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Nevada mulling dramatic crackdown on low-performing schools

Nevada’s underperforming public schools are about to feel the squeeze from state education officials who have long identified the chronic strugglers but have done little more than watch them.

Plans are in the works at the Nevada Department of Education in Carson City to tighten the state’s grip on struggling schools that receive extra support, taking action if they fail to improve, say state Deputy Superintendent for Student Achievement Steve Canavero and members of the State Board of Education.

“We would all like to make nice, and we would all like to have the grownups get along,” President Elaine Wynn told her fellow state board members Nov. 6. “But I would remind you of the mood we had at our last meeting, when we were horrified at the results.”

Those results: 51 public schools labeled low-performers, with few making substantial improvements often requiring urgent and disruptive changes instead of the small, incremental steps commonly seen in Nevada education, Canavero said.

Of the 51 low performers, 29 schools are in Clark County.

The state has identified nine “priority schools” on the 51-school list. All but one shared in $34 million in federal School Improvement Grants over the past three years, but none improved their standing in the state’s one-to-five-star accountability system ratings.

“We obviously can’t go back and fix the past,” said board member Allison Serafin, calling for an accounting of how the grant money was spent and any effect it had.

Wynn asked the board to “send a very clear signal” that it won’t passively accept the status quo.

“We’re here not to have meetings once every six weeks. We’re here to make a difference in how our kids learn and achieve,” said Wynn. “What is the evolving role of the state board?”

The state department and board have never used their power to regularly monitor underperforming schools and mandate improvement plans, which can include choosing principals and other school leaders and prescribing curriculum.

Canavero said he doesn’t see the state choosing a curriculum for schools, which harkens to the concern of board member Alexis Gonzales-Black. She said the state needs to be careful to not micromanage schools.

The state also can turn chronically underperforming schools over to management organizations, which usually run charter schools, or close them and send students elsewhere.

That far-reaching power came to the state board in 2012, when the federal government offered states a chance to opt out of certain provisions of No Child Left Behind, the federal accountability system implemented under the George W. Bush administration in 2002.

The state submitted an alternative accountability plan to the U.S. Department of Education, creating the school star-rating system and granting more autonomy to high-performing schools while setting in place more state power over underperforming schools.

In that waiver from No Child Left Behind, Nevada defined low-performing as schools that fit in one of three designations: focus, priority and those schools earning one star.

Focus schools are those with the largest achievement gaps for certain groups of students, such as poor or minority students who lag far behind their peers.

Priority schools are the bottom 5 percent in terms of student achievement, as determined by annual state test scores.

But an impending extension to the three-year waiver may increase that number from nine to about 38 priority schools, due largely to the inclusion of high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent, Canavero said.

“I think we have plenty of accountability,” said Canavero, referencing the powers granted by the waiver. “What we have yet to do is build the system to exercise that accountability.”

He advocated a more prescriptive process for spending, especially at priority schools. That would entail a memorandum of understanding between the state and local schools laying out improvement needed to be removed from the underperformers list, as well as what the state will do if nothing changes.

“It’s a very thick, muddy place that we’re in,” said Wynn, re-emphasizing her question to the state board. “Are we ready to assume more responsibility for what’s happening in our state’s schools? I am very supportive of putting the pieces in place.”

Canavero and department staff have continued to draft the tighter controls and is expected to detail its next step later this month.

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

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