A year ago, hundreds of Chaparral students gathered outside the local high school, chanting "Let's go, Cowboys!" and "We are Chap!" as expressions of support for teachers and staff who'd just been told they faced being replaced for academic failure.
Chaparral was one of five persistently low-performing schools identified by Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones last March as eligible for federal school improvement grants that could bring the district millions of dollars in funds. The others included Mojave and Western high schools.
Under the rules of the grant program, though, the five schools had to be reorganized. Staff members had to reapply to keep their jobs this year. Schools could not rehire more than 50 percent of the original staff. Principals who'd been at those schools for three or more years had to be reassigned. Employees who were not hired back were free to apply for other district vacancies.
Chaparral Principal Kevin McPartlin informed school staff he was not coming back. Mojave dumped Principal Charity Varnado. Western Principal Neddy Alvarez, a newcomer, retained his position.
"No one is losing their job or being laid off," Clark County School Board President Carolyn Edwards emphasized, indicating a big part of the problem: No punishment for failure in the government schools.
I wrote about the problem a year and a half ago in a commentary headlined "The Test Scores from Hell." At the end of December 2009, 27 percent of Chaparral kids were passing Algebra I; 73 percent were flunking. Bad enough, but when those kids took their district-wide common assessment test in that subject, only 3.8 percent passed; 96.2 percent failed. That's grade inflation verging on fraud.
Things were arguably worse at Mojave, two years back. Families of kids taking Algebra I were informed 50.3 percent of those kids had passing grades; 49.7 percent were flunking. But then those kids took the common assessment exam. Only 8.5 percent passed; 91.5 percent failed.
The Mojave teachers who issued most of those "passing grade" report cards should teach creative writing, with a speciality in fantasy and science fiction.
The situation with Algebra II at Mojave was worse, believe it or not, because 60.1 percent of kids were told they were passing. But when they took the standardized, district-wide test, 95.5 percent of those kids flunked.
At Western? In the middle of the 2009-10 school year, students and their families were told 66.2 percent of kids taking Algebra II were passing. Yet when they took the standardized exam, just 3 percent passed.
But at least no one who was responsible for any of this Duke-and-Dauphin chicanery had to fear "losing their job or being laid off."
This school year's new federal grant money -- for tutoring, teacher training, "innovative new academic programs" or "sustaining successful programs" at schools so miserable they had to lie in the bottom 5 percent for scores on state proficiency exams, with graduation rates consistently below 60 percent -- required "a complete change in how you do business," said Edwards.
My bet would be that money alone accomplishes nothing, as usual. As for the staff shake-up, the new paint jobs and a reported new emphasis on academic rigor at the district's three "turnaround" high schools, the jury is still out. The testing trend at all three schools shows some measurable improvement, albeit without actually reaching a sustainable 50 percent pass rate, anywhere, to date.
At Chaparral, the percentage of young scholars able to pass their first semester common assessment exams in Algebra I improved from 3.8 percent at the end of 2009 to 21.6 percent at the end of 2010 to 28.9 percent at the end of 2011 -- still less than one-third.
The percentage of Algebra II students at Chaparral passing their common assessment exams moved from 5.2 percent at the end of 2009 to 8.9 percent in 2010 to 29.9 percent in 2011. Again, movement in the right direction, but still a 70 percent rate of failure.
Geometry? Here the Chaparral kids are doing better than any other group in the three schools, though half are still flunking. Those passing the common assessment climbed from 15 percent in 2009 to 33.1 percent in 2010 to 49.7 percent this winter.
At Mojave High School, the first-semester pass rate on the common assessment in Algebra I dropped from 8.5 percent in 2009 to 7.5 percent in 2010, but then climbed to 15.5 percent in 2011.
Algebra II kids at Mojave are going nowhere. Yes, the number of kids taking this class has climbed from 157 to 202. But the pass rate, meantime, has gone from 4.5 percent in 2009 to an astonishingly pathetic 0.7 percent in 2010, right back to 4.5 percent in 2011. In Geometry, the first semester exam pass rate at Mojave has gone from 16 percent to 17 percent to 31.3 percent this year -- a nice jump, though still below one-third success.
At Western High School, the first semester Algebra I exam pass rate went from 11.6 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2010 to 22.9 percent this winter. Algebra II students at Western, meantime, can't break out of single digits. The pass rate on the first semester exams there have gone from 3.1 percent to 8.7 percent to 6.1 percent.
Geometry students at Western do better, presumably (hopefully?) because you can't get into a geometry class unless you've already passed some form of algebra. The pass rate there climbed from 13.9 percent in 2009 to an encouraging 51.1 percent in 2010 -- but then fell again this year, with only 20.9 percent of the 507 kids taking Geometry managing to pass the common assessment exam.
How do these sobering test results relate to the grades parents are seeing on report cards?
At Chaparral, parents were told 59 percent of kids taking Algebra I this winter were passing (assuming we call a D a passing grade). But 71 percent actually flunked when it came time to take the common assessment. Those report-card grades still seem to be spiked with helium.
How about Geometry at Chaparral? Parents were told 70 percent of kids were passing. In fact, slightly more than 50 percent failed their common assessment test, though here at least the grade-inflation gap seems to be shrinking.
In Algebra I at Mojave, parents were told 61 percent of kids were receiving passing grades. Yet when it came time to take their standardized exam this winter, fewer than 16 percent of those Mojave kids could score the required 60 percent or higher to achieve a passing grade. Geometry grades at Mojave reflect that parents and kids were told 59 percent were passing. But only 31.3 percent made the grade on the assessment exam.
Finally, the winter grades at Western: In Algebra I, 78 percent received passing marks on their report cards. But 77 percent of those kids couldn't pass the common assessment, neatly reversing the pass-fail ratio. In Geometry at Western, 58 percent of kids were told they were passing the course. Yet only 20.9 percent could pass the common assessment this winter.
Nevada received about $20 million from the federal school improvement grant program, this year. Most of the grant money was funneled into higher salaries and benefits for teachers at these three high schools, supposedly to attract the best educators.
Principals were given $5,000 signing bonuses, teachers received $1,750 and support staff got $500 for the first year of the grant. In the next two years, teachers could be paid more if their students do better on tests. In return, these schools are expected to show vast improvements in parental involvement, discipline issues and, yes, test scores.
The numbers have started to move in the right direction. Teachers and administrators will doubtless say it takes time.
But if it takes years, how many more thousands of additional kids will be dumped on the streets, unable to adequately read, write or do enough math to make their way in an increasingly complex world? If the mainstreaming of kids with behavioral problems and students who don't speak English has been a failure, administrators should admit that and try something else.
The public schools, as we now know them, have had most of a century to show some results. The clock on the public's patience is ticking down.
Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of the novel "The Black Arrow" and "Send in the Waco Killers." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.