Supporters want something better than portables for West Prep

West Prep Academy, a school that has shown dramatic academic improvement, got compared Thursday to a “prison camp” and an “apartheid” school in South Africa.

Enrollment at the kindergarten-through-12th-grade school is voluntary except for the middle grades, 6-8. Demand is so great that there is a waiting list for the kindergarten and first grade, said Principal Michael Barton.

Because of the popularity and attention, Eddie Goldman, the associate superintendent for educational services for the Clark County School District, wonders if the school is “a victim of its own success.”

Marzette Lewis, Deborah Jackson and Helen Toland did not criticize the academics nor do they have children who attend the inner-city school near Martin Luther King and Lake Mead boulevards. But they do think it’s obscene that the school has 28 portables, which house 56 classrooms, and a gross example of inequality in the school district.

“This is a community issue,” said Jackson, and at the very least, “an example of poor planning.”

But some parents of students at West Prep don’t view the portables as cause for outrage.

“I think they’re very sufficient,” said Arianna Scott, a mother of two elementary children who attend classes in portables.

“I’m actually impressed with the elementary library in the portable. I’m very active in the school. I’m taking cupcakes to my daughter’s class,” Scott said today. “I haven’t heard parents complain.”

The activists’ anger only seemed to grow during a five-hour School Board meeting Thursday in which the board discussed more than a $100 million in new federal aid, $11 million for a proposed school bus project, and plans to build four new elementary schools over the next three years.

“With all this money I see flying around here, you have the audacity to sit there and tell us we can’t get some school (construction) out of the $349 million?” said Lewis, referring to her estimate of available money from the remaining 1998 bond fund.

Ken Small, an architect and persistent critic of the district’s facility department, added, “We have an ongoing plan that provides poor and substandard schools to poor and minority children.”

Jeff Weiler, the chief financial officer for the school district, was somewhat hopeful that the district could find money for new projects since construction costs have come down in this weak economy.

Weiler said the district has about $800 million remaining from the $4.9 billion produced by 1998 bond, but it has all been committed to other projects. In addition, the district must keep $500 million in reserve for debt service.

Realistically speaking, he said, “Our needs list is greater than the money we have available.” West Prep’s portables are supposed to be temporary, school officials said.

The district has completed some preliminary architectural planning for new permanent structures, but officials anticipate that funding won’t be available until 2010 at the earliest. Voters would have to approve a new bond.

The portables are part of the strategy to transition West Prep from a middle school to a K-12 campus. The plan is to increase student achievement by providing for more continuity, keeping students on the same campus for as many as 13 years, officials said.

Once considered the worst performing school in the state, West Prep is expected to show “adequate yearly progress” this year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for its elementary and high schools.

The transition to K-12 started in the 2006-07 school year and will be completed in the coming school year with the addition of the fifth and 12th grades. Enrollment is expected to grow from 1,590 this past year to 1,750 this fall.

A complicating factor is that the middle school still acts as the feeder destination for surrounding elementary schools. The middle school has the most students at 1,000, keeping the demand high for portables.

Lewis said the portables are so inadequate that children are peeing in their pants, but Barton said children in the portables do not go any farther to the restroom than other children in the permanent school buildings.

Scott said her 10-year-old daughter does not have a problem. “She goes frequently,” Scott said.

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

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