LAS VEGAS — Two years ago, parents packed a convention center ballroom to rally around the prospect that a new charter school would bring school choice to downtown Henderson.
Two years later, a change in school administration and a new direction taken by the school board had some of those same parents feeling they’d been the victims of something like a bait and switch.
“We came to Pinecrest (Academy) for something different,” Rebecca Franks told the Pinecrest board during a September 2 board meeting. “We came to Pinecrest because we wanted something better for our kids.”
Franks had previously emailed the school’s new principal and its board chair, expressing concern that children moving into the 5th grade were no longer getting recess or physical education.
“They are not getting the scheduled recess as they would in elementary,” Franks wrote Carrie Buck, the new principal and Candace Friedmann, the board chairperson.
“They are not getting daily P.E. as they should in middle school.” These children, she wrote, are “only 10 years old.”
Board Chair Friedmann thanked Franks for her email but distanced the board from the parents’ concerns. “Ultimately it is [Dr. Buck’s] decision as the administrator of the school to set the schedules,” replied Friedmann.
“You are welcome to attend the board meeting and make comment on September 2 as we always appreciate parent input,” continued Friedmann, responding to Frank’s notice that she planned to speak at the next board meeting. “However, please be aware the comment time is not for a debate — just comment.”
Friedmann — knowingly or unknowingly — was misinforming Franks. The board chair did the same to another parent, who had emailed Friedmann about the car loop that parents have to negotiate when picking up their children.
“I just wanted you to know we do appreciate hearing your concerns,” Friedmann began. “At the public comment time of our meetings,” she continued, “we are not allowed to comment, just listen.
“Those are the rules, so we listen, write it down and see what can be changed.”
Friedmann, however, was repeating a myth — one that members of the CCSD school board, and others, have long advanced.
Nevada law, however, says the exact opposite.
Yet, by misinforming parents, school board members usually can successfully duck confrontations with parents concerned over particular issues.
As the history of CCSD demonstrates, however, that evasion has a cost: Not only does it anger parents in the short term, but it demonstrates to them that their involvement is not really wanted — just their tax dollars.
Any legal cloud over board members responding to parents was put to bed over a generation ago. That was when a more forthcoming set of CCSD trustees brought the question to the Nevada Legislature.
The legislative history shows that, in 1991, legislation was explicitly created, passed and signed into law endorsing verbal exchange between public bodies and the public they serve.
The Pinecrest board — like all other public school boards — is such a public body.
“The reason we want to be able to respond to these members,” said Donald H. Haight, general counsel for the Clark County School District, testifying before the 1991 Nevada Legislature, “is because we have tried this with other boards in this state, and when the board members do not respond to the individuals concerned, it makes the individuals very antagonistic and they are very upset by an absence of response.” (Emphasis added.)
“So what we are asking for is the ability to allow the public to come forward, express their concerns, and get feedback from the board without taking any official action,” Haight continued.
The bill Haight was testifying for, AB 252, was then passed into law, allowing members of Nevada’s public bodies to solicit and respond to expressions of citizen concern.
So it is by Pinecrest board’s own choosing — or ignorance — that they are going down CCSD’s road, refusing to respond to its parents.
A year ago, that statement, seeking to encapsulate the Pinecrest spirit, was posted on the school’s public Facebook page by the initial Pinecrest administration — which has since departed.
Nearly a year later, Franks was telling the board of her concern that Pinecrest was becoming less well-rounded than it had been. Supporting her was a roomful of parents who had answered the call published on a Facebook page, “Rally for Recess at Pinecrest.”
“I don’t think it all has to be drill-down, drill-down, academics,” said Franks. “Let them have a break and let them enjoy school.”
Pinecrest Principal Buck, however, takes vigorous issue with Frank’s characterization of the recess and physical-education situation at the school.
“No other school in the area that I am aware of,” she told Nevada Journal, “has extra recess.” Moreover, the great majority of the school’s parents, Buck added, are extremely pleased with the school, according to their anonymous surveys.
