My first year teaching, during the 2000-2001 school year, was at West Middle School, which was arguably the worst school in Las Vegas. Located in one of the oldest, poorest parts of the city, I remember one staff meeting we had that January, so the police department could brief us on the gang war going on in that neighborhood, which had taken the lives of several people within a mile of the school within the last few months, and which had plenty of ties to kids on campus.
Not surprisingly, West had over a 90% teacher turnover rate each year, and I admit I was one of those who left as soon as I could, bound for greener pastures where I hoped my skills could be more appreciated, and more than a little out of fear and intimidation at what overwhelmed me as a profoundly hopeless situation. I’ve always had mixed feelings about my cynicism, and have secretly hoped for something to prove me wrong.
Now, a glimmer of hope comes. A story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week chronicles the improvements made at West, especially a dramatic increase in passing the state’s proficiency test for this year’s juniors (West is expanding to become a K-12 school).
Things that the article suggests contributed to the improvements are:
- extra per-pupil spending from the school district and federal sources
- class sizes of fewer than 25 students
- an extra hour of instructional time each day (and starting school an hour later)
- after-school and Saturday study sessions, as well as summer sessions
But perhaps the most interesting innovation was this one, which made me take this principal seriously, and with a heaping dollop of respect:
When Barton took over near the end of 2005-06, he kept only 13 of 67 staff members.
“Some were good teachers who were trapped (by circumstances),” he said. “Some didn’t care.”
There are still some things to be skeptical about: is it really feasible to replicate these conditions in other areas? Would that even have same positive results? And will the burgeoning improvements at West be visible across campus in other grade levels, or apparent outside of school and after graduation? After all, the exciting numbers reported in the article are ultimately about fewer than 40 total students, a tiny fraction of what any other school would be focusing on.
I see plenty of wrinkles to iron out, but certainly hope springs eternal. These kids could absolutely be the next Stand and Deliver.