School achievement pledge not just another gimmick

Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky is certainly saying all the right things.

And soon, we’ll be able to find out if he’s doing the right things, too.

In making his “Pledge of Achievement” this week, Skorkowsky isn’t just introducing a new gimmick or a shiny PR campaign designed to get attention. He’s advancing an elaborate, business-like system of goal setting and accountability that will see his performance and that of his top employees judged against concrete, public benchmarks that anybody can see.

Not only that, he’s opening the school district’s budget to a committee of outside experts who are charged with looking for deficiencies. Those experts are NV Energy CEO Michael Yackira, former Station Casinos Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Glenn Christenson, Brent Husson of business education nonprofit Nevada Succeeds, and former Superintendents Brian Cram and Walt Rulffes.

Skorkowsky’s goal: To be able to testify to the 2015 Legislature that every dollar spent by the district is spent pursuing the mission of educating kids. Even so, he doesn’t mince words when he’s asked if Nevada schools need more money than they currently get: “If we’re going to make the funding formula work, we’re going to look at new dollars,” he said.

He’s putting an emphasis on learning English, not just for non-native speakers, but for all kids. While he supports the drive to have every child reading at grade level by the end of third grade, he’s pushing for reading proficiency even earlier, in kindergarten and first and second and grades, so struggling students are identified early and get the help they need. Part of that emphasis is trying for full-day kindergarten for every child in every school, which will cost as much as $50 million statewide, but will pay dividends down the line. (Surveys show students who can’t read at grade level by third grade fall further and further behind, and their chances of succeeding later diminish considerably.)

Another part of the plan is professional development for teachers, so the district can say it’s giving its employees every tool they need to succeed in the classroom. That’s important when it comes to imposing discipline for teachers whose students are still having problems succeeding. He said state-approved procedures for teacher discipline (putting even veteran teachers back on probationary status if they fail to do the job) is proving effective.

But Skorkowsky knows it’s about far more than just holding teachers accountable: An elaborate chart shows specific jobs, specific goals and specific people in the district’s management who are responsible for meeting those goals. There’s no sitting quietly and ducking down in your seat in the back of Mr. Skorkowsky’s classroom; for him, everybody — including him — is in the front row.

And that includes parents, without whom it’s almost impossible for even the best teacher to succeed. Parents used to be partners with teachers in educating and disciplining kids. But today, they’re likely to threaten to sue a teacher or a principal over a discipline problem instead of help fix it.

Skorkowsky is opening up campuses to parents as never before, trying to reach out and bring them into local schools as part of the team. In fact, he’s trying to do that with the entire community. “It’s going to take the entire community to make changes,” Skorkowsky said.

That makes sense, since the entire community benefits from educated kids who are able to graduate and go on to college. Skorkowsky is working with UNLV, the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College to make sure the school district is producing students who can transition seamlessly into higher education. We all benefit when there are kids to do the high-tech jobs that we’re hoping to attract to the state.

The number that haunts Skorkowsky? It’s not the district’s most recent 71.5 percent graduation rate. It’s the remaining 28.5 percent who don’t graduate. “It’s the 28.5 that I’m most worried about,” he says. We all should be. And now, there will be a way for us all to get involved in fixing it.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or

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