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Desert Companion

Education: Team drama

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Jenga School
Illustration by Chris Morris

This month begins the first full year of a school “reorganization” plan that purports to shift power from central administrators to parents. But does it?

On the first day of school in 1966, every school in New York City opened its doors save for one.

Intermediate School 201, newly built in the heart of Harlem, was meant to be a beacon of racial integration a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in favor of desegregation, drawing students from middle-class white families in the Bronx and across the East River, as well as students of color from nearby working-class enclaves. City officials spent months papering neighborhoods with leaflets advertising the school, a state-of-the-art, air-conditioned building that took up an entire city block.

In the end, the school did not receive a single application from a white family and was on track to open with a student body made up half each of African-American and Puerto Rican students. It was the last straw for many black families in Harlem, still suffering from chronic overcrowding and de facto segregation. Parents shut down the school for 10 days, and the leader of Harlem’s PTA was quoted by The New York Times as demanding, “Either they bring white children in to integrate IS 201 or let the community run the school.”

Support comes from

The shutdown sparked a period of civil unrest and eventually the formation of a handful of community-controlled school districts, including one in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill neighborhood. The experiment ended acrimoniously in 1968, however, after a decision by Ocean Hill parents to transfer out 13 white teachers prompted one of the largest teacher strikes in history.

The episode was the first shot fired in anger in the war to assert control over local schools. In the end, the parents didn’t get their way, but their impulse — to have a direct say in what happens at schools — has survived. In Chicago, for example, parents and staff at schools have met to decide everything from budgets to curriculum since the late 1980s.

And now the idea finds a fresh expression in Las Vegas, where a permanent plan to decentralize the nation’s fifth-largest school district is set to go into full effect this school year (which begins August 14). Originally conceived by the 2015 Legislature’s Republican majority as a “break up” of CCSD into smaller, independent school districts, an idea that quickly ran headfirst into civil rights law, the scaled-down plan retains the original intent of loosening district bureaucrats’ grip on power. Now, elected “school organization teams” comprising parents and staff drive the agenda at each school rather than central administrators. The team can propose topics for discussion and vote on things like the school budget, with principals having the final veto. Duties of the district’s central office now include supporting the decisions made by school communities.

Some historical ironies emerged during the district’s yearlong effort to come up with a plan. On the topic of community control, the loudest voices emerged not from Clark County’s low-income neighborhoods and overcrowded inner-city schools, but from far-flung rural enclaves like Moapa and the neatly spaced suburban homes of Summerlin and Henderson.

Far from the sentiments of radical civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin, whose 1964 boycott of New York City’s public schools paved the way for the discussion of community control, a quote on the website of outspoken parent group Break Free CCSD comes from industrialist Henry Ford: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Also in keeping with Nevada’s status as a foil to wider national norms, the local teachers’ union was one of the proposal’s biggest supporters. Its executive director, John Vellardita, was often seen at meetings rubbing shoulders with top state Republican Michael Roberson, whose key role in the reorganization was an extension of his party’s long-running feud with the school district and its elected board.

If the plan’s rollout has come without the racially charged protests of the past, it hasn’t been without controversy.

Just a few months after the first school organization teams were elected, late last year, parents on the team at Newton Elementary in Henderson packed a meeting of the school board with signs written in red marker, demanding that a well-liked interim principal be hired to run the school instead of an outsider picked by the central office. One angry parent vowed the community would “not stop until that happens.” The campaign came to an abrupt halt moments later, however, when Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky explained that district administrators still had the final say, and that the decision had already been made.

Which has prompted a number of parents to question whether their role on school committees is little more than a rubber stamp. “Parents get pissed off about classroom size and the educational experience their child is having, or if their kid has a (special education plan) that’s not being followed,” says Laurie Saposhnik, who sat on the committee at Rogich Middle School in Summerlin. “Those are the things people really care about, and the (school committee) has absolutely zero influence on that.”

It also doesn’t help to hear rumors, as some have in recent months, that vocal committee members have drawn the ire of principals at some schools, leading some parents to transfer schools and teachers to stick to the classroom to avoid all the drama.

“We hear so many stories from parents that the climate at their particular school has not changed, that they have been the recipient of some pretty heavy bullying,” says Caryne Shea of HOPE for Nevada, a parent advocacy group heavily involved in education circles. Shea said she’s received texts from teachers after school committee meetings saying they had to hold their tongues on certain topics.

“I don’t know how many people will get their concerns addressed if they’re too scared to speak up about it,” Shea says.

At other schools, particularly those in low-income areas, finding parents with the time to attend meetings has been a chore. Some schools operate without a full contingent of parents, and others have been forced to skip elections altogether due to a lack of candidates.

However, some believe these issues could just be growing pains, even Shea and Saposhnik. This will be the plan’s first full year, and the district is busy collecting success stories from school teams. A district “listening tour” held at a handful of schools in May was also designed to suss out parent feedback. The reorganization has also changed how the central office operates, challenging administrators to adopt something more akin to a customer service role for schools.

“It’s a massive culture change that we’re going through at central office,” says Kellie Ballard, an assistant to the chief reorganization official. “There are so many pieces to the implementation of the work, that we come across things we didn’t realize every day.”

For principals, the changes have swelled the daily workload of preparing data and presentations for parents. But it could pay dividends in a transient city like Las Vegas, where the realities of running a school are often lost on parents, especially those who arrive from better-funded districts. After all, can the average working parent ever know the ins and outs of law and federal education regulations as much as a principal with decades of experience?

“It’s been a relief to be able to share that responsibility with my parents,” says Ramona Esparza, a 24-year veteran of CCSD and principal at Valley High School. “Now they are privy to some things that I normally wouldn’t have shared before — (for example) that a pallet of paper costs $1,000.

“When you show them how much paper costs and how much paper we use, parents are like, ‘What?!’” she says.

Left up in the air for now, and possibly for years as the new system takes shape, is the effect the change will have on students. The legislative will to decentralize the school district sprung mostly out of its historically poor performance on standardized tests and its perennial home on the bottom rung of American education rankings.

Will increased parent involvement benefit the classroom? Research on the subject isn’t clear, says UNLV researcher Joseph Morgan.

“Part of the problem with parent involvement is the research has not really defined what quality parental involvement is. We just assume that in Summerlin, all of the parents are involved in their students’ education,” Morgan says. “I don’t know that we can paint with a broad stroke and say this is what parental involvement looks like. Each school is really a contextual place.”

In 2015, Morgan assisted with a survey of more than 1,000 parents at 30 schools near the city’s Downtown core, where high rates of poverty more often than not translate into poor academic performance. The survey was separate from the reorganization, but asked parents to rank what they thought was important for their school.

The main priority? More support for after-school programs.

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