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Leadership change not time to pause

In my 25 years in the Clark County School District — starting as a first-grade teacher at C.C. Ronnow Elementary School in 1988 — I developed this philosophy: Every student in every classroom, without exceptions and without excuses.

What matters most to me is the academic success of each and every student. I want our parents, staff, students and community to know that I will make every decision as the new interim superintendent through this lens: How does this benefit the academic performance of all students?

Our district is in interesting times now, and not just because we are experiencing a transition in leadership. We are ratcheting up standards to better prepare students for future global competition. By itself, graduation from high school is no longer a ticket to success. The phrase on everyone’s lips is “college and career readiness.”

We are asking more of our staff and, while we have a long way to go, they are raising the academic bar. Our district graduation rate is moving in the right direction. We are among the nation’s leaders in improving math and English scores at the eighth-grade level. And we have done so even while cutting $600 million from the district budget.

With the economic downturn, taxpayers are demanding that our schools achieve more with less, and rightfully so. Our customers, the taxpayers and businesses in this community, must see an improving return on investment. The question we must constantly ask is this: How do the actions we take give us better results at a lower cost?

With these factors in mind, I want to let the community know my focus over the coming months. A transition in leadership does not mean a pause in action. We must:

1. Reduce class sizes so every child can succeed in school. The Clark County School District has some of the largest class sizes in the nation, and the budget crunch forced us to cut 1,000 teaching positions this school year. The average classroom has 40 students. This average class includes: 23 students from low-income homes, seven special needs students who require an individualized education program, seven students who do not speak English at home and two students identified as homeless. We ask teachers to meet the needs of each student. It’s difficult with such diverse needs in their classrooms.

When class sizes are smaller, it makes it easier to personalize instruction and form relationships with students. When that happens, better student engagement and performance are not far behind. To ensure success for every student, we must not let class sizes hinder the personal touch each and every student deserves.

2. Every student deserves a great teacher and school leader. Great teaching is the best way to improve student performance. We must establish what great teaching practices look like, and train our administrators to recognize them and give instructive, helpful feedback in teacher evaluations. The work is long overdue because the teacher evaluation system needs major repair. It’s time for us to provide more helpful, individualized feedback and professional development to our teachers, along with the tools for them to succeed.

3. Students are more successful in school when parents are better engaged. We will continue and expand our efforts to use technology to help teachers communicate with parents about everyday lessons and homework assignments. But this effort is larger than technology and must be people-focused. I often hear from parents who do not feel welcome at their child’s school. Whether that means we look at customer service training, more translators for parents whose native langue is not English, or better ways to gather parent input, we must address this issue and find more and better ways to engage parents in our school communities.

4. We must be inclusive and respect all voices in our district. About 59,000 of our 311,000 students do not speak English at home, and we see wide achievement gaps between English Language Learners and students who grow up speaking English. Language is not a barrier to intelligence — it is a barrier to curriculum.

We will provide professional development and cultural training to our teachers working with high populations of ELL students, and additional instruction time on weekends and summer breaks to ELL students. We are working with legislators to expand funding for pre-kindergarten instruction to ELL students. Studies show that if we intervene with ELL students when they are 4 years old, they are much more likely to soak up language skills, catch up to their peers and succeed.

We will continue the work done by a Superintendent’s Advisory Committee to look at the overrepresentation of minorities — especially African-American and Hispanic boys — in our discipline system.

And we will mentor and bring up teachers and future administrators who better reflect our “majority minority” district.

We will be honest with our community about our struggles and roadblocks to student achievement. Raising the academic bar is not easy. Frankly, with the implementation of rigorous “ common core” standards, we anticipate state test scores might decrease before they increase again.

Our district will see ups and downs throughout this reform process, but our mission is clear. It’s the right work, and we won’t stop now.

I am more energized and dedicated than ever, and I thank our staff, parents and partners for supporting the success of each and every student in our community.

Pat Skorkowsky is interim superintendent of the Clark County School District.

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