LAS VEGAS — In a state where thousands of public school English-language-learner students fall out of the system every year, a charter school dedicated to those students’ English acquisition, credit retrieval and graduation would seem sure to thrive.

But for one such charter school in Nevada, New America School-Las Vegas, board members aren’t focused on how to grow or expand the school.

Instead, the question of the day is: “How do we keep from shutting our doors — even before they open?”

It’s Nevada’s challenge with English-language-learner students that led a group of concerned community members to propose a charter high school with a unique mission. Its focus: Clark County students at risk of not graduating, or who have already dropped out of school.

“Nevada public schools continue to have the lowest graduation rate in the country,” says Walt Rulffes, former Clark County School District superintendent and an NAS board member.

“The large population of students who are not proficient in the English language contributes heavily to not only a large dropout rate, but also to the achievement gap that exists in CCSD,” he says. “The English-language-learner issue is among the top challenges” facing the district.

According to CCSD data, the district graduated 621 students in 2012 who were identified as English-language learners. That’s a mere 23 percent. Of that same class, 2,069 ELL students did not finish school.

Nevada’s statewide numbers are roughly similar. For the class of 2011, according to the state Department of Education, 1,100 of Nevada’s 3,795 English-learner students graduated that year, while 2,695 ELL students failed to graduate.  That’s a statewide ELL graduation rate of 29 percent.

In Nevada, students who are credit deficient and remain in school are counted in the cohort and calculated as dropouts.  ELL students who complete all credit requirements for graduation, but fail one or more of the required state proficiency assessments, earning a Certificate of Attendance instead of a diploma, are also counted in the cohort totals.

Working with various data, Jonathan Gibson, from the Office of Educational Opportunity for the Nevada Department of Education, projects a “greater than 70 percent ELL graduation rate state-wide if all ELL students receiving Certificates of Attendance were to have passed the proficiency tests and accomplished a diploma.”

Clark County School District statistics currently show more than 2,200 ELL students as credit deficient. And with less than one month left in the 2013 school year, thousands more students are about to be officially recognized as having fallen away.

It’s precisely this pattern that New America School-Las Vegas board members hope to change.

The New America School system, with campuses in Colorado and New Mexico, is a set of charter schools entirely dedicated to English learners who want to earn diplomas.

“The traditional public schools are letting a lot of kids down for various reasons” says Dominic DiFelice, the system’s superintendent, based in Denver, “but when you can bring in a school that is entirely focused on helping second-language learners, who are graduating, to get a diploma — then you are doing a great service.”

New America is not a traditional charter school. The students typically enrolled are those whose needs have not been met by traditional high schools, or who are already deemed dropouts because they cannot be successful alongside other students. Others may come off the streets. Some are young parents, juveniles with criminal records or 17- and 18-years-olds with only four or five credits.

For many of the students, such problems are compounded by limited English proficiency.

“If you’re knocking on a door of one of these traditional high schools in the area and you’ve got four or five credits and you’re an English-language learner, the question is,” says DiFelice, “how ready is the school to receive you and then do what it needs to do to catch you up so that you can graduate on time?”

The thousands of ELL students not graduating in the classes of 2011 and 2012, alone, demonstrate that Nevada’s traditional schools don’t meet the challenge of these students.

Currently, in Carson City, some lawmakers are working with public-school administrators and union officials to use the schools’ chronic failure with ELL students as justification for bills to squeeze more money out of Nevada taxpayers.

Yet the proponents have no new plan to offer.

“We don’t have a district strategy for ELL and language acquisition,” former superintendent Dwight Jones told the CCSD school board last fall, explaining why he’d removed all ELL specialists from district schools.

“So, just putting those people out there at a tremendous cost is not yielding the result,” he continued.

Simply deploying ELL specialists back to the classrooms without a clear structure of what their job is, how they’re going to be accountable and how the district can actually show achievement, Jones told trustees, will not result in achievement.

At some point, he said, the district will send out clear expectations and benchmarks, and trustees will be able to see whether “that resource — which is an expensive resource — is actually yielding a result, or not. And, if not, why not?”

When Nevada Journal recently requested a copy of the district’s new strategy and benchmarks, as discussed by Jones, plus an update on the status of ELL specialists, CCSD Chief Communications Officer Amanda Fulkerson only responded with what she termed “a basic fly-over” on ELL topics.

The district, wrote Fulkerson in her response, “refuses to ignore inequity and has taken a hard look at the uncomfortable topic of inequality.” District leadership, she continued, “noted a trend of low performance in the ELL population and has set out to ensure English-language learners start hitting the benchmarks for success.”

Fulkerson did not say what those benchmarks for success are. But she applauded her employer for putting together the data, enlisting experts and taking “a look at the reality.” Regarding any expert findings or recommendations, however, she made no mention.

Some efforts by the district Fulkerson did note included offering Spanish to school police working in high Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, informing the community about headsets available at school-board meetings so Spanish speakers “are engaging in the decision making process” and the creation of a top-level administrative position to oversee how resources are utilized in ELL and implement proven strategies. Fulkerson did not note what those proven strategies were.

“It's a change in culture — not a onetime program,” she said.

Classroom teachers tell Nevada Journal that — even in schools with a 90 percent ELL population — they are not being taught Spanish. In fact, one elementary school teacher says the Rosetta Stone program used by staff at her school was taken away.

Fulkerson also highlighted the district’s commitment to increased per-pupil funding for ELL students and making pre-K and full-day kindergarten a top priority.

“We know having kids ‘ready by entry’ gives them a much better chance of hitting those important benchmarks for success,” said Fulkerson.  “The District supports the Governor's plan to send increased per pupil funding to high English-language-learner schools. It shows he's making this a priority and that's positive.”

