Boom or Bust
Nevada's fast-growing school systems have many students playing catch up.
To keep up with Las Vegas’ explosive growth, the Clark County School District builds, on average, one new school per month. That alone goes a long way toward explaining why improving academic performance is especially challenging in Nevada, where the number of public school students increased by more than 50 percent between 1994 and 2003—the nation’s fastest-growing enrollment. Compounding the problem are the growing ranks of new students from immigrant families who need intensive help in English. The number of Hispanic students grew by 214 percent between the 1993-94 and 2002-03 school years, to nearly 30 percent of K-12 enrollment.
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Located in the northeastern part of the city, Liliam Lujan Hickey Elementary is just one of 11 new schools that opened this school year. About 400 of the school’s 786 students are Hispanic; 278 have been identified as English-language learners.
On a sunny fall day, Wanda Keith, the school facilitator for English-language learners, works for 45 minutes with two 5th graders who moved from Mexico after the start of the school year. She uses a picture dictionary to gauge how much English the boys know. One can read only a few words in English without prompting from Keith, while the other reads quite a few.
“These boys will be fine,” Keith says, after concluding that the students will be able to transfer their phonetic skills in Spanish to English.
David Harcourt, Hickey Elementary’s principal, hopes the teacher is right but worries that the boys have a lot of ground to cover before they can do well on standardized tests. He wants the state to address large class sizes at the intermediate and high school levels and low teacher salaries across the board. In Clark County, a new teacher without any experience starts around $30,000 a year, and the most any teacher can make is just under $60,000. Harcourt took several recruiting trips to Indiana this year but in the end didn’t persuade anyone there to come to his school.
Skyrocketing real estate costs have only complicated matters. “We had more problems with retention this year than ever before because housing doubled in price in the last two years,” says George Ann Rice, Clark County’s associate superintendent for human resources. The district hired 2,000 new teachers at the start of the school year but was still short 300 by November.
When Clark County can’t find enough certified teachers, it hires long-term substitutes.
Michele Gibbons, the specialist for English- language learners at Rancho High School, says that three of the school’s 12 teachers assigned to such students are substitutes. Of the remaining nine, only two have formal certification in that field.
Some educators at Rancho, where about one-third of the 3,200 students are English-language learners, would like to see the state develop standardized tests in Spanish for core academic subjects. But Raquel Santana, who teaches applied algebra, doesn’t believe that would help much. “These students have a lack of basic skills,” she says. “This is the huge problem.”
Santana opens a cabinet full of graphing calculators and textbooks to show that she has all the materials needed to help her students. The greatest obstacle she faces in raising their achievement is their mobility, she says.
“Students come and go,” she continues. “I can’t work with them consistently. I have a wonderful student and I work hard with him, and then he leaves.”
Vol. 17, Issue 05, Pages 22-23Published in Print: March 1, 2006, as Boom or Bust