Students facing demise of theater, other ‘noncore’ classes

Michael Demasi thought he had it all figured out. Like others before him in the Palo Verde High School theater program, he hoped to get a scholarship and major in technical theater at Southern Utah University in Cedar City.

Only a sophomore, Demasi already has shown his commitment. He’s spent so many hours "teching" performances at Palo Verde that his teacher told him he had to stop so other students could have a chance to earn class points.

"Now, I have no idea what I’m going to do," he says.

Palo Verde is eliminating its theater program because of budget cuts.

It’s a windy day and, standing outside the school, Demasi’s long, brown hair won’t stay off his face. Inside the theater, his classmates are preparing for their final curtain call.

"We try not to talk about it," he says. "It’s really depressing."

The cuts to Palo Verde and every public school in the valley stem from the Clark County School District’s $1.8 billion biennial budget for 2011-12. Already submitted to the Nevada Department of Taxation, the district’s plan included a $407 million shortfall from the current budget and could result in the elimination of some 1,800 positions. The plan is tentative, subject to any revisions of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed budget, which makes major reductions in spending on education.

District principals were notified last month how many positions they must cut. They must also determine which courses will continue and how their school will meet an increased average class size — from 32 to 34.

Whether it is theater being cut at Palo Verde or choir at Sunrise Mountain, Arbor View and Bonanza high schools, each principal makes site-based decisions. In most cases, those decisions are based on projected enrollment in fall elective classes.

Because required core classes — math, science, English and social studies — have the largest enrollments, noncore classes and extracurricular activities are the most vulnerable.

Principals don’t like it any more than students.

"It’s like dying," says Valley High School principal Ron Montoya, who plans to cut 18 teachers and eliminate home economics and fashion design classes.

"Your teachers do everything for the kids. They stay after work, they’re dedicated. For me to even have to cut one teacher, it’s like death."

Montoya plans to retain band, chorus, theater, automotive and woodshop classes. "(Noncore) classes are very important," he says. "You have kids in the programs like woodshop or automotive, and that’s going to end up being their career."

School district Trustee Lorraine Alderman knows the importance of noncore class offerings and extra curricular activities: They "saved" her son, James, in high school, she says.

James Alderman attended Nevada Vocational Technical Center, now Southeast Career Technical Academy, and enjoyed two things in high school, welding and wrestling. He wrestled at Valley High School since it wasn’t offered at his school.

"They really brought him alive once he found something that inspired him," Alderman recalls. "It built his character. Those are things you don’t necessarily pick up reading a textbook.

"It was wonderful to see him excel at something where it came naturally. It just helped him flourish as a person. For some students it happens with music, art and theater."

Alderman, a former teacher and principal at Burk Horizon Southwest High School, says she doesn’t like that elective classes are the first to be cut, but she understands why.

When a family has only so much money, she says, you first must pay your mortgage, power bill and buy groceries at the expense of non essential items.

But it’s a "no-win scenario," she says, as noncore classes help increase student achievement.

Students involved in noncore activities, such as the performing arts and sports, are three times as likely to perform better in math and reading than those who aren’t, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Such students also have better attendance and are more likely to aspire to college.

The school district’s tentative budget did not include cuts to the $5.5 million athletics budget, which covers uniforms and equipment, contracted services for referees, campus security, support staff, transportation and association dues.

Ray Mathis, executive director of student activities and athletics, says that athletics is already stretched about as thin as it can be.

"If we had to scale down, it would pretty much cripple us," he says.

An average Clark County teacher, with benefits, costs the district about $70,000, and eliminating every sport at every high school equals 78 teaching jobs.

"It gets difficult to defend," Mathis says. "Is it more important than a math teacher? Probably not. But if you look at what we do and our productivity and how many kids we serve, I think we do an excellent job."

Alderman agrees: "In the big scheme of things, ($5.5 million) is pretty darn cheap to run athletics. The benefits are so great considering the cost. We get a lot of bang for our buck."

The athletics budget is about 0.25 of 1 percent of the school district’s budget. Athletics did take a 15 percent cut two years ago and had to reduce security at games and shorten seasons to save on transportation costs. Bus trips this school year cost about $30 more per game than last because of rising gas prices.

Mathis says that nearly 30,000 high school students participate in athletics and that half of the money from ticket sales at football, basketball and volleyball games goes to each school and half to the district.

Alderman and Mathis agree that athletics also increases achievement because a grade-point average of at least 2.0 is required to participate. For some students, athletics is the incentive to get their diploma, they say.

Mathis stresses that the budget isn’t final and athletics might still be subject to cuts.

Palo Verde theater students are upset that athletic programs aren’t taking a hit, Demasi says, asking, "Why should our entire department get cut when athletes are getting new uniforms?"

Some students may want to transfer to another district school that will continue to offer the elective courses no longer offered at their current school. Zone variances are possible, but requests are approved at the district’s discretion.

A zone variance can be requested if it is in "the best educational interest of the student," according to district regulations, but all such requests require a principal-to-principal agreement. Among the considerations are enrollment, number of requests and ethnic diversity.

Clark County’s problems are nothing special, according to Michael Casserly, director of the Council of Great City Schools in Washington, D.C. The council is a coalition of more than 60 of the nation’s largest urban school districts, including fifth-largest Clark County School District, and it works on issues, projects and legislation to improve the overall quality and functioning of big city schools.

"Clark County School District is having to cut budgets exactly like other school districts are having to cut," Casserly says. "The choices are largely untenable for everybody."

Casserly says that adding two or three more students to already large classes would not have a "significant effect" in most cases.

The next two largest school districts, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Chicago Public Schools, face budget shortfalls next year of $216 million and $720 million, respectively, on top of already severe cuts made in the past few years.

Back at Palo Verde, theater program students are busy rehearsing a comedy, "The Man Who Came to Dinner," which they will perform in May.

After that, the theater has to be cleared out — the costumes from "Annie," which they performed in March; the backdrops from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," which they staged in October; every prop, flat and remnant of the past 15 years.

The students’ last event of the school year is Theater Awards Night, where students are recognized for their dedication to the program. It comes in the form of blue and gold thespian cords they get to wear at graduation — sort of a letterman’s jacket for theater students.

Sophomore Demasi and classmate Austin Mireles can’t get a cord. To earn one, you must have spent three years in theater.

Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at jmosier@viewnews.com or 224-5524.

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