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INTRO: One hundred teachers are in New York today, two from Nevada to received the prestigious Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. Joanne Ho's is one recipient and among teachers at Clark High School have lowered drop out rates - not with more money or legislation - simply through communication and applying known principles to underserved students. KNPR's Ky Plaskon paid a visit to Ho.
PLASKON: Not far from the strip on the west side among cream-colored concrete block walls, Clark High is a seemingly average school. That is until a closer look reveals 9th grade teacher Joanne Ho.
HO: I came here actually from Hawaii, where I was actually teaching in the middle of a pineapple filed. Ha, Ha, Ha.
PLASKON: How is this different from a pineapple field then?
HO: Oh, believe me, there is a big difference, I was in a portable in the middle of a pineapple field and in Hawaii you know the weather is so beautiful, they have open windows, there's no screens and so when they would burn the sugar cane fields all this soot would float into the classroom and I would have red dirt from the pineapple fields. But teaching here in Las Vegas has always been a fulfilling job. But here in Nevada I have found the challenges something where I could use my talents and skills and help those who are really struggling to gain their proficiencies for the proficiency exams.
PLASKON: Nevada is no stranger to struggling students. In 1997 the state was second only to Arizona in the number of dropouts according to the Department of Education. Four years ago, teachers like Ho at Clark High School recognized the dropout problem and took advantage of a federal program called the Breaking Ranks Initiative. Teachers and administrators evaluated the weak points of schools with the hope of developing a program to fix them.
HO: Well, they did a survey and they said to the students why are you dropping out, and we found out that many of them felt very detached from school, in other words they didn't have the kind of connection or bond to the school.
PLASKON: Could that mean that the teachers were out of touch with their students?
HO: Yes they were, and remember this was even before Columbine when they found out that there are students who exist that teachers don't know and friends and family don't know what they are doing and they are quite removed from everyone else."
PLASKON: The answer was simple: Develop what's called a small learning community. It's already being used in district programs like ROTC, magnet schools, academies, and international languages. The programs personalize education and teachers work more closely with students. But Ho and others at Clark decided to apply the same principle to students at serious risk of dropping out. They teamed up, putting the troubled students in the same classes with the same teachers in the same area of the building.
HO: Here at Clark we decided to put the classes closer together. In other words if I wanted my math and science and social studies teachers to know what I was doing with them in English, I needed to talk to them, and normally in a school these departments are separated into different parts of the campus and so we decided to put them right across the hall from each other so they are adjacent so the four of us are just in this small little corner and we have the same kids that move from one class to the other and it helps in reducing truancy because they can't get lost crossing 10 feet to the next class.
PLASKON: And the teachers can discuss the same students.
HO: Oh Yes, in fact in the morning, they will come in and say John had a really rough morning his mom had a heart attack last night and he spent all night in the hospital. I would find that out in my first period and during my five minute passing period I will run across and tell the next teacher, please be careful, Johnny didn't get much sleep and the teacher will go okay, and we will spread the word and Johnny will get so much help from his teachers, only because we were able to do that. And when a students knows that a teacher knows what is going on with him then he is much more responsive to caring about what we care about which is making sure he passes all of his classes in the school.
PLASKON: She says teachers were surprised as attendance rates and grades of the students climbed. Now, Nevada is no longer ranks second in the nation for the number of dropouts. The Department of Education's most recent statistics Nevada is no longer even in the top ten for the number of dropouts. Today, Nevada's dropout rates are within one point of 2001's national average. Meanwhile the state's schools have grown more than twice as fast as any other. Ho says the states fast growth and high transience of students add another level to keeping on top of an already tough job.
HO: And throughout all the years teachers have always had to find a way to meet all the demands that are coming down for kids and thank goodness they are good-hearted people. You can't find more giving people than teachers. Look at out salaries we don't really earn a lot to be here, but definitely we have the heart to be here and I think that is what makes all the difference in the kids is that they know we are committed and when they know that we are committed to their success then they find the success to survive high school."
PLASKON: Ho will accept a 25 - thousand dollar check for her unique work this week, honored by Milken Family Foundation. Part of the purpose is to retain good teachers like her in the profession. She plans to share the money with the other teachers on her team. Next year the same principles she applied will be spread throughout the district for another program called AVID. But AVID will focus on what are called the kids in the middle, students with C and B grades, those capable of performing a college prep path. Ho's being honored for helping those at the bottom.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR