Disproving the “Failing” Label
Educators and staff at many priority schools have seen their school ranked, labeled and listed on a recurring basis that’s rarely positive. Kit Carson Elementary School is no stranger to that trend.
The school is located in West Las Vegas, Nevada, the state with the highest home foreclosure rate in the country. With an unemployment rate around 14 percent, Las Vegas is among the worst cities to find a job. The Clark County School District, which includes Kit Carson, is the fifth largest in the nation, and among the poorest-performing. The school is on D Street, in an aging neighborhood that has been ranked one of America’s Top 10 most dangerous. Eighty-three percent of the students at Kit Carson qualify for free or reduced lunch.But these challenges haven’t prevented educators and staff at the school from standing strong in the community and leading their students to higher levels of success.
The school received its federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) in 2009 and adopted the turnaround model with the support of the Clark County Education Association (CCEA). One year after implementing the various requirements and programs associated with SIG, Kit Carson met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and demonstrated improvement in every subject area:
- 41 % more students met or exceeded writing standards
- 27 % more students met or exceeded science standards
- 19 % more students met or exceeded math standards
- 14 % more students met or exceeded reading standards
“The stereotypes are there,” said Kit Carson principal Cynthia Marlowe. “But once people come on campus, they get a feel for the students, the parents, and the teachers, then they have a different story.”
A School With Many Labels
Not all of Kit Carson’s labels are bad. The school is an Empowerment School, a magnet school, a SIG school, and an International Baccalaureate Candidate School.
The Clark County Education Association (CCEA) was instrumental in helping the Clark County School District secure SIG funding, through collaboration between district officials, school administrators and educators. “ We feel it’s important to have our voices in the school reform discussions as it’s occurring, not after it happens,” said Ruben Murillo, CCEA president.
The union’s work with the National Education Association’s Priority Schools Campaign has led to Kit Carson also being named an Intensive Support Site for the campaign, with additional resources being offered through NEA programs such as KEYS and ELL trainings. “The Clark County Education Association is involved with NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign because we see it as a bridge between the national, state and local associations,” said Murillo.
CCEA also initiated and bargained for the successful Empowerment School program, now involving 30 schools in the district. Empowerment Schools are designed to improve learning and student performance through increased autonomy and accountability, collaboration between teachers, administrators, students, families and community members, smaller class sizes, a longer school day and year, and more financial support.
Kit Carson became a magnet school this year, with an emphasis on college prep, creative arts and technology. The magnet designation has brought in students from other areas of the school district, expanding opportunities for all students in an area considered largely isolated by race and poverty.
While simultaneously fulfilling requirements for all these programs can be overwhelming at times, educators and staff tackle the challenge with their high-energy levels and positive attitudes.
“The teachers at Kit Carson believe in the school, they believe in the community and the parents,” said Marlowe. “I think that’s the big difference for us. We’re all working together towards one goal to not be that school that’s labeled as an at-risk school that’s failing.”
Professional Educators Making a Difference
Working in a priority school isn’t easy and there’s a lot of stress involved in helping transform a persistently low-achieving school in a bad economy.
“We’re taking on so many new programs right now,” said Pamela Muniz, a second grade teacher at the school. “All of those different elements have different requirements and different things that need to be posted in the classroom, so it’s been a challenge. We put a lot more into it than I ever have in my teaching career.”
The school day at Kit Carson is 49 minutes longer than the traditional day. Teachers meet weekly for structured planning time as well as for their professional learning communities. Staff participated in the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program authorized training in addition to dozens of hours spent in job-embedded professional development sessions.
“You have bring in your past experiences and then be flexible enough to make changes to fit the turnaround school requirements,” said Jonalene Ly, a first grade teacher at Kit Carson who joined the staff two years ago. “It’s a lot of work. We have tons of trainings, but as teachers we need to be more formal about our methods and curriculum.”
The curriculum goes beyond reading and math tests at Kit Carson. Students have the opportunity to learn Chinese, work with new technologies, explore carefully aligned social studies and science concepts, and use their creativity in art and music. With a mission to produce internationally minded life-long learners, staff at Kit Carson also focuses on teaching respect, empathy and the value of diversity.
