School embraces year-round schedule as first day of class approaches

A chain-link fence separates Forbuss Elementary School from the desert at Las Vegas’ southwest edge.

The absence of students wrapped the school in silence. But every teacher was present Wednesday, quietly preparing their classrooms for a whole new kind of school year, which begins Monday.

Changes at Forbuss caused some parents to withdraw their children and prompted some teachers to transfer elsewhere this summer. But others flocked to Forbuss, drawn by the school’s mandated move to a year-round schedule.

“I drive 25 miles to get here,” said Nick Peter­son, a fourth-grade teacher, who voluntarily transferred to Forbuss this summer. He’s one of 21 new teachers hired by Principal Shawn Paquette, the highest number of vacancies he’s had to fill since the school opened in 2007.

The school is one of the most over-capacity campuses in the Clark County School District, the nation’s fifth-largest school system. But crowding isn’t new here, Paquette said. Forbuss needed two portable classrooms for students the year it opened.

“It’s like herding cattle through the halls,” fourth-grade teacher Shannon Graham said .

“More like cats,” added fellow fourth-grade teacher Jim Dunlap. Forbuss was built to serve about 796 students. Last year, it enrolled about 1,200 students and used 18 portable classrooms.

Forbuss will be slightly less crowded this year despite having roughly the same number of students. The school, west of Fort Apache Road and south of Wigwam Avenue, has thrown out the traditional nine-month schedule, at the order of the district superintendent. Students will be spread out over five different tracks scheduled across 12 months. One track of students is always off, relieving the school of one-fifth of its enrollment.

Two other southwest valley elementary schools, Reedom and Wright, will also switch to year-round schedules Monday. More schools are likely to follow in 2014-15 as a growing number of crowded schools are expected to meet the district’s triggers for going year-round, said Rick Baldwin, the district’s director of demographics and zoning.

He wouldn’t estimate how many, noting that school enrollments will be unclear until after Labor Day, when students show up late for the school year. Officials were considering up to 11 year-round schools for this year, but former Superintendent Dwight Jones decided on just three.

But officials won’t be able to delay rezoning crowded schools or putting them on year-round schedules for much longer — the district expects to add anywhere between 1,000 to 4,000 more students this year. Students are coming mostly into the district’s 217 elementary schools, which were over capacity by an average of 10 percent last year.

More than 40 elementary schools exceeded their student capacities by between 25 percent to 75 percent last year and had to use portables. Forbuss is still waiting for two portable classrooms this year, Paquette said.

“The district ran out,” he said.

The principal is being told this year’s three year-round schools will serve as tests for a new year-round system that is sure to expand. The district is no stranger to 12-month schools. It had 76 year-round schools, including Forbuss, up to 2009-10. In the absence of voters approving hundreds of millions of dollars in capital funding for new schools, the district may, out of necessity, return to what it abandoned.

YEAR-ROUND DEMANDS

Year-round schools aren’t the first choice of many officials, school employees and families. A year-round school costs about $308,000 more a year to run, requires more staffing and has a polarizing effect on staff and students’ families.

But it’s a remedy that the district is using until it can afford new schools, School Board members said.

It’s a déjà vu dilemma for School Board President Carolyn Edwards, who recalled how county voters passed the district’s 10-year, $4.9 billion bond in 1998 largely because they were tired of year-round schools. Building 101 new schools with the money allowed the district to spread students across more schools instead of across year-round schedules.

With that money running dry, the School Board returned to voters last November, requesting a $669 million property-tax increase to use for new schools and renovations to aging schools. County taxpayers quashed the proposal, with 66 percent voting against it.

“It wasn’t even close,” Edwards said. “It was a no, actually a resounding no.”

But implementing year-round schedules won’t permanently relieve the building pressure, and the district will have to request another tax increase from voters in the future, she said.

About five new housing developments are on the way near Forbuss, Paquette said. Even with year-round scheduling, there will be about 900 to 1,000 students at all times in the school built for 796, relying on 20 portable classrooms and a portable bathroom and lunchroom this year to make it work.

An alternative would be to rezone attendance boundaries, School Board member Lorraine Alderman said. But rezoning proposals draw parental opposition.

“It’s not going to be pretty, but we have to have the conversation,” she said.

The conversation will start at the board’s Sept. 4 meeting as the board prepares the ground for a decision that must come by February to rezone, to make more schools year-round, or both. “I think it’s inevitable if we don’t build more schools.”

Many of the district’s crowded schools are in Alderman’s district, which includes central and east Las Vegas. A district map shows elementary schools in surrounding areas are under or near capacity, which is why rezoning must be considered to even out school populations, she said.

The district hasn’t had a comprehensive rezoning since 1994, Baldwin said. A lot has changed in Clark County since then.

But in the southwest, rezoning wouldn’t do much good, Edwards said.

“The schools around my overcrowded schools are overcrowded,” she said.

Forbuss parents protested in force last school year when the School Board considered rezoning thousands of southwest students. They begged for something they’d usually oppose — year-round schools.

As some parents said, it was the lesser of two evils.

FORGING AHEAD

At Forbuss, Paquette and his staff aren’t complaining about the return to year-round. They welcome it, as do most parents, Paquette said, noting that only two parents have filed complaints with the district over the scheduling switch.

“It wasn’t such a hard swallow,” he said. That’s thanks to the year-round decision being made early so parents wanting a nine-month school could move their children to charter schools or get zone variances.

The five tracks were also amended to make them almost equally desirable, and he said the district set strict guidelines for designating students to those tracks: no favors. Under the old system, parents jockeyed for the same tracks and avoided others at all costs.

Teacher Stephanie Feltes enrolled her three kids at Forbuss and transferred there herself, claiming it will be better for all four of them. With more frequent breaks spread over the year instead of just taking the summer off, the students are more motivated to learn and the teachers are less burnt out, she said.

The burnout is why Peterson transferred to Forbuss.

“By May, you’re exhausted,” he said. Another teacher interjected, “I’d say April.”

Paquette’s two children also will be attending Forbuss, and he’s looking forward to the year-round schedule even though he and his wife will be working all year — the same as most parents who dislike the year-round system.

“I’m living what I hear through the door,” he said, referring to parents who come in complaining of the shift.

But he only sees positives for his family, noting summer is the worst time for students to be off in Las Vegas because heat keeps them in front of the TV. In addition, students won’t lose what they’ve learned over a three-month break but instead have 45 days on and 15 days off, he said.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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