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Grant adds perks to schools’ days

Bonner Elementary School will get 30 more minutes in the school day this year.

Cheyenne High School will pay an $83 fee for each student who wants to take an advanced placement exam to earn college credit.

Cheyenne also will reduce class sizes by buying out teachers’ preparation time and having them teach more classes.

Those are just a few of the educational extras made possible in the Clark County School District by a $13.5 million grant from the Lincy Foundation, the philanthropy of MGM Mirage majority shareholder Kirk Kerkorian.

“Put your seat belt on,” said Council for a Better Nevada Director Maureen Peckman at a Wednesday news conference at Keller Middle School. “It’s going to get real exciting.”

The grant restores funding for the six-school expansion of the district’s empowerment school program, which had been slashed because of the state’s budget woes. The grant also ensures all 14 schools in the empowerment program will be able to spend $600 more per student over the next three years.

Gov. Jim Gibbons assured the assembled educators, benefactors and media that he believes in the empowerment philosophy, calling it an opportunity for schools to break “out of the cookie cutter” approach to education.

Under the empowerment program, principals are given more freedom and resources to address the challenges facing their schools. Depending on their circumstances, they might choose to motivate their staff with extra pay for performance, increase instruction time, or hire more English as a second language teachers.

The new six empowerment schools — Bonner, Kelly and McCall elementary schools; Keller Middle School; and Cheyenne and Moapa Valley high schools — were selected from a district application process.

They join eight other empowerment schools — Adams, Antonello, Booker, Bracken, Culley, Sewell, Ward and Warren elementary schools. Each school will receive between $100,000 to $1.56 million over the next three years. Disbursement is based on student enrollment.

The schools were not necessarily chosen for the empowerment program because they were located in impoverished neighborhoods or had the worst test scores. Bonner, for instance, is in suburban northwest Las Vegas.

Bonner Principal Deborah Franklin said even well-supported schools with good test scores have room for improvement.

“No one is perfect. You always need to grow,” she said.

But Bonner’s community also has economic problems. “We have foreclosures, dads laid off too,” Franklin said.

Even with the support of a generous community, not even Bonner could afford to spend $600 more per student, she added.

Educators hope the public will see that good things can happen when schools are better funded. “There’s a return on investment,” said Superintendent Walt Rulffes.

Officials also noted that the $600 in additional per-pupil funding is not enough to boost Nevada above the national average, which is $9,138. Nevada spends about 20 percent less, or $7,345 per student, according to U.S. Census figures from 2006.

In cash-strapped Clark County, Rulffes acknowledged that extra funding for the district’s 14 empowerment schools would create envy, with some school communities resenting the fact that others are getting more money.

“They have not said that to me directly, but understanding human nature there’s probably some of that,” Rulffes said in an interview.

The district has been slowly adding empowerment schools each year since 2006. The district, however, is not under pressure to convert all schools to an empowerment model as a condition of the grant. A press release from the Council for a Better Nevada originally stated the district was supposed to put together a plan for a district-wide conversion, but district officials said Wednesday that was not the case.

“That may be somebody’s ambition,” Rulffes said. “I think it has to prove itself before it can be expanded.”

Karlene Lee, an associate superintendent who oversees the empowerment program, said the schools are held accountable by annual reviews of their test scores, surveys of parent satisfaction and school performance under the federal standards of the No Child Left Behind Act. Teachers and principals could ultimately lose their jobs for poor performance.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug @reviewjournal.com or 702-799-2922.

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