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Chaparral High School starts year determined to turn around

Buses pulled up to the school curb. Students stepped off, and many disappeared into the neighborhood instead of heading to class.

That was last year at Chaparral High School.

This year started differently.

At 7 a.m. Monday, a school band heralded the start of the school year by playing loud enough to be heard a block away. The music grew louder as students approached the campus, near Flamingo and Sandhill roads.

More than 300,000 students in the Clark County School District’s 357 schools returned to their classrooms on Monday with various degrees of fanfare.

At Chaparral, it was the start of a day of firsts for students at the near 40-year-old school, fallen from greatness and struggling with a 30 percent graduation rate.

Cheerleaders danced in front of the band near the buses, encouraging students to come inside — a first. Many of these same student musicians played at protests last spring, outraged at district officials’ decision to change principals and bring in a new leader charged with changing staff: Only half the teachers and staff, at most, were allowed to stay.

This year, new Principal Dave Wilson asked them to sound a different beat for a new day.

The school, a persistently poor performer, was one of five designated a "turnaround school" last spring and given federal grant money to make a 180-degree swing. Wilson received $1 million on top of district funding for year one and will receive slightly less in each of the next two years to whip Chaparral back into shape.

Everyone’s watching, mother Althea Fogenay said.

"At first, I was scared because I knew he had to come here," she said while trying to snap a photo of her freshman son in the band. "It’s where my other two went."

It has been awhile since her other children were at Chaparral, once a district front-runner. But the negatives soon will be changed into positives, she believes.

"Everyone’s watching. Students have to perform," she said as the band stopped playing and walked into the quad.

"Matthew-Bryant, one picture?" she called as her son passed by with a music stand slung over his shoulder.

"No," he mouthed, looking away.

About 2,400 students crowded the quad. Wilson looked down from the third-floor balcony.

"Welcome to your first day of school!" he shouted.

The school was transformed over the summer, with 100 workers toiling to renovate 65 percent of the building. About $2 million worth of cleaning, repairs, and painting floors and graffiti-covered walls have come to a close. Only two boys toilets in the entire school worked before that, Wilson said.

"When I had to use the bathroom, I’d call my mom to pick me up," 17-year-old Brien Newman said.

"They found baseballs in the toilets," Wilson said, adding that intercoms had been installed in classrooms during the 1970s but were never hooked up. "Student athletes got a sneak peek of the gym and almost cried, seeing the newly painted floors."

The building’s back, but that’s just the beginning.

"How’s it different?" science teacher Gary Martin asked his students.

"Cleaner," "stricter," students responded.

"You’re right. It is stricter," Martin agreed. "Here’s the deal. Chaparral has changed. But you’ve only seen the surface."

Frankly put, teachers aren’t going to put up with any crap. Electronic devices, which were in students ears and hands during classes last year, aren’t allowed anywhere on campus, even between classes. No bathroom breaks during class. School starts at 7:30 a.m. and runs to 1:45 p.m. No lunch, just a 15-minute nutrition break.

Sophomore Michael Diggs, sitting in the back row of Martin’s class, welcomed having more structure.

"It was out of control," he said, talking of fights and student-teacher altercations last year. But he wants some "freedom." "My mom said to just leave the class if you need to go to the bathroom."

The routine is simple, Wilson said.

"High expectations. High expectations. High expectations," he said while taking a break from poking his head into classrooms, something that will occur every day. High expectations are in place for teachers too. "If teachers don’t cut it, they’re gone."

About 1,200 teachers applied for 100 positions at the school despite its reputation. They want to be a part of the turnaround.

"When you’re at this school, you can really make a difference," said special education teacher Thomas Tebbs, one of many staff members who patrolled the halls.

Wilson makes it clear. He has one goal in mind.

"It would be nice to say that fluffy stuff like ‘We’re building better human beings,’ " Wilson said. "We’re here to graduate kids."

Teachers bluntly pass that message on to students.

"There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. You’re going to do it," Elizabeth Moses, a co-teacher of U.S. government told her students. "I’m going to be on you like white on rice. Leave your excuses at the door."

Senior Francis Moore, 18, feels the pressure. Even the students know all eyes are on Chaparral and the four other turnaround schools: Mojave and Western high schools, and Hancock and Elizondo elementary schools.

"You have to be on the top of your game," Moore said.

Moses, who paced back and forth while talking, was the bad cop, playing off of co-teacher and good cop George Chamberlin, who sat on a stool, his acoustic guitar leaning against the wall.

Chamberlin noticed a sleeping student and grabbed his guitar, striking the strings hard as he jokingly sang and laughed, "Omar, there will be no sleeping in class today."

"No sleeping," Moses stressed, echoing Chamberlin while singing purposefully out of tune.

The two teachers and their students laughed, but with seven out of 10 seniors on track to not graduate, they take it seriously. That’s why Chamberlin left his 15-year career at high-performing Valley High School.

Back in Martin’s science class of seniors, all are still without a passing grade on the state-required science proficiency test, which is first given to sophomores. He doesn’t sugarcoat the issue for them.

"I’m not going to teach you stuff you don’t need to know," Martin tells them.

Last year, 70 percent of his Mojave seniors passed the test in November. Those who didn’t pass kept working for another chance to test in December.

Whether those percentages will translate to Chaparral, only time will tell. Students have been well-behaved and obedient so far, said Martin while standing outside his classroom before last period, shaking incoming students hands.

Students are usually an easy audience on the first day of school, Martin said. "Tomorrow’s a whole new day."

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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