's why his dissertation (he has a master's degree in educational leadership from UNLV) on school finance (to be finished in September) is exploring how funding inequities create financial caste systems among school districts—the affluent areas generally producing higher-performing campuses, the rural and inner-city generally struggling to get by. By coming to West and hiring teachers who want to be there, Barton says he's helping plug the talent gap. Sure the Foshay-Talent Development hybrid makes the school more expensive to run, but it also creates a more level playing field: Let's see how West Prep students, traditionally the poorest of the poor, fare academically when given similar resources to schools like Thurman White.

"West's reputation in the district has been bad and I don't think it's fair," he says. "When people heard I got the job, they said, 'West? You're going to that place? You're going there? You're crazy!' I think it's a good school and will be an ever better school. I could get a job five minutes from my home but I don't find that experience [working in affluent schools] rewarding.

"We don't have time for lagging," Barton continues. "We might not get off the [needs improvement] list the first year, but we have to make substantial increases in test scores the first year. We don't have time to waste. This is not a new lease on life."


So what's Marzette Lewis, the cantankerous 65-year-old activist largely responsible for getting West built, think about West Prep's new principal and new direction?

"You have got to be kidding me ... to bring a white man, 31 years old, with very little experience, what's he going to do? My daughter is 37, and she couldn't go over to West and handle those kids."

Over the phone Lewis is as forceful as she is in person. For the past year, she's been living in Quitman, Mississippi, a small town 95 miles from Jackson. Lewis says she moved because she was tired of being one of the few people fighting for West Las Vegas students.

"This is what they've always done, either brought us the bottom of the totem pole, someone so old that they were waiting for retirement, or someone so young that they probably can't make a difference," she says. "If he was 50 years old, had been around awhile and in schools in Los Angeles and Watts, then I'd feel better. He's going to have problems."

As she sees it, the new West is simply the old West with a new name. All the programs look good on paper, but what about the people implementing them? Lewis doubts Barton's "highly qualified teachers"—a third of them holdovers from West-Edison—can effectively teach. Edison. Foshay. Talent Development. Pick any name you want, she says, it all spells failure.

"We worked so hard to get that school, and it was taken away from us with Edison," Lewis says. "We knew about Edison. We did our research, but nobody wanted to listen to us. West won a lot of band competitions. With Edison, they took away the band and the kids have been behaving like animals ever since."

Barton knows about Lewis, knows how her history and how much she's invested in West. Skin color isn't the issue here, he says. Neither is age, or a perceived lack of experience or cultural understanding. Kids are standing up to greet classroom visitors. Classrooms are orderly, quiet—if the teacher is talking, no one else is. Students and teachers are engaged. Says Barton: "I hope this first week is an indication of what's to come. I've only been here since March. You can ask anyone who's been here awhile if there's been a substantial amount of change in a short time. I won't make changes without first seeking community input, but I'm not afraid of making change to help our students. I want the staff here to aspire to know kids not just on the surface level, to know what their home life is like."

That job falls to Darren McCoy. His job as a "success strategist" is to correct student behavior, to shape 'em up and, if necessary, shape 'em up some more. Shipping 'em out is the last option. It's like giving up on a student, something McCoy says he never does because no one did it to him. Bald, rotund, caring and talkative, McCoy, brought over from Global Community, is West Prep's beating heart and occasional face in the community. He grew up in West Las Vegas, and still lives there. Which is important, he says, because he knows where West Prep students are coming from. There's very little going in the community or in yhe homes of students that he doesn't know about.

"I probably know somebody in their family and know why they're behaving the way they are. I can discuss my background with families—[I'm] from a single-parent household, and know what it's like to not have any food in the house. " he says. "My mother was a young single parent. She was a child herself and didn't know how to raise a child, but she did her best. I can understand the anger and desperation some of the kids feel. I felt it, too."

What transpires on campus, insists McCoy, is as important as what goes on before and after school. "If Momma's on crack, and the student lives with one aunt this week, an uncle the next, they may feel that nobody wants them. So are they going to come to school, behave and be ready to learn? You have to know what you're dealing with."

When McCoy gets to talking, the stories come one after the other, something in a previous story about the role church plays in building respect in young people leading to a tale about a mother showing up at his house 10:30 at night "telling me I've got to do something to help her kid," that how working part time in juvenile hall taught him to deal with toughened youth, which reminded him of a young boy he nicknamed "Snoop Dogg" who beat the odds and surprised everyone by passing the high-school proficiency exam.

On the academic side of things, McCoy hopes West Prep will give him the flexibility he had at Global Community. Via the Back on Track Program at Global Community, he was able to promise students who were behind a grade that if they met behavioral conditions—no more missed school days or disciplinary problems—he could structure a schedule (substituting needed English classes for P.E., for example). And he wants to be able to celebrate student successes, no matter how small. Go to class for one month straight, get a certificate. It worked wonders at Global Community, he says.

"I tell Michael we need to do this and that and he listens," McCoy says. "So far, most everything I've asked Michael for, he's given me."


By 2011, West Prep will presumably be kicking on all cylinders. The elementary school will be open, as will the high school. UNLV students and researchers will visit frequently, and business leaders, parents and concerned citizens will be campus staples—monitoring lunches, mentoring, tutoring. If a kid has a toothache, he or she will able to go to the on-campus health center. ("Over the weekend, they opened a health center at Martinez Elementary," Barton says.) The Talent Development model's emphasis on small-school learning environmentswill have dramatically lifted student achievement. And West Prep's ghettoized reputation will be a thing of the past.

"I've got unstoppable energy when it comes to West Prep," Barton says. "I want this school to succeed."

In the northeast end of the main office, Jenny Jones is all smiles. Nothing like the first day of school, particularly when you feel included. "I love it here. I don't want to be anywhere else," she says.

Jones is an inclusion facilitator, which means she helps transistion mainstream special-education students into regular classes. Jones' job requires she be a jill of all trades. Consulting teachers one day, lab partner the next. She's noticed a difference since Barton stepped on campus in March. "Now we can make decisions. We get guidance, leadership and direction, which makes you feel good about working here. He's here from 5:30 in the morning to 5:30 at night."

Jones also has a story. One student's family invited her to church. The family didn't show. She was antsy and about to leave after three hours sitting in a pew, when church leaders asked her to come to the altar. They wanted to thank her for what she was doing for children at West and pray for her continued strength and guidance. She left in tears. As she finishes, a young boy walks up and hugs Jones.

"I passed the eighth grade!" says Brian Ricks, 13.

The look in Verdia Lawson's face is a mix of relief and happiness. His grandma has put two lifetimes worth of energy into Ricks' education. "I think the world of her," Lawson says. "She has so much patience and is very helpful. I can't explain what she means. She's just lovable."

"She teaches you how to get along with people," says Ricks. He says he was engaged in a vicious spat with another teacher and was held behind as a result. Jones and Lawson agree it was a bad situation. "She treats you like you are one of her kids."

Back in the office, mom and daughter smile as they come out of Barton's office. The tension is gone, squashed by whatever went on behind closed doors.

"Thank you Mr. Barton," the mom says.

Minutes earlier, as they sat and waited for Barton, the daughter began running down all the things that her new principal had done. Reinstituted uniforms (actually the students voted for this). Better teachers. New books. Maybe, just maybe he's the right man for toughest educational job in the state.

Mom grudgingly admits that Barton has West Prep on the right track: "I know Mr. Barton is doing some good things."

  • Get More Stories from Thu, Jun 22, 2006
Top of Story