This school year begins with a new superintendent and initiatives aimed at improving student achievement and, equally important, finding better ways to measure it.
ADOPTING COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS
Nevada is joining 44 other states in adopting the Common Core State Standards curriculum.
Common Core offers a more comprehensive approach to subject matter, as explained by Hewetson Elementary School principal Lucy Keaton.
"It's not like you're trying to teach more," said Keaton, "but trying to go deeper with what you're teaching. I like teaching at a true depth where they comprehend the curriculum. It's a lot more fine-tuned, a lot tighter, a lot deeper. As they move through the grade levels, there's deeper understanding of what they're being taught."
Common Core standardized tests require more analytical thinking in English language arts and mathematics. Common Core will be rolled out by grade level and subject starting this year through the 2014-15 school year.
DEALING WITH BUDGET RESTRICTIONS
Schools reported cuts of about 50 percent compared to last year, and it has principals worried.
Gary Bugash, principal of Eisenberg Elementary School, 7770 W. Delhi Ave., said Eisenberg, along with about 20 other schools in the region, lost their assistant principal position.
"That's our biggest hit," Bugash said. "That's going to hurt the most, not being able to service the community like before."
The assistant principal spent a lot of time meeting with parents to discuss their concerns when he was unavailable, Bugash said.
The district had been preparing for $400 million in cuts to its 2011-12 budget before the Nevada Legislature handed down cuts in June of about $150 million.
The district's budget includes per pupil spending of $5,136, a decrease of $44 per pupil from last school year; reductions in school facilitators and specialists by 12.5 percent, saving $7 million; cutting administrative department budgets by 20 percent, or saving $48 million; cutting textbook and supply budgets by 50 percent, saving $25 million; and freezing teachers' pay raises and other concessions, saving $56 million, among other cuts.
The teachers union has not agreed to the concessions, and a settlement is unlikely to be reached by the beginning of school Monday, which may force the layoffs of more than 500 teachers, district officials said.
GAINING RESOURCES THROUGH NEW PERFORMANCE ZONES
Bugash will start working more closely with principals at nearby elementary, middle and high schools in their common performance zone or what he called "smaller learning communities."
The new organization model creates 14 zones based on location and performance and puts between 20 and 30 schools in each. There will be fewer schools in zones with the lowest achievement, as well as more oversight.
Lower-achieving schools also are expected to receive preferential access to resources, such as having first chance at hiring new teachers and receiving a larger portion of professional development funds.
Conversely, the higher performing zones will have more schools and greater autonomy.
"It really equates to better communication with the middle school my kids are going into," Bugash said. "That will make it a lot easier for (students) to get to know the middle school, and in that case it will be better."
READY BY EXIT: INCREASING THE GRADUATION RATE
One of Superintendent Dwight Jones' objectives is to reach a graduation rate of 75 percent within five years.
Jones wrote in his Preliminary Reforms Report that his goal is to have all students "ready by exit," meaning "prepared to step into college or other postsecondary opportunities and compete without remediation. Whether students enter college or choose to enter the workforce after high school graduation, what matters most is that they have the knowledge and skills to perform and be successful in either environment."
The district's graduation rate varied from 46 percent to 65 percent in 2008, depending on the method of calculation.
Beginning this year, all states have agreed to use the same standard for calculating graduation rates, making 2012 graduation data comparable nationwide.
Of the more than 20,000 incoming 12th-graders this year, about half are not on track to graduate because of credit deficiency, failure to pass the high school proficiency exam or other factors.
The district provided every high school's principal with a list of these students and has asked them to create individualized plans to help them graduate.
Schools will be able to offer those students online credit recovery, proficiency-focused classes, mentoring and other services.
Jill Pendleton, principal of Clark High School, 4291 W. Pennwood Ave., said she appreciates the freedom for each school to customize its approach.
"The superintendent recognized that every high school has unique needs and nobody knows these students better than we do," Pendleton said. "He's letting the principals look at the students and, as a school, develop plans specific to our community.
"Having been in Clark County for as long as I have, it's really refreshing to see the level of support we're getting from the superintendent and his team. It's really invigorating."
RETHINKING ADEQUATE YEARLY PROGRESS
The state also is in the process of breaking free from the unpopular Adequate Yearly Progress measurement that resulted from No Child Left Behind.
Nearly two-thirds of the district's 363 schools failed to meet the federal bar.
The standard has been raised every year since the 2002-03 school year and will top out in 2013-14, when 100 percent of students nationwide are expected to be proficient in math, reading and English.
Clark County School Board Trustee John Cole called it "a noble gesture and a novel idea" but something that was unfair to schools.
"It's like going through a tunnel that's getting thinner and thinner and thinner," Cole said. "Then you get to the end of the tunnel and there is no tunnel. It leads to natural, progressive failure."
Test scores are broken down into 45 subgroups based on ethnicity, English literacy, economic status, special needs and other factors.
If one subgroup does not pass AYP, the entire school fails. Several principals reported missing AYP by one subgroup ---- special education students in most cases.
Trustee Lorraine Alderman said a "failing" school can be full of greatness that isn't reported.
"These reports don't show the gains," Alderman said. "Even when I was a principal, it never showed the accomplishment we had made. Even some of these schools that haven't (made AYP) the whole time have made tremendous gains. There's no way to celebrate that."
But things are getting better. This year the district will begin focusing on a growth model for future student assessments. The new model would chart a student's growth on an annual basis from the time they enter the district.
The strategy will allow teachers to focus more on students' progress, rather than worrying about AYP.
Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez said the old system forced teachers to focus on "bubble kids," those students in the middle of the achievement spectrum, to get just enough of them over the AYP bubble.
"Now we're saying 'no, let's focus on growth,' " Martinez said.
The plan is that any child, at any level, could reach proficiency within three years. Close analysis of data will allow the allocation of resources to be made available to those schools most in need, he said.
Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at email@example.com or 224-5524.