Larry Mason, former CCSD school board trustee and one of the organizers of the local NAS governing board, said, after visiting the NAS campus in Denver, that he’s absolutely convinced New America School will meet vital needs in the Las Vegas community.

“It was not just Latino kids,” he said last year. “These kids were from Malaysia, South Africa — all over the world—and they were learning.”

Mason doesn’t duck the fact that he was a trustee when the district saw rapid decline in its graduation rate. And he acknowledges he wasn’t able to persuade enough trustees to pass a measure to improve education for ELL students. 

“But here,” he says, referencing New America School-Las Vegas, “we all have the same focus.”

Javier Trujillo, chairman of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce, former CCSD teacher and now chairman of the New America School-Las Vegas governing board, admits he and Mason were not proponents of charter schools four or five years ago.

“Once we’re operational,” says Trujillo, “we’re essentially our own school district, so to speak.”  And that, say Trujillo and Mason, is the biggest difference.

Each CCSD trustee serves different demographic and constituency needs and must look at “the whole.”  As a charter school, New America board members are focused on the same specific targeted student needs.  

Meanwhile, as politics rage in Carson City over more money for local school districts, New America struggles to raise $300,000 to open its doors and implement its plan.

Because almost the entire student population at New America School is comprised of English-language learners, the school model offers an intensive English program for four hours a day, four days a week. Students not proficient in English are placed in the Newcomer Center program until they are ready for academic classes.

Some students, says DiFelice, may attend the Newcomer Center an entire year. Students might also pick up courses requiring less English intensity, such as art, music, PE or other electives.

“Not only is math tough,” he explains, describing New America’s philosophy, “but it’s doubly tough if you don’t speak the language. We take that into perspective.”

New America School’s operational hours are not typical: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday — allowing students attending class the flexibility that many need. The proposed bell schedule offers 11 class periods, to provide credit-deficient students with ample opportunity to catch up.

“We have a lot of students who will work, almost full time, [to support] their young kids,” says DiFelice. “They don’t live at home and they are trying to make-do. What this allows them to do is go to work and go to school.”

About one-third of NAS students attend the night-school program.

In its opening year, New America School-Las Vegas anticipates serving 185 students, eventually growing to a student body of 450.

New America School hit financial obstacles last fall when the governing board decided it had to postpone opening the school.

“I think right now, even if we had money available,” DiFelice advised NAS board members last November, “I don’t think we could have a school open in the kind of time it takes to do the tentative improvement and find a facility.”  Despite a financial commitment to fund a facility, New America had no money to cover start-up costs, such as personnel, textbooks and equipment.

“We need to hire a principal three or four months out,” explained DiFelice, “We need to hire a head secretary.  We need to get a trailer to house a registration center.  We need textbooks….”  All this, says DiFelice, must occur long before any per-pupil funding comes into the school.

If New America’s governing board does not raise $300,000 by August to cover these necessary initial expenses, board members must contemplate shutting the doors altogether.

“Having start-up funds available to a charter school is critical,” says Steve Canavero, director of Nevada’s State Charter School Authority. “It becomes a challenge when we start talking, ‘how do we gain access to it?’”

Nevada has a negative reputation for its historical treatment of charter schools. No public funding assists charter schools to get off the ground, or — once alive — to improve. Many Nevada school boards, including Clark County’s, continue a long-standing moratorium on charter-school sponsorship. They continue pushing, instead, for more funding to subsidize their traditional, and failing, one-size-fits-all approach to schooling.

In his 2013-15 biennial budget, Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed a one-time appropriation of $750,000 to establish a competitive, low-interest loan program to assist new charter schools. However, even this small appropriation proposal is facing the legislative ax.

At the federal level, the 1998 Charter School Expansion Act created a competitive grant available to states, for local distribution, to assist with the initial planning, program design and implementation of new charter schools. Of the $1.239 billion granted to states since 2003, Nevada has received only one award — $7.5 million in 2005.

In New Mexico, where New America School-Albuquerque received $850,000 in start-up funds from the state, the state’s department of education, over the past 10 years, has received more than $40 million from the federal government to help foster New Mexico charter schools.

With more than a billion dollars invested, says Canavero, the federal government is now more focused on the return on its investment.

“That [federal] charter-school program has become increasingly competitive,” Canavero explains.  “With more states applying and more states way ahead of where we are, like Florida and North Carolina, these guys are getting funded year after year.  And we’re just trying to get funded again.”

Recognizing the tremendous need fulfilled by New America School, former U.S. Congressman Frank Riggs, the principal author of the 1998 federal legislation, recently offered to consult with the New America School network, on a volunteer basis, to help get the Las Vegas campus up and running.

“It’s hard to get off the ground when you have to attract seed money,” Riggs told Nevada Journal, “whether it’s federal dollars or private dollars.”

New America board members are optimistic that the doors will finally open for hundreds of valley youth in 2014.

According to recent board discussions, the Raza Development Fund, a community-development financial institute committed to providing opportunities to Latino families and communities, has expressed interest in financing a low-interest loan with a revolving access to capital. Board members report positive ongoing conversations with Silver State industry leaders and private philanthropic donors.

People like to see, touch and feel, what they are investing in, DiFelice told Nevada Journal last week.  Without a building, donors are “working on faith,” he says.  While the school may be dependent on the good-will of the community, DiFelice is completely optimistic, saying, “This is Las Vegas.” 

The overarching point to take from New America’s plight, says Riggs, is that “Nevada needs to pursue adequate funding to truly become a pro-charter school state — and it has a long way to go.”

Karen Gray is a reporter/researcher with Nevada Journal. For more in-depth reporting visit http://nevadajournal.com and http://npri.org.