New principal set to turn around Wilhelm Elementary

Only nine miles separate Wilhelm and Stanford elementary schools on a map, but that’s as close as the two get on paper.

North Las Vegas’ Wilhelm, a two-star school according to the Nevada Department of Education, ranks in the bottom quarter of elementary schools in the state and was recently recognized as one of three schools in need of an immediate Clark County-sponsored intervention.

Twenty minutes away at five-star-rated Stanford, more than two-thirds of students showed growth in reading and math test scores last year, one of the five highest growth-achievement marks among elementary schools in the county.

That’s a big reason former Stanford principal Debra Jones is headed north this fall, bringing replacements for a third of Wilhelm’s faculty with her.

The move is part of the Clark County School District’s Turnaround Program for underperforming schools, a holdover initiative first implemented two years ago under former Superintendent Dwight Jones.

“The system is pretty simple: We look at at least three years of data to identify those schools most in need of a turnaround,” said Jeff Geihs, academic manager of the school zone. “Then we conduct exhaustive interviews and look for ways to make improvements that treat people in a dignified way.”

Geihs, who oversees 11 such schools around the district, said the program offers “emergency room treatment” to schools lagging in graduation rates and student test scores.

The role of turnaround principals such as Jones, he said, is to treat underperforming schools the way an emergency room doctor would a sick patient: to stabilize symptoms and lay the groundwork for long-term care.

“I look for principals that have proven results,” Geihs said. “Debra Jones knows where each of her youngsters is relative to achievement level. She’d be able to tell you how to fix the structure of a school if it needs fixing.

“When you call a year from now, you’ll see some stellar improvements at Wilhelm.”

But the turnaround process itself, he said, isn’t exactly a 180-degree pivot. It’s more of a three-point U-turn in a semitrailer.

In some cases, half a school’s teachers could be fired or transferred, often replaced by the trusted team of educators and administrators who helped a turnaround principal achieve results in the past.

In every case, Geihs said, the process takes time.

“There is no magic bullet. It’s simply individuals getting in there and getting their hands dirty. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

Jones, who took over at Stanford Elementary in 2007, helped close that school’s achievement gap by 90 percent last year, catching the eyes of Geihs and others with the recent implementation of innovative reading and parent-teacher outreach programs.

Wilhelm is the second school Jones has helmed since getting her teaching degree. She served as a corporate office manager and special education teacher before moving into school administration in 2001.

The 63-year-old’s combination of public and private sector administrative experience seemed to translate into almost immediate improvements at Stanford, which was an underperforming school for seven years before her arrival in 2007.

Jones expects to make similar waves at Wilhelm. A lot will have changed for students set to return to the school Aug. 26, but she’s confident it will be for the better.

“Unfortunately, it’s students at low-performing schools that aren’t getting a lot of the support they need at home,” she said. “So it’s important for us to fill in the skills they’re missing.

“I’m excited because I know it can be done. I have a lot of confidence in that.”

Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter James DeHaven at or 702-477-3839.

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