Shonte Burgess stood at the back of an immense room, looking over the 740 high school seniors like her who – chances were – weren’t likely to graduate.
Excessive absences. Behind on credits. Repeated failures on proficiency exams. Already dropped out.
They all had a hill to climb and personal reasons for being at the bottom of it.
Homelessness. Abandonment. Needed at home to care for siblings. Chronic absenteeism. Or in 18-year-old Burgess’ case, a three-hour round trip on a city bus every school day, making regular attendance a struggle despite pressure from her parents.
Burgess, however, realized something as she stood at the back of the MGM Grand’s Marquee Ballroom Thursday morning during a breakfast sponsored by the resort casino in honor of their climb to graduation.
“This has opened my eyes. I did it,” said the Del Sol High School senior who earned all her credits and passed her proficiency exams after as many as five tries. “There’s no stopping now.”
But it wasn’t Burgess alone who did it. She got help, as did the 740 seniors from 13 high schools who were identified by the Clark County School District early this school year as at risk of dropping out. These students, out of a senior class exceeding 20,000, were then targeted for intensive support in an annual Reclaim Your Future effort, which district officials began three years ago.
First comes a knock on the door one weekend by school volunteers who meet with these students and their parents about the options to catch up and earn a diploma. Then came tutoring, community mentors, online makeup courses and “boot camps” that prepare students to pass the state’s four High School Proficiency Exams in writing, reading, science and math, which are required to graduate.
Burgess was eager from the start and didn’t need as much prodding as other students, said Del Sol advocate Adriana Borrayo.
“Shonte is one of those who has barriers but is determined. A lot don’t have that,” said Borrayo, who worked to get the student a bus pass and other supports.
Thursday’s honored students come from 13 high schools with a high percentage of at-risk students. These campuses – Basic, Bonanza, Canyon Springs, Chaparral, Cheyenne, Cimarron-Memorial, Clark, Del Sol, Desert Pines, Mojave, Rancho, Valley and Western – and Clark County’s 36 other high schools will hold graduation ceremonies during the next two weeks.
But it’s unclear how many Clark County seniors are expected to graduate. The district wouldn’t provide its estimate. The district reported a 71 percent graduation rate for the 2013 senior class. However, the U.S. Department of Education determined that the district’s 2013 calculation was inflated because it didn’t include 982 students who had transferred into adult education, meaning the true graduation rate was 68 percent.
The 2012 graduation rate, which complied with federal regulations, was 61 percent.
District officials also said they couldn’t yet provide the number of seniors who passed their classes but not all four exit exams, which means they can’t graduate. Students received these exam results weeks ago.
Some parents, upset that their children wouldn’t be allowed to don cap and gown because they failed an exit exam, have repeatedly petitioned Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky to allow participation in commencements because these students did pass their classes. These students were allowed to participate in graduations in previous years and were given certificates of attendance. However, state lawmakers decided that these certificates will no longer be given as consolation.
For that reason, Skorkowsky has held fast to the no-walk policy.
“The reality of the situation is graduation means that, graduating. They have to meet both requirements,” he told angry parents at the May 21 School Board meeting. “Walking in a ceremony with a cap and gown is not graduating. They are not graduating.”
Graduation ceremonies stand to be noticeably smaller this year as the approximately 1,000 Clark County seniors who usually pass their courses but not all four exit exams are forbidden from participating.
Realizing that would be the case, Burgess had another incentive to pass the proficiency exams.
“I wanted to walk,” she said.
Contact Trevon Milliard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @TrevonMilliard.