Von Tobel Middle School is decorated with hanging spiders, goblins and jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween, but there's a ghost that the school would like to banish forever.
The school is haunted by a spirit of futility.
It has the longest record of any school in Nevada for failing to meet the annual goals set by No Child Left Behind.
It's 0 for 7 in the seven years of the federal school accountability law.
Some advocates such as Andres Mendoza of No Parent Left Behind, a local parent group from east Las Vegas, worry that the school has been neglected by the Clark County School District. Some parents complain about student violence, the lack of communication with teachers and weak academic performance.
But Principal Roger Gonzalez said the school has made measurable progress. He is optimistic it will break its losing streak this year.
"All our indicators are showing we are a school on the mend, moving in the right direction at an accelerated pace," Gonzalez said.
In math last year, for instance, the school showed across-the-board gains in all categories of students except for special education.
Mendoza said the principal is doing a good job. "He's been very supportive of changes. That's cool. He needs the support of the School Board."
Mendoza has suggested the school follow the model of West Prep and become a kindergarten through 12th-grade campus to provide better continuity of service and attention to the students.
A former middle school, West Prep has increased its academic performance and made "adequate yearly progress" this year. Like Von Tobel, West Prep serves a mostly minority population.
Linda Young, the School Board member who represents both West Prep and Von Tobel, said the effectiveness of the K-12 model is still under review by district staff.
Other schools serving large populations of disadvantaged students have found success under the "empowerment school" model.
Gonzalez wouldn't comment on whether Von Tobel would apply to become an empowerment school, which would allow the staff to make more of its own decisions and increase its per pupil funding by as much as $600 a year, allowing for perks such as longer school days and additional staffing.
Deferring to regional administration, Gonzalez said an application for empowerment was not his decision to make, although Jeremy Hauser, the district's academic manager for empowerment, described an open process for all schools during a recent School Board meeting.
While the funding is in doubt because of the budget crisis, as many as 15 new schools could be selected to at least try the empowerment management model next year.
Plus, five of the district's worst performing schools also will be selected for empowerment status next year and collectively receive about $2 million in additional funding from the U.S. Department of Education. Because the criteria for selecting the five "worst schools" has not been established, it's not clear which schools will be chosen.
Under the benchmarks of No Child Left Behind, all public schools are pushed toward the goal of having 100 percent of their students performing at grade level for math and reading by the 2013-14 school year.
Von Tobel got off to a bad start in 2002-03, the first year of testing. Schools in Nevada had the relatively attainable goal of showing about 30 percent proficiency for math and reading, but only 17 percent of Von Tobel students were performing at grade level.
Proficiency levels at Von Tobel have since crept up to the 37 percent to 42 percent range, but the target goals increased to the low 50 percent range for 2008-09. The benchmarks will jump another 10 percentage points to the low 60 percent range for this academic year.
But schools don't necessarily have to reach those annual benchmarks to remove the "Needs Improvement" designation. They also can be considered as making "adequate yearly progress" if they show year-over-year academic improvement of 10 percent or more in every measured category of students. Test results are separated out by race, special education, poverty and language ability.
While they're not where they want to be, the staff feels like it's starting to get somewhere, Gonzalez said.
"When you get the right chemistry of teachers together and you start working, you start to see results," Gonzalez said. "It just motivates them and pushes them to work that much harder."
In his third year as principal of Von Tobel, Gonzalez said his strategy is strict adherence to teaching the standardized curriculum so students aren't surprised by the state's accountability tests. But he is no by-the-book bore either.
Because the middle school serves kids between the ages of 11 and 13, Gonzalez said he appreciates that education must involve an "element of fun." So Von Tobel offers popular electives in mariachi music and broadcasting. Students prepare a video clip announcing the lunch menu and school news every day for schoolwide broadcast.
The principal uses broadcasting as a motivator. He allowed one student to take the class after the student promised to improve his grades.
