Students find success at CSN High School

There is a high school in Southern Nevada that can boast small class sizes, access to thousands of college courses and nearly a 100 percent graduation rate.

The school meets the highest federal standards in education and is routinely ranked among U.S. News & World Report’s top high schools in the nation. Although admission is competitive, the school is part of the local public school district and costs nothing for students to attend.

Born through a partnership between the Clark County School District and the College of Southern Nevada, CSN High School has a campus located on each of CSN’s three main campuses in Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson.

“The CSN High School is one of the finest schools in the nation and does a fantastic job of preparing K-12 students for a highly successful college education,” CSN Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Darren Divine said. “It is one of the best kept secrets in the state. Most people don’t know it is right around the corner at a CSN campus.”

Juniors or seniors that are on track to graduate can apply to enroll at CSN High School, where students take high school core classes provided by K-12 teachers and fill in the rest of their schedules with college courses taught by CSN professors. As an incentive to succeed, the school district covers the cost of the college tuition for the student, up to 12 credits, unless the student fails, in which case the students’ family must pay for the CSN course.

The high school is remarkably successful. Last year’s senior class of about 200 students had only one student who did not graduate. The spring 2011 class also included 16 students who received their associate degrees from CSN before receiving their high school diplomas.

“The thing that separates our students is that they are highly responsible, highly motivated and goal-orientated students,” CSN High School Principal Dennis Birr said. “Even if they don’t have that strong of a grade point average, they are still going to do well in their high school and college courses, because they’re going to work hard at it.”

Sue and Van Hoppler’s daughter, Alexis, graduated from the school in 2009 with more than 24 college credits. She is on track to graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno next year after only three years at the university.

“I would highly recommend this program to any parent,” Sue Hoppler said. “Thanks to the graphics and Web design knowledge she obtained, Alexis is now working for a lawyer in Reno, designing and managing her website, in addition to many independent projects while continuing her education.”

Birr, a former high school principal from Washington who came out of retirement to head the program, estimated that approximately 34 percent of the CSN High School graduates stay at CSN to finish their associate degrees. Another 62 percent go on to a four-year school, including elite Ivy League colleges, Stanford University or state colleges and universities around the country. The remaining 2 percent go into the military or the workforce because they have been able to obtain certification from CSN.

The program looks at a number of criteria, including GPA, level of maturity, letters of recommendation, attendance and transcripts to score each applicant for potential admission. The school’s capacity is 400 students, but Birr said he could have easily admitted 500 last year if they had the resources and the space.

The program is interlaced with a number of student activities, including an honor’s society, student government, yearbook and prom. The students are also encouraged to join one of CSN’s many student clubs or the college’s student government, where three community college high school students served as senators last year.

Birr attributes the success of the program’s students to three factors. The students accepted into CSN High School tend to be very motivated.

The school is also small and provides significant support for the students to help them reach their goals. Teachers have office hours before school begins, and Birr said it is not uncommon to see more than a dozen students working with teachers in the hours before class begins on their college or high school coursework.

“These kids know there are adults they can go to here that will take the time to get to know them and sit down with them. I think that makes a tremendous difference,” said Birr, who encourages each new student to sit down and meet with him as well. “You don’t get an opportunity to do that when you are in a high school with 3,000 students.”

Ironically, this small, intimate feel takes place at the largest college in the state and one of the largest in the country. But having the high school located on a college campus is a significant reason the program is so successful, Birr said.

Apart from the students’ ability to obtain college credit, the high school’s counselors work closely with CSN counselors to give students an educational career path early on. The high school students also learn to navigate a college environment. Birr said it’s important to teach his students about college policies and procedures, such as how to make a formal appeal of a grade or course withdrawal.

“Part of our mission is to help students have a smooth transition to college,” Birr said. “I think a good share of college students drop out not because they’re not bright enough but because they did not understand the culture and they don’t stay.”

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