Hundreds of students chanting, "Let's go, Cowboys!" and "We are Chap!" rallied outside of Chaparral High School Wednesday to support teachers and staff faced with being replaced next year.
"Knowing our most important people might be leaving us hurts a lot," said 17-year-old Cindy Pineda, who called the campus near U.S. Highway 95 and Flamingo Road a second home. "Students want to rise up and show they do care."
Chaparral is one of five "persistently" low-performing schools identified by the Clark County School District as eligible for federal School Improvement Grants that could bring the district millions of dollars in funds. The others are Mojave and Western high schools, Hancock Elementary School and another school that will be identified today.
Under the rules of the grant program, the five schools will have to be reorganized and staff will have to reapply to keep their jobs next year. Schools are limited to rehiring 50 percent of the original staff. Employees who are not hired back will have to apply for other district vacancies.
Principals who have been in place at those schools for three or more years must be reassigned, district officials said.
Chaparral Principal Kevin McPartlin has informed school staff that he is not coming back. He did not return a call from the Review-Journal. Mojave is losing Principal Charity Varnado. Western Principal Neddy Alvarez and Hancock Principal Jerre Moore are retaining their positions.
Students and staff said the timing of the announcement could not have been worse. This week, high school students are taking the state proficiency exams required for earning a diploma.
District officials said they are trying to meet a grant deadline of March 18. They also wanted to give teachers time to apply for other jobs since openings for next year are posted in April.
While district officials rationalize the staff changes as necessary for improvement, Chaparral senior Julie Ann Martel, 18, said she doesn't understand the logic.
"Why would getting rid of a good principal make our school better?" Martel asked. "Considering what a nice guy (McPartlin) is, it doesn't seem fair."
Clark County School Board President Carolyn Edwards emphasized that "no one is losing their job or being laid off." Still, the district will likely have to consider future layoffs because of the anticipated shortfall in state funding next year. Gov. Brian Sandoval's 2011-13 budget proposes cutting state support to public education by 9 percent, or more than $200 million.
He's also seeking 5 percent cuts in teacher salaries and a $270 reduction in per pupil support.
Employees at the affected schools could also end up playing a game of musical chairs -- it's possible that some Chaparral, Mojave and Western staff members could end up swapping jobs with each other since the schools will have so many vacancies to fill, Edwards acknowledged.
But the federal grant requires "a complete change in how you do business," Edwards said.
"This is not about the adults," she added. "It's about the children. It's an effort to say we're not just going to sit idly by anymore and have our schools continue to underachieve."
Schools were selected according to a grant formula that requires applicant schools to serve a large population of students from low-income families, to be in the bottom 5 percent of schools for scores on the state proficiency exams and to have high school graduation rates of less than 60 percent over the last four years.
Edwards estimates that the district is eligible to receive as much as $7 million of the $9 million that the Nevada Department of Education has received from the federal government for the grants.
Besides hiring new staff, the money could be used for tutoring, teacher training, innovative new academic programs or sustaining successful programs.
The district was not required to apply for the grants, but Edwards said she felt it was necessary because the district anticipates a budget shortfall of $250 million to $400 million next year. Federal stimulus programs are also winding down.
"We need to be going after funding anywhere we can get it," Edwards said.
As an empowerment school, or a school given more autonomy for innovation, Chaparral has received $100,000 over the last two years from the Nevada Women's Philanthropy, which is expected to make its final donation of $50,000 to Chaparral in 2011-12, according to the Public Education Foundation.
School Board member Erin Cranor, whose district includes Chaparral, said she believes the grant could help protect the school's programs. "I have a great deal of hope that this (grant) can end up, in the end, as another giant step forward," she said.
Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, which represents district teachers, has not heard of discontent at the other schools affected by the grant process. He believes Chaparral staff members are upset about losing their leader and feel that "all their work has been for naught."
While Chaparral is in its sixth year of needing to show academic improvement under No Child Left Behind, the federal school accountability law, a few teachers, who did not want to be named, said Chaparral has boosted its test scores.
The percentage of Hispanic students proficient in math, for example, has increased from 40 percent in 2005, to 56 percent in 2010. The percentage of blacks proficient in math increased from 24 percent to 50 percent over the same time period.
Chaparral teachers also argued that there were other schools with worse academic records.
David Winkler, an English teacher at Chaparral for seven years, worried that the staff changes could harm the school.
"Change is good for all of us, but change that is drastic and unsettling may be counterproductive to the purpose of educating our kids," he said.
Contact reporter James Haug at email@example.com or 702-374-7917.