Gonzalez looks for ways to grab his students' interest in school. When he learned that Cecilia Andrade, 12, wants to be a hair stylist, Gonzalez encouraged her to apply for a cosmetology program at a career and technical academy.
Teachers like Gonzalez for his enthusiasm. At 44, the principal still looks boyish.
"I remember thinking at our first staff meeting (three years ago), 'Who's that kid?'" said Robert Leytham, the computer teacher who created the broadcasting class at Gonzalez's request.
Both Leytham and Gonzalez said they chose Von Tobel because they wanted to work at a school where they could have a big impact on kids.
Gonzalez returned to school administration after a hiatus of serving in the human resources department for the school district. One of his duties was writing the memorandum of understanding between the school district and the government of Spain so teachers from Spain could work in Clark County for a year.
But Gonzalez said he missed the school setting. A 1983 graduate of Valley High School, he is familiar with east-side schools. He can identify with his students, since he grew up as the primary English speaker in a household of Cuban immigrants.
"I started to speak English in kindergarten," he said. "I was probably better (in English) than my parents after a few years. I'm sure (many of our students) do help out their parents."
Von Tobel's student population is 81 percent Hispanic, with 77 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches.
About 41 percent of students had limited English speaking ability last year, but the Nevada Department of Education estimates that 68 percent of all Von Tobel students will participate in second-language programs over the three-year period between the sixth and eighth grades.
Compounding the difficulty of learning a new language is Von Tobel's transiency rate of 38 percent, which is 5 percent higher than the district average.
Because of the turnover, a teacher might start the year with 30 students, but "you have 6 to 11 .... students that won't be there by the end of the year. You may gain 10 to 12 new students," said Young, the School Board member who represents Von Tobel.
She partially blamed problems at Von Tobel to the hard economic times creating "instability in the home." In "an environment of survival," academics becomes less of a family priority, Young said.
A father and mother, Luis Mesa and Xochitl Mesa, whose first name sounds like the word "social," said they plan to move this year because they can no longer afford the mortgage on their house.
While not happy with Von Tobel, the Mesas still regret having to pull their sons out of school midyear.
"It's going to be hard for them," Luis Mesa said. "If they could stay in school, they could focus more and have more friends."
The Mesas and other Von Tobel parents also complained about school violence.
"There are fights every single day," Lupe Vasquez, the mother of an 11-year-old Von Tobel student, said in Spanish. "I worry more about my son's safety than his grades."
Last year, Von Tobel had 187 incidents of student violence, 12 possessions of weapons and one student expulsion as a habitual offender, according to the school accountability report.
Gonzalez said the school has a strict, no-tolerance policy to deal effectively with discipline issues.
Some parents complain the school is out of touch. Vasquez said teachers at the school don't seem as personally involved as those at the schools of her other three children.
"We hear from them (teachers at the other schools) all the time," she said. "Here, we haven't heard a word from anybody."
Only 39 percent of the teaching staff had three or more years of teaching experience in the 2007-08 school year. Last year, 52 percent of staff had three or more years of experience. The average district school had 65 percent to 70 percent of its staff with three years or more experience over the same two years.
Some families say they are happy with Von Tobel.
Alfredo Carrillo said his 14-year-old daughter, an eighth-grader at Von Tobel, is getting a solid education.
"The teachers are good, and my daughter gets straight A's," Carrillo said on Tuesday afternoon while waiting for school to let out. "For me and her, it's the best school for us right now."
Carrillo wondered whether a lack of parental involvement had hurt student performance. "It doesn't matter where you go to school if your parents don't care and you aren't paying attention."
Carrillo makes sure his daughter reads every day. He also walks her home from school each afternoon.
Carrillo defended the school, saying it's as good as any other. "Every school has problems. It's what you and your child make of it. You can waste a lot of money at private school and not get a better experience."
Review-Journal writer Lynnette Curtis contributed to this report. Contact reporter James Haug at email@example.com or 702-374-7917.