“It’s all about the kids.” The more I heard teachers and leaders speak those five simple words, the more I knew I was in the right place to witness the power of a single school to change the lives of its students and provide hope to a community.
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of visiting with Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Principal Neddy Alvarez and her dedicated staff at Western High School, located in the Clark County School District, in Las Vegas. With help from a three-year, $2.5 million School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the U.S. Department of Education, the school has seen improvements in student achievement and in the number of students who are on track to graduate on time. With support from district leadership, in the first year of implementing their SIG grant, the school reports it has increased the number freshmen who are on track to graduate from 60 percent in 2010-11 to 80 percent so far in 2011-12, and is on pace to greatly exceed the school’s goal of increasing by 10 percent the number of seniors who are on track to graduate.
Western’s progress illustrates that change is possible when courageous leaders unleash bold and creative strategies that put the needs of students first. With a newly-awarded SIG grant, Principal Alvarez began implementing the turnaround model, one of four intervention models required under the SIG program. The school undertook a comprehensive effort to completely transform the culture of the school and added a motivated group of talented teachers. Western altered the school day to add opportunities for students to get additional credits toward graduation and created smaller learning communities. As part of these comprehensive changes, the school’s leadership also focused on four core reforms to transform their school.
First, improvements started with a fundamental and deliberate shift in the relationship between the school and students to create a caring atmosphere at the school. Using the “Capturing Kids’ Hearts” strategies, school leadership and teachers began building a trusting environment and students and families described seeing changes aimed at improving student outcomes and ensuring the success of every student. The school day was altered to add more options for students to obtain additional credits toward graduation. Students and teachers were grouped into “houses,” so that smaller cohorts of teachers and counselors could create one-on-one relationships with students. Teachers and counselors said that the altered school day provides time to address student’s individual concerns and develop individualized learning plans to put every student on a path to graduation.