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VICTOR JOECKS: Ex-Clark HS principal: Jara fired me for trying to reduce inequities

One of Superintendent Jesus Jara’s goals for the Clark County School District is reducing proficiency gaps. The ex-principal of Clark High School Antonio Rael believes he was fired for doing just that.

Now, Rael and former Clark assistant principal Christina Bentheim, whom the district removed as well, have retained an attorney. Whatever the strength of their legal claim, what happened to them was wrong and counterproductive.

In March, Rael became the principal of Clark, which has a sterling reputation. It’s also a three-star school. That’s no small accomplishment, given it is located in one of the region’s poorest ZIP codes. After he arrived on campus, Rael began to suspect there was more to the story.

“What I saw happening classroom to classroom didn’t match with what I saw in the data,” Rael said in an interview Wednesday. “I started to dive into the data differently.”

What he found was a vast difference in outcomes for magnet vs. neighborhood students. Ninety percent of magnet students were college and career ready, but just 20 percent of zoned students were. Magnet programs offer high-performing students a chance to take advanced classes in certain specialty areas and accept students from anywhere in the district. Until this year, those students had to meet certain academic requirements to apply.

The safe career move would have been to avoid rocking the boat. After all, Jara had just promoted Jill Pendleton, the former principal of Clark, to associate superintendent.

But Rael wasn’t content to let low-income and predominantly Hispanic kids attend a failure factory. Neither was Bentheim, who worked with Rael previously and joined the Clark staff in August.

In August, Rael shared the data with staff and parents and told them things had to change. He started enforcing the tardy policy. Previously, Rael said it wasn’t uncommon to find “250 to 300 kids just kind of roaming the hallways” during class time. He sent administrators into the classroom to help teachers improve. He made teachers complete lesson plans, as required by district regulations. Some grumbled that this was micro-managing. Maybe. At least it wasn’t the status quo that was failing thousands of students a year.

For their efforts, a handful of vocal magnet parents and students trashed the pair at a December School Board meeting.

Jara faced a decision. He could stand up for a leadership team trying to meet his Focus 2024 goals or return Clark to the status quo of peaceful failure.

Jara capitulated, removing Rael and Bentheim. They now report to regional offices.

That wasn’t just an act of political cowardice, it sent a terrible message to other principals. Rael said several other principals have expressed to him “a fear of fighting the good fight if the political pressures turn against you.”

Jara made a mistake in December, but it’s one he can fix — although it would require eating humble pie. He should reinstall Rael and Bentheim at Clark. It’s the right thing to do. It’d also show that he won’t be bullied into abandoning those who are trying to accomplish the goals he set out in Focus 2024.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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