It’s a common refrain among educators: If the students aren’t here, I can’t teach them.
Resolving that predicament is the focus of a new effort this year at Robert Taylor Elementary School in Henderson, where administrators are seeking to push aside the issues kids face in physically getting to school every day to give them their best chance to succeed academically.
Last year more than 20 percent of the 670 students at the school — about 147 children — missed more than 18 days of instruction, earning them the label of “chronically absent.” That compares with a districtwide rate of about 12 percent.
The absenteeism contributed to a distinction that the school at 144 Westminster Way, near Boulder Highway, would rather not have: It was the only Henderson school to receive a one-star rating — the lowest ranking — in 2016-17 from the state.
The school only scored 13 out of 102 possible points on the rating scale, which also placed it among the bottom five elementary schools in Clark County. New data from the 2017-18 year is expected in the first two weeks of September.
It’s will be a startling point for Principal Kimberly Basham, who arrived at the school last year with marching orders to fix the problem.
School with a ‘reputation’
“This school always had this reputation, and I never really understood until I came here,” she said in an interview last week.
To understand what was going on, she pulled the census data for the 89015 zip code. It was great data, not the sort of financial and demographic numbers that would normally be associated with a low-rated school.
But when she looked more closely she saw that many of her students come from an area within the zip code that indicated they are living in poverty, as many of their families have for generations.
This spring, Taylor Elementary became a “turnaround” school, meaning the district is boosting support and providing new leadership in an effort to turn the academic tide.
The school also is getting assistance from the national nonprofit Communities in Schools, which provides a one-stop shop to help students, families and schools attack the underlying causes of absenteeism that can eventually lead students to drop out.
Some days that means providing shoes or alarm clocks. On others, it can mean sitting with a single mother to fill out a job application or signing up a student for free health care services. It’s all done in the name of making it to graduation.
“Dropping out is a process,” said Jennifer Bulloch, a coordinator with CIS who oversees the elementary school programs for the Southern Nevada branch. “Dropping out is all the things that have led up to ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
Communities in Schools
Sixty-three schools have partnered with CIS since the organization launched in Nevada in 2004, 48 of them in Clark County.
The latest data from the organization shows that 88 percent of CIS students graduate high school, and 97 percent are promoted from one grade to the next. Overall, attendance at CIS schools has increased 75 percent, behavior has improved 83 percent and academic performance has risen 85 percent.
It also estimates that every $1 invested in the program creates $11.60 in economic benefits for the community.
Robert Taylor is the first Henderson school to partner with the program, which it is paying $57,900 for out of federal Title I dollars earmarked for schools serving low-income populations.
CIS provides an on-site coordinator to its partner schools. That person runs a resource room, where students can get shoes, clothing, food, hygiene and cleaning supplies. It is open to all students at the school.
The coordinators also work individually with some of the neediest students, providing counseling and other support services. Or they can run small group sessions if multiple students are facing similar issues.
Ultimately coordinators are instructed do “whatever it takes” to help the school reach what it calls ABC goals, which are attendance, behavior or coursework based.
Meghan Vargo is the CIS coordinator at Robert Taylor. Vargo, who previously worked at a middle school before joining CIS, will serve as Basham’s point person for the program but also will be able to tap into a vast network in Southern Nevada.
If a student needs something that Vargo doesn’t have, for example, she can reach out to her peers and share resources or contacts to other community organizations that might be able to help.
“The greatest need of this demographic is community resources” like health care and job services, said Vargo.
Basham was an assistant principal at Sunrise Acres Elementary School before taking the job at Robert Taylor, which gave her an opportunity to see firsthand the difference CIS can make. She made getting the organization involved at her new school a priority.
“CIS is one of those organizations that partners with everyone. They don’t say no,” she said. “Unfortunately, our kids need basic things. They go and find it.”
While Basham’s kids need basics, the needs go deeper. By her calculations, about 10 percent of her kids are struggling with some type of mental illness. That includes some who have received diagnoses and others who have exhibited suicidal tendencies.
For example, Basham said she had to ban manual pencil sharpeners because students were breaking the plastic and pulling out the metal razors inside — the pieces that actually sharpen the pencil — and using them to harm themselves.
That’s another area where CIS can help by partnering the students with the counseling resources they need, she said.
The school is also trying to solve generational issues. Many students’ family members don’t have jobs, are struggling with addiction or don’t understand the value of an education, any of which can have affect a student’s performance in the classroom.
While it’s not in her job description to worry about those issues, Basham says it’s the reality educators face: to educate students, you’ve first got to mitigate the outside problems.
Like getting kids to school.
Sometimes the fix is a simple as a pair of shoes.