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GLENN COOK: As English Language Learning goes, so goes Nevada

At the intersection of immigration, tax, economic development and education policy is Nevada’s most important issue: English Language Learning in the Clark County School District.

If Nevada’s leaders can’t figure out how to make high school graduates — never mind high-achieving graduates — out of the tens of thousands of valley K-12 students who aren’t proficient in English, then perceptions of this community, as well as its long-term economic prospects, will never change.

The ultimate measurement of an education system, right or wrong, is its high school graduation rate. And Clark County’s is around 62 percent, among the worst in the nation.

It’s a terribly misleading number.

That’s because ELL students have been dragging down the valley’s graduation rate for years. More than one in five Clark County School District students is not proficient in English, and 89 percent of ELL students are Spanish speakers — about 60,000 total. The graduation rate for ELL students is an abysmal 23 percent, the school district reports.

Remove ELL students from achievement data, and the school district’s graduation rate is around 70 percent. Not excellent by any stretch of the imagination, but close to the national average of 75 percent and high enough to escape the bottom of the rankings.

But there is no removing or ignoring ELL students.

All but three Clark County School District campuses had ELL students enrolled last year. Blue Diamond Elementary School, Indian Springs High School and Lundy Elementary School on Mount Charleston were the exceptions. At 53 of Clark County’s more than 350 schools, ELL students comprise at least half the enrollment.

And when it comes to teaching these kids how to read, the Clark County School District gets an F. The reading proficiency scores of English Language Learners on standardized tests are enough to make anyone puke or weep — or both.

According to testing data from the 2011-12 school year (the most recent available), 31.5 percent of the school district’s third-grade ELL students are proficient readers. That figure slides to 31.2 percent for fourth-graders.

Then already-lousy achievement falls off a cliff.

Only 15.7 percent of fifth-grade ELL students can read at grade level. In the sixth grade, just 8.3 percent of ELL students are proficient readers. In the seventh grade, the number falls to 4.4 percent.

Can it get worse? Yes it can. In the eighth grade, only 3.3 percent of Clark County’s ELL students can read at grade level. That’s putrid.

The figure shoots up to 18 percent in the 11th grade (Woo hoo!), but only because so many ELL students have dropped out of school by then. Yes, some of these students arrive in Clark County in later grades. But most of them are schooled in the system for years, promoted grade by grade despite being unable to read English.

Nevada’s economic development and diversification efforts hinge on improving our achievement and graduation numbers. Because our own politicians and purported education advocates have shouted from the rooftops for years that we don’t spend enough on schools, we’ve firmly established a regional narrative that all of our schools stink. That has scared away a lot of potential investment in Southern Nevada.

In fact, Southern Nevada has a bunch of excellent public schools. Its magnet high school programs, especially, are extraordinary. And in pockets of town — not limited to affluent neighborhoods in Summerlin and Henderson — a number of elementary schools have years-long records of high achievement.

But you can’t build an economic development campaign around the slogan: “Las Vegas is open for business; some of our schools rock!” That 62 percent graduation rate is the benchmark that must come up if we’re to lure new industry. And that’s never going to happen without a dramatic turnaround among ELL students. And by dramatic turnaround, I mean improvement along the lines of the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl this year.

That’s why Gov. Brian Sandoval put $50 million of new state funding into ELL initiatives over the next two years. Clark County will get $19 million per year to augment the $9.9 million it already spends annually on ELL programs.

Many in the education establishment, as well as Hispanic activists, have suggested ELL programs require about 10 times as much new funding to engineer an achievement comeback.

The political problem with pouring that much money into ELL, assuming voters or lawmakers authorized such a tax increase, is that it comes at the expense of Advanced Placement, Gifted and Talented, and other enrichment programs for high-achieving students, as well as proficient students who, with additional resources and opportunities, could become high-achieving themselves. The parents of these students do what they’re supposed to do — read to their kids, make sure homework is done, form relationships with teachers and administrators — and their reward is to pay a higher tax bill, only to see that money go to other schools? When current spending at those schools is producing horrible results?

Without question, most of Clark County’s ELL challenges are the result of illegal immigration. But the shifting political winds in Nevada and around the country have made that issue moot. One way or another, whether the U.S. Senate’s immigration bill passes, is amended or fails, tens of thousands of children who can’t speak or read English will continue to attend Las Vegas Valley public schools.

Next week: How do we teach ELL students, and should we change our approach?

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall,” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.

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