Pinecrest’s goal, she said, differs substantially from that of most public schools.
“Our goal is to be a college prep academy, academics first, and far surpass the local schools in CCSD. If this is the case, why would we be providing more recess time than our local public schools — instead of more rigor and positive outlets, in order to become a true ‘College Prep Academy’?”
Still, said Buck, kindergarteners and the first four grades have an early 15-minute recess at 7:30 a.m., then a scheduled 10-minute recess immediately after lunch, later another 20 minute recess, and — during the day — at least six transitional five-minute breaks between other activities. Fifth through eighth grade students get the early 7:30 - 7:45 a.m. recess, the 10-minute lunch recess and eight transitional five-minute passing periods to get to and from their classes.
Tiecha Ashcroft, daughter of this writer and a parent who had been active in the initial galvanizing of parents, even before the school had secured a location, also addressed the board.
“I chose Pinecrest because I didn’t want my child to be just another test score, just another statistic to raise someone’s star rating,” Ashcroft told the board. Changes being made, she said, make Pinecrest too closely resemble the CCSD schools in the area.
Franks and Ashcroft started the Rally for Recess at Pinecrest Facebook page soon after the school year began. The idea for the page sparked after their own initial questions and comments on the school’s official Facebook site had been censored and deleted by the administration.
Within a week the parents-only page had — and still retains — more than 75 active participants. Buck sees little significance in that number, however, given than Pinecrest has some 920 students and that a personal Facebook page she started, called “Positive Thoughts with Dr. Carrie A. Buck and Corlie Ohl,” gained, she said, 228 people in less than 10 days.
Among other issues concerning Ashcroft and parents supporting her at the September 2 board meeting were newly revised attendance policies the school had sent out to parents.
“It was explained to me that we need to bring up our attendance, in order to achieve a higher star rating,” said Ashcroft during public comment. “I do not feel it is necessary to threaten families of Pinecrest with educational neglect referrals and withheld privileges when [we are] sending our kids to school for 97.5 percent of the school year.”
According to the policy statement sent to parents by Pinecrest administrators, students with excessive absences “will be referred to the administration for possible Educational Neglect referral.” Educational neglect, a term coined by the public-school establishment, appears in Nevada’s child-abuse statutes.
Such neglect is said to occur when a child lacks the education necessary for his or her “well-being … because of the faults or habits of the person responsible for the welfare of the child or the neglect or refusal of the person to provide them when able to do so.”
The policy also said that students with more than five absences per semester — excused or unexcused — “will have limited, or be restricted from, participation in field trips, sports, student performances and/or extra-curricular activities.” (Emphasis added.)
Buck, however, cites similar policies publicly posted on the websites of the Meadows School and the Lake Mead Christian Academy. And she asks, can “you name one team or extra-curricular activity in the state of Nevada, K-16, [that] allows players to play or students able to participate, if they have inadequate grades or attendance?”
Pinecrest’s announced policy goes on to say that a child “struggling academically,” who is absent or tardy more than two days per quarter, “may be retained in the current grade level.”
Ashcroft, however, said the policy that parents received from Pinecrest administrators was not the same attendance policy eventually presented as back-up material for the board’s adoption. And that, despite the board’s insistence that parents follow the policy the board adopted, administrators have yet to send Pinecrest parents a revised attendance policy.
Ashcroft beseeched the board to assure parents that Pinecrest’s “original vision” would not be lost. Pinecrest Board Chair Friedmann, however, simply thanked the parent speakers and immediately moved on to the next agenda item.
Nevada Journal contacted the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority — the state agency which sponsors Pinecrest — to ask about recourse for parents who feel disenfranchised by their charter boards.
While it wouldn’t be wholly inappropriate for a board to ask parents to attempt to resolve issues through school administrators, said Executive Director Patrick Gavin, “any parent should feel that they have a right to bring any issue to the board.”
“At the end of the day — and I will message this to anyone who listens,” said Gavin, “the board is the one that’s accountable.”
