Las Vegas Principal Hopes To Beat The Odds

Nevada has the lowest high school graduation rate in the country. But now a multi-million dollar federal grant is helping one district turn its schools around. Host Michel Martin speaks with a principal who spent last Saturday knocking on the doors of students who dropped out, encouraging them to come back to school.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We have our regular Friday features coming up in Faith Matters. We'll talk about a provision in the new health care law that would require employers, including many religious institutions to cover contraception in their employee health plans. We'll hear more about why some religious leaders are outraged about this and why the White House says it will not back down. That's in a few minutes

And the Barbershop guys will be here later on their Super Bowl picks. And we'll also tell you about the NFL's new fashion offerings for the ladies. That's all coming up.

But first, we want to spend some time talking about an issue that President Obama highlighted in his State of the Union address last week, the large number of students who drop out of high school. Nationally, out of every four students who start public high school, one doesn't finish on time or at all. That according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Yesterday, we talked about the situation nationally and in the nation's capital, which is struggling to keep students in school. We met a young woman who had dropped out but has since gone back. But in some places like Nevada, the numbers are particularly grim. That state has the lowest graduation rate in the country - according to federal figures, just 56 percent.

Now a multimillion-dollar federal grant has encouraged one Nevada school district to use tough love to bring drop outs back to class. School officials are calling it the Reclaim Your Future program. And as part of that effort, school officials in Clark County spent last Saturday knocking on the doors of students who had dropped out trying to convince them to come back.

We wanted to hear more about all this, so we have called on Neddy Alvarez. She is the principal of Western High School. And this week she is profiled in the Las Vegas Sun's series on that city's so-called turnaround schools. Also with us is Paul Takahashi. He is an education reporter with the Las Vegas Sun who's been following the district's efforts. And they're both us. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

PAUL TAKAHASHI: Thanks for having us.

NEDDY ALVAREZ: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Neddy Alvarez, I'd like to start with you. Only 43 percent of the students who started your school in 2006 actually graduated with their class in 2010, according to the district's figures. Why do you think that is?

ALVAREZ: There's many reasons that, you know, they drop out. There are reasons - you know, poverty, pregnancy, students not being engaged. They don't see a value, no connection. There's not a value there for them. Some of them have lost of credits in the 9th and 10th grade they lose their credits. They haven't passed their proficiency exams. Then they don't see that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. So, they think that, you know, there's no reason for them to return, so they drop out.

MARTIN: Paul Takahashi, one of the things I learned from your series is that it has not always been this way. In the 2002, 2003 school year, graduation rate in Nevada was 72 percent. But as we said most recently, it was 56 percent. Why - two questions. Why is the - why does Nevada have the lowest graduation rate in the country? And why has the trend gotten worse?

TAKAHASHI: Well, there are many different factors as, you know, Neddy just said. There are, you know, factors of poverty. Las Vegas of course was really wracked hard by this recession. It has the highest unemployment rate in the country. You know, recent numbers came out today for the national level, but we were at least five percentage points higher. You know, Las Vegas is the foreclosure and bankruptcy rate capital in the nation.

And so, there are a lot of different factors here that lead to homelessness among students. You know, that give rise to the things such as crime and drugs and alcohol abuse. And a lot of those things, of course, impact family life. You know, families working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. And so, you've got a lot of students here who might be working to help support their families.

And so, the recession has really hit Las Vegas very hard. Some of those graduation rate numbers, of course, have been inflated over the years as the school districts across the nation look towards a more accurate graduation figure. And so, Las Vegas has actually has had a fairly low graduation rate over the years.

MARTIN: So, in fact, the latest figure - there probably isn't as big of a gap as we're seeing. You're saying that part of it is the previous number was probably inflated before, and this is really a more accurate picture...

TAKAHASHI: Right, exactly.

MARTIN: ...and including all the numbers that you mentioned. So, Neddy Alvarez, as we mentioned, that you recently - along with a number of other school officials and a lot of volunteers - went door to door last Saturday trying to track down students who had dropped out. What were you hoping to accomplish? And do you think you've succeeded?

ALVAREZ: Well, we're trying to reclaim our students, the students that have dropped out and that's the whole purpose of this initiative. And, yes, I believe, you know, once - if it's just one student, it's one more. It's one more that we have at school that we can put them on a program so that they're able to graduate. So, I think it's a very - it's a great initiative that our superintendent, Dwight Jones, and Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez have implemented.

And this past Saturday was the second time around that we've done this. And, you know, the first time was in September, and we were able to claim some. And this time around, we went out not just for the seniors. We were looking at students who had attendance issues. So, we were out knocking on doors and trying to get, you know, speak to the parents. Why isn't your child coming to school? They need to come to school. We want them to graduate.

And giving them different alternatives and having a plan of action for them so that they can see, you know, there are different routes that we have here at school. There are different things that are being implemented so that you can be successful. There's credit-retrieval classes, there's different programs that Clark County has instituted for our students. And I think it's a very positive thing. This is not something that our school district has ever done. This is the first time that we've done this. It was a very positive thing for me to go out and visit with the parents and speak to the parents.

