These numbers don’t warrant a party

Clark County Superintendent Walt Rulffes is putting his foot down as more than 314,000 kids get ready to start a new school year.

“We’re not going to accept any more that we’re a failing school district,” Rulffes said last week.

As back-to-school pep rallies go, Rulffes could use a bit more rah-rah. Problem is, such sentiments are still hard to find in the nation’s fifth-largest school system.

To be sure, the graduation rate has ticked up an inch and more schools are meeting (not exceeding, but meeting) the low bar of No Child Left Behind.

At a back-to-school news conference last week at one of the bright spots in the district — Kermit Roosevelt Booker Empowerment School — the statistics were spinning by faster than the traffic on nearby Martin Luther King Boulevard.

The dropout rate has dropped again; more students are meeting proficiency in math and reading in grades three through eight; and more kids are passing the math section of the High School Proficiency Exam on the first try.

Statistics like these never show the reality around them.

Improvement on the high school math exam means 44 percent of kids now pass it on the first try. That may indeed be an increase, but my public school taught me any score less than 60 was an F.

The dropout rate might have dropped, but the district still only graduates about 60 percent of kids who enter high school. And the dropout rate doesn’t count anyone who dropped out before ninth grade.

And while more students are meeting some federal proficiency standards (a la No Child), a full 50 percent of the district’s eighth-graders failed the science standards.

The 21st century has largely left the district behind, no matter what it’s calling its curriculum.

On Thursday, Rulffes unveiled a new catch phrase for the community to rally around: “Keep your eye on the cap.”

Cap, you see is this cute little double entendre: a graduation mortar board and an acronym for Climate, Academics and Participation.

Climate was about improving respect in the schools and for the schools. There was talk about greater rigor in academics. And there was quite a bit of urging that parents get more involved.

Here’s why.

Surveys show parents love their neighborhood school. They love that neighborhood school so much that they don’t even leave the failing institution when given the option.

There are a whopping 34 Title I elementary schools that have been designated as “needs improvement” for long enough to allow the school choice provision of the No Child Left Behind Act to take effect.

In other words, if your kids are at Elaine Wynn, Oran Gragson or Rex Bell (to name just a few), they’re technically being left behind, and you’re allowed to leave the school behind.

But just 3 percent of the kids in these 31 elementary schools and seven middle schools take that option.

“At the school level, parents are really happy with their schools,” Rulffes suggested.

Earlier, as he stressed the “culture” of the schools, Rulffes said: “You go out and talk to the parents, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the academics.”

Or maybe it’s because parents have no real choice.

If a student wanted to leave Bridger, Cashman or Fremont middle (to name just a few), there’d be no bus to haul them elsewhere. Working parents can barely get the kids out the door on their own to walk to school, let alone shuttle them out of the area.

And it doesn’t help any that the district mishandled the mailing of notices to parents in the eligible schools. Instead of sending them the first week of August, many parents didn’t get notice until last week — giving them almost no time to make alternate arrangements by today.

The back-to-school screw-up has resulted in the district extending the deadline for parents to move their kids until this Friday. Way to get things going for the handful who will actually take them up on it.

Obviously, the biggest priority for the school year is having a qualified teacher in every classroom. It’s understandable some things got lost in the massive hiring shuffle.

Rulffes wanted reporters to know the district (as of last Thursday) had just 23 elementary school classrooms without a full-time teacher.

The district’s really focused on filling elementary school rooms. They’ve had successful recruiting drives in Michigan and Ohio, hoping to pick up teachers laid off in Detroit and Cleveland. Maybe now we can be called the Urban Midwest of the West. Opening 10 new schools and hiring 2,000 new teachers for an estimated 11,000 new students is a daunting task.

But that low number of classroom vacancies doesn’t tell half the story, either. Even with the massive hirings, the district was still short 363 classroom teachers (elementary, high school, special education, half-day kindergarten and other specialists). When you throw in other positions that work directly with kids, you’re up to 597 vacancies.

The gem of this new school year is the NW Career and Technical Academy, a training facility for future service workers. The magnet high school should help reduce the dropout rate.

Rulffes should get some credit for trying to take “failing schools” out of the community’s lexicon. It’s part of the run-up to the 2008 bond campaign.

We know Clark County can build schools. Sometimes it can run them. Some kids get out just fine.

Nobody at the last week’s news conference (not even the superintendent for instruction) was able to even guesstimate for me the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college.

Some of us would consider that failing. Eye on the cap, indeed.

Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

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