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The high standards of Dwight Jones

The best leaders aren’t afraid of tough conversations and tough decisions. They don’t exaggerate successes. They don’t sugarcoat failures.

Dwight Jones has been superintendent of the Clark County School District for less than a year, and his administration has embraced the kind of brutal honesty that inspires trust. He is showing all the traits of someone every Southern Nevadan — Republican or Democrat, business owner or union worker, rich or poor — can rally around. He is providing the kind of leadership this valley desperately needs.

Jones and his team are doing something no one at the school district has done before: They’re leading brazenly open discussions about the systemic problems that are holding back most students, and about the painful reckoning the community will have to endure to make schools substantially better.

They are raising expectations. Starting right now.

Jones has been on the job nine months, coming to grips with the school district’s standards and culture. In a wide-ranging conversation with the Review-Journal’s editorial board Monday, the reformer from Colorado blew up the wishful thinking that our schools have been making great strides against the insurmountable obstacles of race and parental apathy.

“Kids can reach a higher bar,” Jones said. “A lot of kids, they know we don’t expect a lot of them.”

He pointed out that under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, each state gets to set its own standards for adequate yearly progress. “Most of the other states are up here,” Jones said, lifting his right hand above his head. “Nevada is down here, in the bottom 10 percent,” he said, lowering his left hand to the table.

The school district has been so focused on meeting the low No Child Left Behind benchmarks established by the state, a disproportionate amount of resources and classroom instruction time have been directed to the lowest-achieving students.

“Smart kids are not getting a good education in this district because we are saying, if you are proficient, that’s good enough,” Jones said.

His new deputy superintendent, Pedro Martinez, added: “And if we are not challenging our high-performing students, that automatically means lower expectations for the rest of our students.”

These deficiencies support Jones’ biggest initiative, the achievement growth model. He wants every student to make academic progress every year, not just the students who are playing catch-up. If a poor-performing student enters the fourth grade with the reading skills of a first-grader and finishes the year reading at a third-grade level, that’s a big success. If a bright student stagnates from boredom, that’s failure.

Jones wants to improve the school district’s graduation rate more than anyone. But he refuses to further water down the value of a diploma to get there. He wants a high school diploma from Clark County to be worth something.

“I’d much rather see us get worse with a high bar and make strides to get to where we need to be than stay on this false ride we’re selling to parents and kids,” Jones said.

Martinez offered: “Forty-five percent of our incoming 12th-graders have not passed the High School Proficiency Exam,” which is first administered when students are sophomores. “The proficiency exam is ninth-grade material. Parts of it are eighth-grade material.

“Most of our high school students are in some form of remedial math. We have a class called ‘Intuitive Geometry.’ I have no idea what this is.”

Students who cannot pass every portion of the proficiency exam but pass the course work required for a diploma receive a certificate of attendance.

“Who does that?” Jones said of the certificate. “I mean, who else does that? That’s not acceptable. Just get rid of it.”

Meanwhile, the Board of Regents took some criticism for deciding this month that students must have a high school diploma to be admitted to any of Nevada’s community colleges.

“I can’t believe that we were doing that,” Jones said of colleges admitting students without a high school diploma. “For years, there was no expectation that it (a diploma) mattered.”

One major step already taken by Jones and Martinez: Initiating dialogue between elementary, middle school and high school principals to address student progress, or lack thereof.

“We want principals to hold each other accountable,” Martinez said. “They’ve never had these kinds of conversations before.”

Another step: Rolling back the district practice of making middle school semester final exams worth only 10 percent of a semester grade. Martinez said several principals pointed out that the standard allowed good students to get a D on a final exam and still get an A for the semester. Middle schools were given the option of making semester finals worth 20 percent of a semester grade starting this year, Martinez said, and about half of the campuses immediately toughened their standards.

The men also want to give the district’s best students a path to high school graduation in three years, while allowing struggling students to take a fifth year of classes, if they need it.

Lest you think Jones and Martinez were simply telling us what we wanted to hear, Jones said he very much wants to increase school funding. But he said he would have to make the district more accountable and open before he pushes for more tax money.

There were a lot of broad brush strokes in Monday’s conversation. Some campuses have higher bars than others. Some need much less severe institutional makeovers. Jones acknowledged some immediate successes, such as Keller Elementary, where teachers and students are putting in the extra work necessary to catch up.

Jones knows he’s asking a lot — from parents, teachers and the School Board. He knows he faces an enormous political challenge in convincing everyone we can do so much better if we only try.

“When I started this,” Jones said, “I looked at the board members and I said the community may throw us all out, or they’ll say, ‘We own our schools. How can we help you?’ Thank goodness, so far, it’s been the latter.”

As it should be.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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