Special Report

Standing Out

By Robert C. Johnston — April 23, 2003 11 min read
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From the outside, Incline High School looks pretty much as it did when I graduated in 1981. A rugged moat of pine trees still rings the three-story, red-brick building. And the snowy mountain peaks that kindled so many daydreams continue to loom in the background against an azure Sierra sky.

Inside the school’s double-glass doors, though, most of the similarities vanish.

The first sign that times have changed is the colorful collection of historic scenes painted on what had been an uninspiring yellow wall outside the theater.

In the main office, head secretary Ann Schilling offers me a school accountability report. I’m impressed that she has one. I’m more impressed by the data: above-average scores on national tests, top state civics and debate teams, a 17 percent enrollment in programs for gifted students.

Incline High was designated a “high-achieving school” by the state department of education in 2000-01, one of only three such high schools in Nevada, the state report proclaims.

I can’t help but think, “Were we this good?”

But the four-page document doesn’t give a complete picture of my old high school.

Between classes, students gather in small groups that are no longer distinguished so much by age, letterman’s jackets, or clothing style, as by skin color and language.

A wave of Hispanic immigrants, mostly from Mexico, has arrived at this hamlet on the shores of Lake Tahoe and its high school of 430 students. The recent influx is forcing the school to re-evaluate itself. Teachers accustomed to preparing high-scoring students for college must also find ways to reach teenagers with untapped talents and those struggling with language and cultural barriers.

“Some of the teachers don’t want to face the changes, and others are realizing they must change,” says Aaron Parsons, who wears many hats here at the school, including English and drama teacher and student council adviser. “The face of education is changing, and we must change with that.”

One of Incline High’s great strengths was that its Highlanders could join almost any sport, club, or activity offered.

Only in a small school could I have played four sports, get elected student- body president, and edit the school newspaper. I also earned $250 (enough to pay for my car insurance) by coaching the 7th grade girls’ basketball team during study hall my senior year.

Today’s Highlanders seem to have almost all those possibilities, and more. At the same time, they also face higher academic expectations and more decisions than my classmates and I did.

Otherwise unchanged from 20 years ago, Nevada's Incline High School is now seeking ways to reach an influx of Hispanic students.

For example, this year’s graduates can earn an honors diploma. It calls for at least two foreign-language credits, three math and three science credits, and four English credits—in addition to a 3.25 grade point average. A failed class during junior or senior year means no hope of earning such a diploma. Having struggled through Algebra 2 my junior year, I probably would have had to be satisfied with a regular one.

It still is possible to graduate from Incline without a foreign-language credit. But, from what I could glean from classroom visits, few students apparently do.

On a recent morning, Janette Holman’s third-year Spanish class is packed. Students easily conjugate verbs, converse in short but complete sentences, and, after nearly two hours of class, enthusiastically sing in el español.

Without a hint of boasting, Holman tells me, “You should see the fourth-year conversation course!”

That wasn’t the case two decades ago. To be sure, I checked with an old friend who was a fourth-year Spanish student in the early 1980s. Nope. She had to take a self-paced independent course because no Spanish class was offered at her level.

And while I was no slacker, Advanced Placement wasn’t in my vocabulary—or that of many of my peers. That, too, has changed. In 2000-01, 52 Incline High students took 102 AP exams, scoring a 3 or higher (on a 5-point scale) on 61 percent of the tests.

Many of these successes, no doubt, are the byproduct of a well-educated and largely affluent community. “Parents here demand excellence for their children,” says first-year Principal John H. Clark. “They want the best.”

Increasingly, though, the state is also making more demands on its schools.

Nevada high school students now must take proficiency tests in reading, writing, and mathematics in order to graduate. A science test is next. The 33,000-student Washoe County school system also administers the national, norm-referenced TerraNova exam in grades 3, 4, 8, and 10.

The results are a big deal when they are published each year.

“There’s more school accountability now,” says counselor Alana Brown, who began teaching in Incline 14 years ago. “Everybody is looking over the numbers all the time. Education is huge, and everyone wants to know where their children are for college.”

While the new demands may push teachers and students to ratchet up their efforts, there is a trade-off, says Assistant Principal Richard Brandt. “We lose 10 to 12 days to tests, and it just keeps on coming,” he says. “We need an extended year, from 180 to 220 days.”

One opportunity I didn’t have two decades ago at Incline High School was to learn from, and alongside, students of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Save for a few foreign-exchange students, the enrollment was pretty much all-white and U.S.-born.

Today, 25 percent of the high school’s enrollment is Hispanic—mostly native Spanish-speakers whose parents work in the service industry in this resort community. Their families have replaced white, middle-class families who worked in similar jobs, but moved as housing prices skyrocketed. The immigrant families live in apartments, which often means that families double up in order to pay rent.

Officials concede that Incline Village’s elementary, middle, and high schools continue to grapple with the dramatic enrollment shift.

“I think teachers have come to the realization that this is not a temporary thing,” says Principal Clark. “They are asking, ‘How do we integrate these students into the school?’ ”

Incline High now has English-as-a-second-language classes for beginning English-speakers and “transitional” English courses for students who are more advanced, but not yet fluent.

Measuring up to the challenges of other academic subjects is more difficult. To help, 27 students attend a study- skills course taught by Italian-born Danica Chapple. She hopes her colleagues will become more flexible in adjusting their teaching strategies to meet the needs of students who are learning English.

The school has offered voluntary training to teachers with students who are novices in English. Many teachers have taken part, Chapple says, though many have not.

