CCSD’s Westside story

At another board meeting in December 2010, Westside community activist Debra Jackson stormed out in an ostentatious and disgusted protest. The reason? The school board was again threatening to have school police eject Lewis.

Moreover, at that same meeting, a large group of Westside parents and advocates — present to express concern over the lack of community input allowed by the district into its Westside-schools plan — got up from their seats and surrounded Lewis, to block her removal by police.

You may wonder, “What’s going on in Nevada’s largest school district — that its board meetings so regularly descend into fracas? What is it the school board does, if anything, that convinces minority parents and other activists from the historically African-American Westside community that to actually be heard, they must be disruptive?”

There are good answers to those questions, but they’re not widely known. Grasping them requires a detour into the 40-year history of relations between the Westside community and the Clark County School District — a 40-year history, in the view of many Westsiders, of rank injustice.

CCSD’s tumultuous history with West Las Vegas includes discrimination lawsuits, riots, school boycotts, court-identified official segregation, forced busing and many broken and unfulfilled promises.

In a 1968 lawsuit, for example, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Clark County’s “bifurcated school policy” was “principally responsible for the aggravation of racial segregation in the elementary schools.”

As a result, the district was ordered by the courts to implement what CCSD called its Sixth Grade Center Plan. The plan reconstituted West Las Vegas elementary schools as sixth-grade learning centers, but mandated that the Westside’s younger children — those in grades one through five — be bussed out of their neighborhoods to elementary schools across the valley. At the same time, a proportionate number of white sixth graders were required to be bused into West Las Vegas, to attend the sixth-grade centers.

The plan was met with immense opposition.  Clark County schools were boycotted by significant numbers from both races. Many white families transferred their children to private schools.  Members of the black community, already in litigation, appealed the plan in court, saying it placed a disproportionate burden on black students. Meanwhile, Clark County officials defended the plan, claiming it was “based upon sound educational principles and does not burden black students disproportionately.”

Ultimately, the 9th Circuit ruled that the record before the court was insufficient to allow it to determine whether the plan placed a disproportionate burden on West Las Vegas students. In the absence of such a record, the judges allowed the plan to be implemented.

Thus, under Clark County’s desegregation design, the children of West Las Vegas were loaded onto school busses every day and bused out of their neighborhoods for 11 of their 12 years of school.

By the early 1990s, after two decades of forced busing, Clark County was again defending racially charged lawsuits. They came not only from parents, but also from black educators. Parents protesting busing again filled school-board meetings.

Not unlike many school districts across the country at the time, Clark County responded with a shift in its desegregation focus. It moved away from student assignment (busing) to achieve integration, toward a focus on access, equity and the academic performance of minority students — regardless of a school’s racial balance.

Collaborating with West Las Vegas residents and leaders, the Clark County school board adopted its current desegregation plan, called the Prime Six plan in 1992, which the board amended in 1994. It was geared to stop the busing of white sixth graders, minimize the busing of black elementary students and to improve educational opportunities for all students.

Some key components of Prime Six included:

1)  returning the sixth-grade centers to elementary schools;
2)  continued school zoning of Westside first-through-fifth graders to other “assigned” schools, but allowing students the option to voluntarily attend the new reconstituted “Prime Six” elementary schools;
3)  additional on-site and central-office staff and resources;
4)  additional Westside teacher training;
5)  parent-engagement activities and education on available school choices; and
6)  a biennial evaluation and public report on Prime Six student performance and equity factors, including a plan of action for identified areas that needed improvement.

Dr. Jeanne Weiler, a research associate at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, in a 1998 report called Recent Changes in School Desegregation, discussed trends toward resegregation, while reviewing various studies of the 1990s. The report prominently cited the conclusion of Dr. Gary Orfield that many urban school districts were moving toward increasing resegregation as students are returned to neighborhood schools.

Both Weiler and Orfield, who is now Clark County’s commissioned expert, noted that students who left integrated middle-class schools often returned to neighborhood schools that were inferior, poverty-stricken and functionally segregated.

“High poverty schools,” observed Weiler, “have generally lower levels of educational performance and are less likely to prepare students for college than more affluent schools.” Often, she noted, additional funding for school facilities and programs were promised but not delivered. And in many large urban districts, even with extra funding, schools were unable to transform as they struggled with community problems such as poverty and joblessness.