“We’re moving towards a curriculum that’s inquiry based, which is student driven learning,” said Muniz. “They’re asking the questions, they’re coming to us with their wanderings, which I know from my past teaching experience is what really drives their learning.”
Many of the staff at Kit Carson not only lead their classrooms during the day, they lead the afterschool activities, ranging from tutoring and additional Chinese classes to martial arts and Zumba. It’s not unusual to see staff still working at 7 p.m. on any given school night.
“We are all very excited about making the students the best students they can be,” said fifth grade teacher Michael Lang. “We’ve set the blueprint for a great, great, great school here.”
Tackling the Poverty Factor
Part of being a great school is identifying the needs of the students and doing what it takes to help meet those needs. At a school like Kit Carson, those needs are often fundamental like food and healthcare.
To provide an environment in which students can learn comfortably, Kit Carson has an emergency food pantry, a school supply closet, and a closet with donated backpacks, shoes, and clothing items ranging from sweatshirts to underwear.
Every Friday, a weekend’s supply of food is left discretely outside classroom doors in backpacks for students in need to pick up. Because of the school’s culture of respect and empathy, nobody gets made fun of for picking up a backpack.
“It’s like a family,” said Elsa Flores, a parent of a Kit Carson student. “The teachers are asking what we need, what the kids need, and they help us with everything.”
Kit Carson has had success in recruiting community partners to help provide services for students and their families. Big Smiles dental company set up shop at the school and took x-rays, fixed fillings and cleaned teeth for students without dental insurance. A local ophthalmologist donates glasses to the students.
Lowes, Walmart and Victoria’s Secret all donate school supplies and clothing. The Three Square Food Bank donates food for the emergency food pantry.
This work is partly facilitated by the full time, on site coordinator from Communities in Schools, Brandon Irvin. He specializes in connecting families and students with community resources.
“Students can be thrown off track because of things that may be going on at home or things that are hampering them,” said Irvin. “They might be a student who has the same outfit to wear to school everyday. Providing them with extra clothes gives them more confidence and they won’t have to feel ashamed to come to school. It can go a long way.”
Getting Families Involved
Oneta Christian works closely with Irvin to help provide students and their families with resources to help them be better learners. She is the school’s project facilitator in the Parent Resource Center, a position funded by SIG, where any day of the week, from 7 AM to long after the school day ends, parents can be found helping out or learning themselves.
With Principal Marlowe and Christian first started at Kit Carson, family involvement at the school was low. So Christian made a point to stand on the sidewalk in the mornings and after school to greet parents and personally invite them to the Parent Resource Center.
Last year, 98 percent of the parents participated in parent/teacher conferences.
“The key is to make parents feel like it’s their school too, not just ours,” said Christian.
Now there are parents making copies for teachers, sharpening pencils, cutting out papers, as well as going into the classroom to help students with their reading, check papers, whatever the teachers need them to do.
Julia Ryan has a first grader and third grader at Kit Carson, and is the president of the Parent Committee. “The teachers are very involved,” said Ryan. “They are here above and beyond for these children, and it’s really exciting to see that. One of the reasons I put myself on the Parent Committee is because I see the dedication they have for our children and I want to be part of that.”
In addition to helping staff, parents can also take classes in the Parent Resource Center. Kit Carson offers adult ESL classes for family members afterschool, anger management classes, and computer classes. For the monthly parent meeting, Christian brings in outside agencies to share information with services they have available to help the families.
Through a partnership with the Las Vegas Urban League, the school hosts a Read and Rise class, where parents get information about child development and learn how to help their child read at home.
“Our program helps parents engage their children at home to make reading more fun, to motivate their kids to want to read and to help them get into a habit of reading every day,” said Charles Redmon, the Urban League partner at Kit Carson.
Through collaboration amongst the highly professional staff, the administrators, families and community partners, Kit Carson has become a bright spot in an area that desperately needed one.
“I really believe that Kit Carson is becoming a community hub in a sense,” said Muniz.