Updated March 11, 2022 - 8:33 pm
Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara delivered his yearly State of the Schools address Friday, saying there’s a need to boost student academic proficiency.
The theme of the speech was “Emerging Stronger Together.” The approximately hourlong event was held at Caesars Palace and livestreamed.
Jara said national reports rank Clark County — the nation’s fifth-largest district, with more than 300,00 students and 40,000 employees — and Nevada poorly for educational outcomes.
“Unfortunately, this is not new,” he said, and he knew the data when he accepted the job as superintendent in 2018.
Low academic proficiency rates didn’t happen overnight or just during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jara said, but result from years of systemic issues that have gone unaddressed.
“Who bears this responsibility?” he asked. “Every single one of us.”
Jara provided some data points, including that approximately 2 in 3 third graders aren’t reading proficiently. Experts say that is a key indicator of future academic performance and success, including graduating from high school.
He said that the student outcomes are unacceptable to him and “I hope they are unacceptable to you as well.”
Jan Jones Blackhurst, chairwoman of the Public Education Foundation’s board, said during her remarks she wanted to thank everyone in the room — and particularly, educators — for what they’ve endured over the last two years during the pandemic.
In the months and years ahead, there’s a need for a lengthy period of consistency and stability to allow time for recouping and healing, she said.
Public schools and educators, Jones Blackhurst added, need complete support.
There must also be a concentrated state effort in addressing the teacher shortage and large class sizes, she said, which have a direct negative impact on student achievement and causes additional and unnecessary stress for teachers.
Educators can’t be expected to remain committed if it’s becoming increasingly impossible to teach effectively, Jones Blackhurst said.
She also praised Jara, saying the superintendent has demonstrated his courage and commitment, and chose to stay when many superintendents across the country have departed.
In late October, the School Board decided in a split vote to terminate Jara’s contract “for convenience,” meaning it didn’t need to provide a reason.
In 2019, the district unveiled its five-year strategic plan, Focus: 2024. Jara said it’s an ambitious plan to close learning gaps for students.
But in March 2020, there was a scramble to pivot to distance education — which lasted for a year until school buildings reopened for at least some in-person classes in spring 2021 — because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
Two years later, some of the plan remains on hold, Jara said.
The district has started taking steps toward normalcy, he said, including loosening some restrictions this week.
Children suffered setbacks because of the pandemic, and many suffered worse outcomes because of pre-existing systems, conditions and circumstances that have failed vulnerable students, he said.
The school district faces challenges of an academic proficiency deficiency and low expectations for students, Jara said.
The school district and parents alone can’t improve results, he said, noting it’s a monumental task that requires everyone to focus like never before.
It starts as a community with seeing every child as worthy and capable of educational excellence, he said.
If we don’t, he noted, academic outcomes will continue to decline, and children won’t be prepared to succeed and compete for jobs being created by local companies and in the global economy.
The district has systems and strategies in its strategic plan in order to do the work, Jara said, but noted it does need more classroom teachers.
At the end of the address, Jara asked the community to constructively hold the district accountable and take other steps such as thank and support educators, adopt a school, mentor a student and provide paid internships for students.
“Be part of the solution,” he said.
Topics related to school violence have made headlines throughout the community and nation, Jara said.
Aggressive actions in schools mirror violence in the community, he said, adding that the pandemic has exacerbated tensions and increased anxieties.
“We cannot allow anything other than kindness and understanding to guide our interactions with one another,” Jara said.
He said the pandemic has tested everyone’s patience over the last two years and everyone is tired, but there’s a need to do better.
“We cannot allow violence and violent acts in our schools,” Jara said. “We will hold children accountable to keep our staff safe.”
The Clark County School Board heard a presentation Thursday night about school violence but didn’t take action. The board will consider voting March 24 on a plan for community meetings.
Recent instances of school violence include two days of lockdowns Wednesday and Thursday at Desert Oasis High School — where multiple fights resulted in the arrest of a man and a juvenile, and nine juvenile citations — and a student at Las Vegas High School who was cited for battery last month after punching a peer multiple times during class.
Jara also had a message directly for the district’s employees, saying he recognizes them and thanks them for opening schools safely for students.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he said. “It hasn’t been perfect.”
Over the next few weeks and months, the district will continue its efforts to support employees through programs, incentives and opportunities, he said.
One initiative will be providing day care for qualified support staff who can’t otherwise afford it through a partnership with Clark County and the state.
Jara said the district will also continue to incentivize substitute teachers, increase school bus driver pay, pay the reminder of retention bonuses this spring for full-time employees and offer a relocation sign-on bonus for educators who relocate to Clark County.
Last week, the district announced a hiring campaign that includes already-existing initiatives to for support staff to earn a bachelor’s degree and teaching license, alternate routes to certification, and high school programs for students interested in teaching careers.
The district has faced a worsening teacher shortage this school year amid the pandemic. The district had about 1,270 teacher vacancies and hundreds of support staff openings, as of earlier this month.
Sharing personal struggles
Jara began his address with a personal story about his childhood. He recalled sitting on the couch with his siblings in winter 1986 when his mother told them their father had left to go back to Venezuela.
The family was in a foreign country with student visas, but no work permits and a mother with a sixth-grade education, he said. After talking, they decided to stay in the United States.
Jara said he and his brothers started cleaning model homes at night after school. His mother baked and sold those goods.
He said they stuck together as a family and survived.
Jara said he had great teachers while growing up, but also had others who didn’t believe he belonged in certain classes.
Jara said he knows the lives of students in the district who work after school to support their families. “I know their struggles because their struggles were my struggles.”
In her remarks, School Board President Irene Cepeda called herself “a little bit of an introvert” and said it’s nerve-racking for her to speak in front of distinguished people.
“Growing up, I thought it was impossible for me to be in these types of spaces,” she said, and she didn’t see people who looked like her in leadership positions.
Cepeda said she grew up in northeast Las Vegas and every statistic indicated she’d be less likely to graduate and go on to college.
She said her parents sacrificed everything to come to the United States so she could have a better life and education.
As for moving the school district forward, “the work we need to do as a board and community continues to feel impossible,” she said.
But, she noted, the board is setting and monitoring goals, and keeping student outcomes at the forefront of its conversations. “We could collectively make the impossible possible.”
She asked those watching to keep the board accountable and focused.