James Preston Oliver, the teacher who provided Nevada Journal with the forensic evidence this report presents, did not come to public education at the usual age or by the usual route.
It’s that fact, no doubt, that made him relatively impervious to the intimidation and retaliation that usually silences Clark County School District teachers upset by higher-ups’ corruption.
Back in Louisiana, when James had finished high school, he’d had no special aspirations, educationally speaking. Even though he’d been an outstanding high-school athlete, after graduation he simply worked in construction.
It took six years before baseball seemed to beckon. Entering double-A minor-league baseball as a rookie, he’d first been in the training camp of the Cincinnati Reds, where he got to meet Pete Rose.
Then the St. Louis Cardinals’ AA organization saw something in James they liked, put him on a modest salary and moved him from the outfield to the pitcher’s mound.
That ended abruptly, however, with James’ first pitching start. Insufficiently warmed up, he tore his rotator cuff.
“Being an unproven rookie, they just released me,” he recalls.
After baseball, James came West, living on a docked sailboat in the Port of Los Angeles. Earning his living selling beauty products, he eventually, in 1998, linked up with John (Joeng) Lee, a South-Korean entrepreneur interested in importing those same beauty products into South Korea. That year, James also met two other individuals in business with Lee.
One was Joe Saraceno, record producer for The Ventures and hundreds of other popular music singles and albums. The other was a widely respected and active educator who advised the duo and would turn out to have a profound impact on James’ life.
After almost two decades teaching history in Indiana, Thomas N. Pappas, PhD, had also moved West, becoming a college dean, and then increasingly working as an advisor to many schools. Not only did he help smaller colleges define their programs and attract students, but he also offered them an increasingly significant international and global focus.
John Lee and Joe Saraceno regularly consulted with Tom Pappas regarding another new line of business Lee’s company had entered: the recruiting and educating of foreign students — largely Korean — for business in America. Pappas also catalyzed their purchase of a Korean-owned school where Pappas sometimes taught.
By 1998, James Oliver had already become Lee’s general manager. In 2010, he also began assisting Pappas at the school, Cal America.
“I began in education as a TA,” or teacher’s aide, Oliver told Nevada Journal. “Because it was a private school, I did not need a BA.”
Many, perhaps most, teachers enter the field of education inspired by memories of an earlier mentor who’d made learning come especially alive.
Tom Pappas was such an educator — a “creative and gifted professor who could inspire and captivate with his witticisms and intellectual prowess,” noted the fulsome obituary following his death at 83 in late 2019.
Not surprisingly, it was Pappas who talked Oliver into returning to school online, to earning his BA there and into setting his own sights on becoming a teacher.
“Dr. Pappas became my mentor,” acknowledges James, who today has a master’s in education with a minor in coaching, and is currently pursuing a second master’s with a minor in English-language learning, or ELL.
Interestingly, as Pappas had gotten to know James, he saw beyond Oliver’s mild ADHD and recognized a valuable strategic intelligence that the ex-ballplayer has always brought to his work, regardless of field.
An example of it elicited by Pappas from James came from the early 1970s. That was when James had coached a summer-league baseball team for youths 18 and under. Long before the Oakland A’s used what would eventually be christened “Moneyball,” James had used some of his own sabermetric-like ideas to great success.
“We went 16-0 and finished third in the nation. In those 16 games a total of only three runs were scored against us in all of the 16 games,” he say, “while we averaged nine runs a game.”
Having watched Oliver work as his TA, Pappas asked him what he might do differently in the classroom.
“I told him I would look up research on normal grade-level learners,” said James, “and compare that with what slow learners did each day.
“And I showed him some examples. That is when he said I had a mindset for education beyond the normal. He said I used good strategy, differentiating it for the individual differences in students.”
That Pappas insight would later be echoed by other teachers in the Clark County School District when Oliver began seeking to move from substitute to fully licensed teacher.
One of the first milestones on Nevada’s Alternate Route to Licensure path is successfully serving as a long-term substitute, and Oliver, in that role, excelled, according to the very closest observers. See especially the reference letters provided by his supervisor during the 2016-17 school year: Third-Grade Chair Michelle Stephenson, and also the teacher for whom he substituted, Claudia Foi — both at Eva M. Wolfe Elementary School.
It had been Tom Pappas who lit the educational fire in Oliver.
In 2010, when serving as a TA for the nationally recognized educator, Oliver accompanied him to Washington, D.C., when Pappas spoke to large staff meetings within the federal Department of Education headquarters building.
His themes there, recalls Oliver, included:
- the importance of not rushing ahead with the instruction of students until they’d actually first learned the original, foundational lessons — i.e., no thoughtless social promotion,
- the need for public-ed reforms regarding bullying,
- the public education’s need to address the issue of disrespect from students, and
- the need for the federal government to address its own role in the general deterioration of public education.
In 2012, as prospective buyers from South Korea began negotiating with John Lee to purchase the private school in Los Angeles and establish it also in Korea, James made plans also and his family bought a home in Las Vegas.
At Christmastime, his mother, Betty Yarbrough, called from North Little Rock, Arkansas, and alerted him that her doctor saw signs of growing dementia. Putting on hold the substituting he was doing in CCSD, James began going back and forth to Arkansas. There, while doing some substitute-teacher work in multiple grades for the North Little Rock School District, he kept in touch with Tom Pappas, while watching over his mother.
As her memory problems increased — forgetting where she was driving and losing track of her money — she gave her son power of attorney over her life.
However, Betty Yarbrough was not your average aging parent. Nor had she had any routine career. A graduate of the FBI’s National Academy, she’d received many specialized trainings over the years — from not only the FBI, but also the U.S. Secret Service — and for many years had been a commissioned criminal investigator.
That had been primarily for the Louisiana Department of Justice, but also, on occasion, for the FBI. More than once, she’d worked undercover on financial-fraud and other probes.
One of those assignments remained especially vivid in her mind.
“She got all her friends together,” James recalls, “and told us that, since she has worked undercover in nursing homes her last wish was: ‘Please don’t let me die in one.’”
Thus, in mid-2014, with the diagnosis now certain, Betty Yarbrough was brought to live in James’ Las Vegas home. Returning to Arkansas, James had — over the course of a vacation-like two weeks — brought her to Nevada by way of a tour of famous old churches throughout the Southwest. It was something she had always wanted to do.
Betty Yarbrough died November 10, 2018.
Less than a month before, however, top administrators at CCSD’s Harriett Treem Elementary School had begun pressuring James to help them falsify student grades.
They were unaware, of course, with whom they were dealing.