Vegas charter school seeks to meet dire need
LAS VEGAS — For English-language-learner high school students in Clark County, a new private commitment to the New America School-Vegas could not come at a more critical time.
Even though the Clark County School District is scheduled to receive almost $40 million from the state for ELL programming over the next biennium, none of it is going to the ELL needs of high school students.
Moreover, says Mike Barton, chief student achievement officer for CCSD, the district’s current ELL graduation initiative — focused on summer programs, credit retrieval and high school seniors, and funded by federal Title III dollars — is about to change.
“Instead of focusing on seniors,” Barton told Nevada Journal, “we’re really concerned about the eighth- to ninth-grade transition. We’re finding that we’re losing a lot of our ELL students when going from eighth to ninth grade.”
Under state Senate Bill 504 — passed by Nevada lawmakers this spring and signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval — the Clark County School District will receive $19,710,500 in each of the next two years for “a system of comprehensive support for ELL students in the early grades.”
The bill’s language requires the board of trustees in the Clark and Washoe county school districts to identify the elementary schools that have the highest percentage of kindergarten through third-grade pupils with limited English proficiency and lowest academic performance.
Those schools, designated “Zoom” schools, must allocate their appropriated funds to:
- Provide pre-kindergarten programs free of charge;
- Expand full-day kindergarten classes;
- Operate reading skills centers; and
- Provide, free of charge, a summer academy or an intersession academy for those schools that do not operate on a traditional school calendar.
The Clark County School District has designated 14 elementary schools as Zoom schools.
At CCSD, says Barton, the new English-language-learner conversation under Title III is to identify potential future dropouts through assessments in middle school. That data, he says, could be used to develop student intervention plans and facilitate “wraparound” services if necessary.
Last year, the school district received $6,528,300 in Title III funding. Those dollars, says Barton, are used district-wide to fund the district’s English-language-learner programs and initiatives. The funds are also used for student assessment, teacher training and professional development.
The district plan also calls for creating better teachers through candid conversation, training and ensuring that the best strategies are used inside the classroom.
In the past, Barton acknowledges, district follow-up was minimal and top administrators failed to hold schools accountable. Highly effective classroom strategies used at the elementary level need to be used more at the high-school level, he says.
“Sometimes in high school,” explains Barton, “you have teachers who elect to stand up in front of the class and deliver that whole time. It’s not the best thing for an ELL learner. They need to have opportunity to speak and develop their vocabulary.”
The result, he says, is that a lot of kids are still in the English-language-learning program in high school, and they become the district’s potential dropouts.
In order to make the most rapid difference, says Barton, the district wants a training model which first focuses on schools that have the highest number of long-term English language learners, then works outwards to the whole district.
The district plans to concentrate its initial efforts at Von Tobel Middle School.
According to Miriam Benitez, director of CCSD’s English-language-learner program, it is widely accepted theory in language acquisition that a student may take four to seven years to attain English language proficiency.
Clark County’s latest publicly available Annual Level Group Coding report — the December 2011 report — indicates the school district had at that time 9,669 ELL students who had been in the district’s English-language-learner program for six or more years.
Sunrise Mountain High School, Von Tobel Middle School, Rancho and Desert Pines high schools and Monaco Middle School had the most ELL students with six or more years in the program — reporting 303, 301, 291, 290 and 270 students, respectively.
Thousands of Nevada English language learners fail to graduate every year, according to data from the Nevada Department of Education and CCSD.
Last year alone, Clark County reported more than 2,200 students identified as English language learners as credit deficient. In 2012, the ELL graduation rate for CCSD was a mere 23 percent with 2,069 ELL students failing to earn a high-school diploma.
Thus, as thousands of ELL students fail to graduate every year and state lawmakers and local school districts shift focus away from high schools, the role of ELL-focused academies such as New America School becomes even more critical for high school students who are not proficient in English.
If it succeeds financially, New America School-Las Vegas will be part of a network of schools founded in 2004 in the Denver metropolitan area. There, the network has three campuses.
According to the New America School system’s data for the 2012-13 school year, 71.7 percent of NAS students were English Language Learners. Coming from 39 countries, nearly 50 percent of the students were immigrants. Most — 62.2 percent of New America School-Colorado’s student body — consisted of students who had dropped out of the traditional school system.
Collectively, 97.7 percent of Colorado’s NAS student body is considered high-risk. Nearly three-fourths of the student population identifies with at least two at-risk factors.
New America reports a 59 percent Core subject pass-rate in Colorado. Sixty-eight percent of students earned four or more credits last year; 55 percent earned five or more credits. Six credits a year is a standard high school course load.
Collectively, NAS reports 54 percent of the students who enrolled in Colorado’s campuses after the state’s official enrollment period in 2012 completed the school year and earned credits. That number increased to 65 percent in the 2013 school year.
According to Colorado’s 2012 Alternative Education Campus School Performance Framework reports for New America Schools, 60-89 percent of the students at each NAS campus advanced at least one grade level in reading, math and language arts.
In 2013, 202 students graduated from Colorado’s New America Schools.
“These are students,” says Larry Mason, president of the Las Vegas NAS governing board and former Clark County School District school board trustee, “who without New America School would have remained unserved.” They would have transitioned into adulthood lacking English proficiency and without an education.
If New America School-Las Vegas doesn’t get off the ground, says Dominic DiFelice, New America School system’s superintendent in Denver, it would be a travesty.
Las Vegas, he notes, has the fifth-largest school district in North America — which means that a flourishing New America School-Las Vegas could make a difference for thousands of Nevada youth.