And I know, same with my colleagues who were also out there and the superintendent who was out there visiting homes, it's great to see, you know, their smile on their faces like you care. You really want us to come back? And it's, yes, we want you to come back. You know, we need you at school. It's for your future. There's a reason why you need to graduate.

And I truly believe that some of our students just - and I'm only speaking for Western, you know, my students at Western. And speaking with them, I have students who have stated to me: I don't know why I need a high school diploma. You know, what's the reason? You know, my parents didn't go to school. They haven't attended. And they're being, you know, they have a job and they're doing OK. That's true for some, not for all. And it's changing a whole mindset in a school like ours that's at risk.

MARTIN: Sure.

ALVAREZ: And we have a high, you know, Hispanic population - I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Let me jump in here. Let me jump in here. I'm speaking with Neddy Alvarez. She's the principal of Western High School in Las Vegas. We're talking about efforts to get high school dropouts to come back to school. Principal Alvarez, among other school officials and volunteers, went door to door last weekend to try to persuade students who had dropped out to come back to school. Also with us, Paul Takahashi. He's a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun who's been reporting on efforts to efforts like this.

You know, on this program yesterday, as I mentioned earlier, we talked about high drop-outs rates in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital. WAMU reporter Kavitha Cardoza talked about some of the challenges she sees in the schools that she's covered. I just want to play a short clip from that conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: A lot of times, these children have so much going on in their lives. They either check out, so they are distracted. They put their heads down and go to sleep. Or sometimes, they start arguing with the teacher. So, often when they're out of class, the teachers feel, oh, we can concentrate on the students who are here who really want to learn.

MARTIN: What about that, Principal Alvarez? Have you found that to be true, that in fact there's some mixed signals there that even though the system, you know, of course, teachers want to teach, but that it actually can be harder than many people might think to reintegrate students who've had a lot of time out of the classroom? Do you think that's true?

ALVAREZ: It's very true. It's hard to get students engaged. And, of course, it's a whole mindset that we're changing, especially at Western. And it's having the right people in the right place and everyone, you know, having the common goal. Our goal as educators is to educate our kids.

And at Western, you know, we don't allow kids to sleep in class. You're probing kids. You're engaging them in activities. You have to show that school has a value and that, you know, our big thing is capturing kids' hearts, where kids know that our teachers are caring, that they want them to succeed. Some of our students haven't had that in the past.

MARTIN: Sure. Paul, let me bring you back into the conversation. Paul Takahashi, you also reported on other initiatives by people outside of the school system in the community to try to wrap their arms around these kids. Can you tell us a little bit about that? I mean, particularly, you can see where a student, perhaps if his parents are both unemployed and he or she might feel real pressure to help out at home. So, what are some of the other initiatives to try to get kids back in school?

TAKAHASHI: Sure. This Reclaim Your Future initiative is a graduation initiative course started by the new superintendent here. And it's a wide range of different activities. And the cornerstone of it being these community door-to-door walks, trying to get kids, you know, who might have dropped out to come back to school. But there are a whole other, you know, number of different aspects. The most recent being this program, a mentorship program, to attract about 2,000 mentors to help, you know, about 2,000 students.

And so, you've got a lot of different community members and volunteers and organizations, nonprofits that are coming in and really trying to help these students. One of them a partnership between two, you know, fairly large nonprofit groups here, bringing in a counselor to help, you know, students at 10 of these schools that are some of the worst performing in the county. So, this is a very promising sign. It's a very - you know, with the economy the way it is here, there's a huge emphasis on diversifying the economy here and education is really the key to that, a lot of leaders say.

MARTIN: Principal Alvarez, we only have a minute left, so I need you to brief if you can. I remember you were saying that you, at one point, almost dropped out. What is it that kept you in the game?

ALVAREZ: Well, what kept me in the game? Of course, my teachers and my parents, who also pushed me to make sure that I went to school because they didn't have the opportunity from their country to go to school. That wasn't an option. So, that was one thing that was always instilled here in, you know, in America. Neddy, that's why we're here. So, you can go to school. You can graduate, because that will be your future.

TAKAHASHI: And so, it was just everyone pushing and, you know, pulling me forward that I do believe that that's why I'm here. And that's kind of what I feel that I have to give back to this community is that...

MARTIN: Well, good. Let's check back in later in the year and just see - maybe toward graduation - and see how it all worked out. Neddy Alvarez is the principal of Western High School in Las Vegas. Paul Takahashi is an education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun. He's been reporting on the district's efforts to get dropouts to come back to high school. They were both kind enough to join us from member station KNPR in Las Vegas. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ALVAREZ: Thank you.

TAKAHASHI: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: To hear our conversation from yesterday on high school dropouts in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., please visit our website. Go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then TELL ME MORE.

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