Technically, the state’s charter authority only has jurisdiction over statutory transgressions. However, says the executive director, he would review any parental complaint and be sure to follow up with the charter’s board or management company if applicable.
“I think we have a lot of moral suasion,” says Gavin. Other states, he noted, have actual statutory provisions making it explicit parents can go directly to the board for resolution, which he called “just common sense.”
While Ashcroft and Franks saw Pinecrest as showing increasing indifference to parent concerns, Buck told Nevada Journal Friday that actually, in three different areas, the school — “based on Franks' and Ashcroft's input,” had changed its polices.
“We added fifth-grade children to PE who requested it, based on Franks’ concern,” she said, “we redid a zone system in the morning, so students could play safely, and we added additional help at the car loop, based on Ashcroft's ideas.”
Still, Franks pulled her son and placed him in a private school.
“How’s a charter school any different, if we as parents have no input?” she asked Nevada Journal.
Unlike Ashcroft, Franks had not actively been involved with the initial start-up meetings and organization. However, she had signed on, too, when the school was first conceptualized as a Somerset Academy — later becoming Pinecrest Academy.
“When Reggie [Revis] came in,” says Franks, referring to the school’s previous principal, “he said he would never set the kids in front of a computer and just have them on the computer all day.” That statement, says Franks, sealed her choice for Pinecrest.
On the other hand, it was Principal Buck’s philosophy — “sitting these kids at computers and teaching them to test,” says Franks — that, along with the board’s failure to even acknowledge her concerns over recess and PE, sealed her choice to remove her son and leave.
Buck vehemently denies that she holds any such “philosophy,” calling the charge “absolutely not true.” Instead, she says, “my philosophy is based on Kids First for the best education our school can offer. It is outlined in the Instructional Model.”
Like many other parents at Pinecrest, Franks had previously left a CCSD school — one the state had rated 5 Stars — for the newly organizing charter academy. For her child, she indicated, she wanted something other than the Clark County School District status quo — someplace where parent input was valued and was part of the school’s foundation.
Franks said she would never consider a charter school again.
Some members of the Pinecrest board appear to assume that parents won’t leave Pinecrest to return to CCSD — “in spite of whatever problems they might have with the charter school,” in the words of founding board member Randall Walker.
Nevertheless, at least three families have already returned to CCSD this school year.
“Reggie included parents in a big way,” says one parent who has now returned to CCSD. “Before the school was even open, he had parents and teachers in planning meetings discussing how the school would run.
“Even though he knew he was the administrator and he had the final say, I really felt like my input mattered.” And that’s something she no longer feels — not only with Buck, she says, but also with the Pinecrest board.
She asked Nevada Journal for anonymity, fearing that her child might suffer possible retribution from allies of Buck who remain at CCSD.
Still other Pinecrest parents are investigating alternative charter schools.
Ashcroft, for example, has been busy researching and connecting with applicants at other new charter schools. At least two schools, she says, have caught her eye. She’s also aware of several other parents who are looking.
In speaking with parents associated with Pinecrest, Nevada Journal has learned of three new charter schools tentatively being organized in older areas of Henderson.
A group of about one dozen Pinecrest parents are working to bring an already existing valley charter to the area, as well as recruiting other parents. Two other groups are considering new schools with different educational philosophies and curricula.
That’s the greatest thing about school choice, say Franks and Ashcroft: “When parents don’t have a voice — they have a choice.”
Editor's note: The initial version of this story failed to include notice that Tiecha Ashcroft is the writer's daughter. By the editor’s oversight, that fact was not deemed germane, as both the editor and the writer were focused on the evidence that dysfunctional CCSD patterns of board behavior appeared to be migrating into Nevada’s charter-school community. Belatedly, we recognized that the amount of space given to the departing parents’ views required more balance. Thus the article's subsequent revisions.
Karen Gray is a reporter/researcher with Nevada Journal. Steven Miller is Nevada Journal’s managing editor. For more in-depth reporting, visit nevadajournal.com and npri.org.