Former Nevada assemblyman and Prime Six school namesake Wendell Williams, who was CCSD’s community coordinator for the district’s new Prime Six department, says a full commitment to the plan never existed. When he was coordinator, says Williams, school liaisons at several Prime Six schools were used as “gofers,” monitoring hallways and supervising lunchrooms and playgrounds rather than performing actual liaison tasks. Around 1995 or so, when Williams left CCSD, the Prime Six department was closed down, he says.

Today, the Clark County School District does not dispute that it failed to fully implement the Prime Six plan — although now-departed CCSD superintendent Walt Rulffes preferred to describe the failure as “implementation” having “waned” over the years.

Thus, many observers are not surprised that, nearly 20 years after the Prime Six plan was agreed to, Clark County again faces contentious school-board meetings, civil rights complaints and a frustrated and exasperated West Las Vegas community.

Revealingly, the school district sees its legal position as seriously vulnerable. According to David Roddy, public information specialist for CCSD, the 2009 University of California, Los Angeles report on the Prime Six situation was commissioned by CCSD “in anticipation of possible legal action.”

The study — by Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, and his colleagues — said the West Las Vegas Prime Six schools (Booker, Carson, Fitzgerald, Kelly, McCall and Wendell Williams) are currently “doubly segregated by race and poverty.”  This type of isolation is “linked to achievement scores seriously behind the district’s average performance both for total enrollment and for black and Latino students.”

Other findings in the report confirmed what West Las Vegas residents have been saying for years — that “students enrolled in Prime Six schools perform well below the District average on math and reading tests,” and that “[t]eachers at Prime Six schools average less years of experience than the District average.” According to study data, 48 percent have less than three years experience in the district.

Orfield points out that school quality is significantly more important for low-income and minority children, since fewer educational resources are available to them at home and in the community. Likewise, access to good teachers is more important. Indeed, experienced, well-trained teachers are the most important resource a school possesses, wrote Orfield.

In documents filed with the federal government, CCSD acknowledged that fewer Prime Six teachers met the federal “highly qualified” standard than did other district teachers.

“This means that Prime Six teachers are 40 percent less likely to be highly qualified,” wrote officials in their 2009 grant application for federal TASAP — Technical Assistance for School Assignment Plans — money.  

The choices made by CCSD “in the Prime Six area actually slightly increase the race and poverty segregation for the students there, rather than produce opportunities for those most in need,” wrote Orfield.

Despite better school performance available at assigned schools and magnet schools, he noted, a great majority of the community’s impoverished students remain at their Prime Six schools — while many of the assigned schools enroll no assigned students.  In the 2007-08 school year, 100 percent of the Prime Six schools’ enrolled students qualified for federal Free and Reduced Lunch subsidies. Yet, noted Orfield, parents tend to choose higher-achieving schools for their children when they’ve been informed about the schools’ academic standings.

“Research shows that such enrollment patterns [as in Prime Six] tend to reflect the lack of information and understanding of the choice systems by many parents living in poverty,” wrote Orfield.

Any plan to improve Prime Six schools must involve community input, says the University of Illinois’ Dr. William Trent, another consultant hired by CCSD.  When Orfield’s study was released in August 2009, pointed remarks by Trent admonished school-board trustees and district officials. He noted that many school districts that have situations like Prime Six merely make a pretense of conversation with the communities but do no real listening.  A sincere effort at addressing the Prime Six issues “means taking seriously the perspectives that the host of people who are aggrieved bring to the table,” he said.

In rebuilding bridges to communities where needs have not been addressed for decades, said Trent, “it’s very important to understand the infringement upon trust” that occurred.

“It will take a very serious commitment” to addressing the community’s real issues and doing it collaboratively, he said.

Notwithstanding the advice from its own hired expert, the Clark County School District proceeded to create its plans for the Westside without community input — twice.

The first was pulled from the agenda in September 2009.  A second plan was released and approved by the board as a “proposal” at the December 2010 school-board meeting, the same meeting Jackson left in protest.

Despite Orfield’s conclusion that parents will choose higher-achieving schools once they understand their choices, Clark County’s latest plan actually reduces the number of assigned schools from 41 to 17.

And if that happens, opined Marzette Lewis, those 17 schools will probably be the district’s worst.