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Clark County’s educator of the month teaches life skills, too

It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, and fifth-grade teacher Justin Brecht is trading “yo’ mama” jokes with his students.

They are thrilled.

“What was the one I liked?” he asks.

Several hands shoot into the air. Students share lighthearted disses before someone finally hits on it.

“That’s the one,” Brecht says. “And why are we talking about this?”

“They’re hyperboles!” the students shout in unison.

Afterward they’re quizzed on other figures of speech: personification, alliteration, similes, methaphors.

The students know them all.

Brecht is the mind behind B.R.I.C.K. Academy, which stands for building responsible, independent, compassionate kids, an extended-day fifth-grade class that teaches students life and academic skills with the goal of preparing them for middle school, high school and, one day, college.

“The goal of the program is to instill character into kids as they prepare to go to middle school,” said Brecht, who teaches at John F. Mendoza Elementary School in east Las Vegas. “Middle school is where we’re losing kids. My program is to instill those values. I use John Wooden’s pyramid of success as my foundation and I try to teach that through a variety of activities.”

Students are in class 10 hours each day, working on problem solving, math, art projects and other activities that teach the program’s objectives.

For his innovation and dedication to his students, Brecht was named Clark County educator of the month for November.

Brecht was nominated by Mendoza Elementary Principal Brenton 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 Las Vegas Review-Journal and Sierra Nevada College sponsor the program.

All monthly winners will be honored at an end-of-the-school-year banquet, where an educator of the year will be named.

Under Clark County’s direction, Lago said schools are to retain their irreplaceable or master teachers.

“This year we have a theme, and this year’s theme is ‘Hey now, you’re a rock star’ because we’re very close to our fourth and fifth star with the state school improvement framework. We’re rock stars this year, and he’s our mega rock star.”

On the state’s criterion-referenced test, 95 percent of Brecht’s students were proficient. In growth model, another standard tested, his class scored more than 80 percent.

“The arts is my medium through which I teach a lot of these skills,” he said.

For Hispanic Heritage Month, the kids learned traditional Mexican dances and showcased the work of Cesar Chavez.

For Black Heritage Month in February, they will perform poems and dances, songs from Motown and plays about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

The kids also work on programs for women’s history and Asian Pacific Islander heritage month.

“I always remind the parents that we’re not actors,” Brecht said. “It’s a showcase of hard work.”

To reward the children for that work, Brecht arranges for weekend field trips to Springs Preserve, Las Vegas Academy, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, hiking trails and downtown Las Vegas’ cultural corridor, which includes the Neon Museum, Natural History Museum and Mormon Fort.

“The idea was, if I’m going to ask kids to come for 10 hours a day there has to be some incentive,” he said.

He initially promised his class one trip per month, but now he takes them on two or three.

The next step for B.R.I.C.K. is finding funds and planning an expansion. Brecht said it’s yet to be seen whether the program will be expanded to other grades for longer-term progress tracking.

Brecht’s first ambition was to be a politician, but he changed his mind once he tried his hand at teaching.

“I got a job working with kids,” Brecht said. “I saw the immediate impact you can have with a child versus making policy where you don’t see the impact you’re making, even if it is happening. But with a kid, you can see that right in front of your face, that something you’re doing is actually having a really strong impact on someone for the better.”

Contact reporter Kristy Totten at 702-477-3809 or ktotten@reviewjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristy_tea.

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