Manuel Peñaloza, a native of Mexico who has been in Incline Village for two years, says it is often easier to confide in Chapple than in other teachers. In clear but halting English, the freshman says: “The hardest part is when they give you homework. If you don’t understand some part, it makes you embarrassed.”

Students at Incline High seem to deal with the ethnic mix through peaceful coexistence, yet even that is not without subtle tensions. A group of about eight Anglo boys talks openly about the school’s demographics with me during a lunch period. A division clearly splits them and their Hispanic peers. In their view, the Latinos often separate themselves, choosing to sit apart from Anglo students. “They try to be like gangsters,” chimes in one boy.

Dating between Anglo and Hispanic students is unusual, the boys say. They comment on one couple they know, signaling that it is a novelty.

Across the cafeteria, two Hispanic girls polish off lunch.

Ericka Martinez, a senior who moved to the United States from El Salvador in the 7th grade, says teachers here are good and she’s received a great education. She says that Hispanic students often divide up among themselves.

As for language, her friend, Sylvia Correa, also a 12th grader, notes that Anglo students have told her, “We are in America. Speak English.” But, she adds, “if we were in Mexico, and they were speaking English, no one would say anything.”

It’s not clear how much such issues are connected to the lack of school spirit that student leaders here say is one of their biggest challenges. Nor is it an issue that student leaders have addressed directly.

As I sit in on a recent student council meeting, I’m struck that the issues are the same as those we dealt with two decades ago: organizing dances, raising money, and boosting school spirit.

On the other hand, we were able to miss a morning class for our student council meetings. Not anymore. In an effort to cut down on interruptions of core academic classes, council meetings are held once a month at 7 a.m.—an hour before the school day begins. The student-leadership class, which is made up mostly of class officers, also meets at 7 a.m. three days a week. Two additional hours a week come from school-related activities.

‘Some of the teachers don't want to face the changes, and others are realizing they must change. The face of education is changing, and we must change with that.’

“This week is Spirit Week, and I have not seen many people dressed up,” Scott Menath, a junior, admonishes class leaders during his first student council meeting as president. “Some people think we have too many Spirit weeks. I don’t think we spread the news enough.”

Handling social activities is an important role; we did it, too. But I find myself wanting to nudge this talented group of young people into thinking about more serious issues as well, such as improving the relationships between the school’s changing ethnic groups.

“We go to leadership conferences, and it seems that other schools have Diversity Day or something else,” says outgoing senior-class president Jennifer Fuetsch. “We don’t have that.” Then again, she remarks, diversity is more limited here than in those other schools: “With us, it’s Hispanics, whites, and two blacks.”

One other dramatic addition to the school is the Army Junior ROTC program. Started in 1982 in a third-floor classroom with a handful of students, the program has grown into a nationally recognized model.

With about 150 students, the Incline High School JROTC Battalion has one of the top JROTC-participation-to-enrollment rates of any school in the nation, says retired 1st Sgt. Larry Porter, who directs the program.

Instead of being lodged in the small classroom, the Army has bought two trailers to house the program’s two classrooms, an indoor marksmanship range, and storage facilities.

Considering that no military base is in Incline Village, and that the main industry here is summer and winter recreation, the success of the program is striking.

Porter points out that students in the program “must toe the line and be good.” They are willing to do that, he says, because they have so much fun and are challenged by various leadership opportunities. Camp-outs, drill competitions, and rappelling are among the activities.

Adds retired Capt. Daniel Hernandez, the other adult leader of Incline’s JROTC program: “You see more mixing [of students from different backgrounds] than anywhere else in the school. They have to work together.”

Other students say the program is popular because, if they take it for five semesters, they can fulfill their health and physical education requirements.

“My stepdad, who is a veteran, was really happy that I’m in it,” adds Christy Carter, a sophomore. “It’s not for all, but I like it.”

The school has seen other changes since I graduated. A second gymnasium has been built, and soccer goals have been set up under the goal posts on the football field.

Instead of “cancer corner” on campus, students use an unofficial “smokers’ forest” off campus.

Computers have replaced typewriters, and school lunches are a la carte.

Students who fail a class no longer have to repeat it the following year or risk not being able to graduate. Instead, the school uses district money to offer makeup courses via computer in the school’s career center (also new). Headed by a warmhearted woman named Marilyn McLochlin, the center is open to students at lunch or after school to make up grades through self-paced courses.

The music department has its own rehearsal rooms and teachers’ offices, rather than the former acoustically crude brick room closed off from the cafeteria by a temporary partition.

Hallways are quieter and calmer than I remember—largely because students take three 110-minute classes per day, rather than the six or seven 55-minute ones that were broken up by frequent and frenzied room changes.

And then there is Larry Rumball, my former football coach, shop teacher, and one of my all-around favorite people.

Robert C. Johnston coached 7th grade girls' basketball during his senior year at Incline High School

Johnston coached 7th grade girls’ basketball during his senior year at Incline High School.
—File Photo/Incline High School Yearbook

I can’t remember a sports season when he wasn’t shouting out defensive instructions on the football field or giving tips to a catcher on his girls’ softball team—a sport he still coaches. He was quick to offer sound advice off the field as well.

I must say, I was flattered that he introduced me to his students by laying on the compliments about long-past football days—each time adding a few receptions to my statistics.

Rumball also retains that special quality that is a requisite for an industrial-arts teacher: He easily shouts loud enough to be heard over the routers and drill presses in his classes. It’s the same kind of no- nonsense management style that I remember.

In one of his new roles, Rumball now teaches a history class for new immigrant students who were falling behind.

Some of his students tell me, however, that “Mr. Rumball is too ‘old school.’ ”

Come to think of it, I guess some things haven’t changed that much.

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