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Mendoza teacher honored for classroom innovation

Justin Brecht doesn’t just teach fifth grade. His class is a “school within a school,” an experiment of his own creation at Mendoza Elementary School in east Las Vegas.

“You guys were the test group,” Brecht recently told a group of his former students shortly before they began middle school on Aug. 25.

The experiment has proved fruitful.

All his fifth-graders from last year advanced to middle school proficient in math. About 90 percent of them had grade-level reading skills, according to annual tests given to all Nevada fifth-graders. The same can be said for only 70 percent of Clark County School District’s fifth-graders in math and 59 percent of them in reading, a far lower success rate, according to state test results for 2012-13, the most recent district­wide data available.

And Mendoza faces more challenges than the average Clark County school. About 39 percent of its students are learning English as a second language, more than twice the district rate of 16 percent. About two-thirds of Mendoza students live in poverty compared with half of all district students, according to the Nevada Department of Education.

Brecht teaches the same curriculum as other teachers, doing so during the standard 9 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. school day. But, going on the third year, Brecht’s students have agreed to come an hour and a half early each day and stay just as long after the bell. He doesn’t spend the time drilling kids on more academics. He doesn’t use the three extra hours to teach to the state tests. He builds character in a program he dubbed the B.R.I.C.K. Academy, which stands for Building Responsible, Independent, Compassionate Kids. And he does so through the arts.

“The irony of it is I’m zero artistic,” said Brecht, whose students put on shows for heritage months and other events. “Throughout their journey, they learn the things I’m trying to teach about honesty, hard work, et cetera.”

He then weaves those underlying themes into all he does with students, academically.

“There are two parts of the puzzle, and we’re only paying attention to one, academics,” said Brecht who had this revelation three years ago after catching up with former students.

“I couldn’t recognize them as people. They got lost,” he said, recalling honor students who were using drugs by the eighth grade or even pregnant. “You need that independence, confidence to know who you are so you’re not told, as can happen in middle and high school.”

That’s when he came up with the academy, building it brick by brick, so to speak, with the permission of Mendoza Principal Brenton Lago.

For his endeavors — putting in 15 extra hours every week with no extra pay — Brecht was named Clark County educator of the month for November 2013.

Brecht was nominated by Lago and chosen by a panel that includes members of the Clark County School Board, the Public Education Foundation, Teach for America and private school representatives.

The panel went on to name Brecht educator of the year for 2013-14 in the program sponsored by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Sierra Nevada College.

But Brecht isn’t stopping there. He’s expanding with the financial help of some local businesses and a grant.

In addition to Brecht’s classroom, the B.R.I.C.K. Academy will be in one fourth-grade classroom this school year as longtime Mendoza teacher Charles Michel joins the program.

Brecht has also agreed to take on about 45 fifth-graders instead of 30 because of the demand from families and their children.

Contact Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @TrevonMilliard.

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