North Las Vegas elementary school honors community organizer

Ruby Duncan picked cotton in the fields of Louisiana as a child, dropped out of high school and was raped while working as a barmaid. She moved to Las Vegas and cleaned hotel rooms on the Strip until she was fired for protesting overtime hours without pay.

Believing that “once you fall down, then you must get up,” Duncan organized marches on the Strip in response to Nevada cutting welfare benefits to mothers with dependent children in the 1970s. She prevailed in legal battles to make the Clark County School District provide lunch and breakfast to schoolchildren.

Her community organization, Operation Life, helped establish a library, day care and medical clinics in the West Las Vegas neighborhood.

On Friday, the ninth-grade drop-out participated in a ribbon cutting for a new elementary school in North Las Vegas named in her honor.

The 78-year-old grandmother urged parents to take responsibility for their children’s education. “We know the video games are not going to help your children to graduate,” she chided the crowd.

As a mother of seven children, she made sure all her kids completed at least high school. One son, David Phillips, is a local attorney.

“My mother is amazing,” Phillips said. “She has high expectations for everybody, even for those who don’t think they should produce anything. She’s a force to be reckoned with. She provided all of us with a great foundation, just like this school is going to provide a great foundation.”

Because Duncan was worried about her son, Ronnie, not finishing at Clark High School, she followed him to school one day to make sure he was attending class. He was so embarrassed that he promised to graduate. Today, Ronnie Phillips works as a counselor for the Salvation Army in Baton Rouge, La., Duncan said.

Lauren Kohut-Rost, the deputy superintendent for instruction, praised Duncan for bringing attention to impoverished school children “long before the term ‘wrap-round services’ was in vogue.”

If children come to school hungry, “it’s hard for us to educate them,” Kohut-Rost said.

Duncan’s community activism is documented in the book “Storming Caesar’s Palace: How black mothers organized their own war on poverty” by Annelise Orleck.

Inspired by the book, immigration-rights activist Michael Flores spearheaded the effort to get a school named after Duncan.

“There was really a lot of competition. We had to really work hard. We had federal judges, U.S. senators” competing for a school name, Flores said. “You see the more wealthy people getting schools named after them, but not always the real organizers, the activists.”

The two-story elementary school at 250 W. Rome Blvd. near Commerce Street is perched atop a hill with a postcard view of the Las Vegas Strip.

The last four elementary schools to be built with funds from the 1998 bond program were designed with at least some two-story sections to conserve land, said Paul Gerner, the associate superintendent for facilities. Their prototype was created a few years ago when land prices were extremely expensive.

After the ribbon-cutting Friday morning, parents and students streamed into the building to get a sneak peek at classrooms and school amenities before the new school year starts on Monday.

The school is designed for energy efficiency. All the classrooms have a full wall of windows to allow natural light, even interior offices have “solar tubes” in the ceilings so office workers can get some sunshine too.

“You ask any adult who works in any office. A window or any natural light is just so much more helpful to your psyche,” said Principal Rick Ditondo.

Sharon Booker, a mother of fifth-grade student named Destiny, called the building beautiful.

“It’s going to be a great addition to this city,” Booker said.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal .com or 702-374-7917.

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