More than half of the students at Mater Academy Mountain Vista charter school are English language learners. The poverty rate in the community surrounding the school is so high that all its students qualify to receive free or reduced-price lunches.
But rest assured, these children facing education challenges are going places. At least that’s what Mater drills into them.
“On the east side of Las Vegas, what are we on?” Principal Renee Fairless shouted into one elementary classroom as she walked the halls last week.
The response, shouted in unison: “Fire!”
A recent analysis of Nevada data by the Review-Journal showed that state-sponsored charter schools in Clark County serve a different population than the Clark County School District on average. They educate fewer English language learners, students with special needs and students receiving free or reduced-price lunches than the district as a whole.
But this Mater Academy campus — located in a particularly impoverished, transient area near Boulder Highway — is bucking that trend.
It is excelling in academics in an area that really needs it, particularly for middle grades. The nearest district-run middle schools are rated one and two stars, according to a school quality map by the nonprofit Opportunity 180, which advocates for quality school choice in areas of highest need.
In a series of National School Choice Week events this week, advocates are touting the power of educational choice and securing the best school option for every child.
But schools like Mater Academy Mountain Vista and Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus — sponsored through the state Achievement School District — are tackling the challenging part of choice: providing a good education in areas where the need is greatest.
‘Minutes away and worlds away’
When Fairless moved from Green Valley High School in Henderson to Sunrise Mountain High School in northeastern Las Vegas, the difference in her student population was stark. She saw the need in her students, many of whom she worried were not going to graduate.
“I went 15 minutes away and worlds away,” she said.
That led her to help create Mater Academy Mountain Vista, part of the Mater Academy schools network that began in Florida.
Fairless first set to work recruiting high-quality, bilingual teachers then instituted a “double dose” of math and reading for students.
The school also pursued roughly $6 million in outside funding last year alone to pay for technology, social workers and other necessities.
“There’s tons of money for these types of students,” Fairless said. “You just have to be ready to go after it.”
Now, the middle school is just 0.5 points away from being a top-rated five star school, while the elementary school is three stars.
Fairless has her sights set on adding a high school so she can continue to work with kids like Khristian Derr, an eighth-grader who said the school changed him.
“It just changed my perspective on life,” he said. “I just used to think differently from everybody. I didn’t really want to do too much extracurricular things.”
At Mater, Derr said, he realized he didn’t want to be part of the “crazy things” happening in his neighborhood near Sunrise Mountain.
“I just want to show people that you can make a difference,” he said. “You don’t have to do all these bad things to get the money or all that stuff that you want. Just use your head. It’s not hard at all.”
Good options, not just more options
In the Historic Westside, Democracy Prep is the only middle school above three stars in a 5-mile radius, according to Adam Johnson, the school’s executive director.
The school, formerly the underperforming Agassi Prep charter school, opted into the Achievement School District — an initiative that allows charter operators to turn around failing schools.
The transition wasn’t easy.
“We came in last year knowing that the change was going to be difficult, that we had to win over the support of this community,” said Principal Alex Daniels.
Now, students have a longer school day and read novels in their down time. They’re referred to as “scholars” who plan to go to college. Teachers have a set curriculum within which they tailor their lessons.
Meanwhile, the staff is working to improve its elementary grades, which dropped from three to two stars in the most recent state ratings.
The school must raise the bar higher to provide students and parents with a truly higher-quality option, Daniels said.
“I don’t think more charters is necessarily the solution to the problem,” he said. “More good schools is the solution to the problem.”