JEFFREY BROWN: Next, another in our series looking at the dropout crisis in U.S. schools.
Tonight: The nation's fifth largest school district has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, and is trying to do something about it.
From Las Vegas, Ray Suarez reports for our American Graduate project.
RAY SUAREZ: In a city that bets against the odds 24 hours a day, David Wilson was unsure of his chances as he knocked on doors earlier in the door. The new principal of Chaparral High School in Las Vegas had an ambitious goal, to find dropouts where they live and bring them back to class.
The effort was part of a citywide push known as Reclaim Your Future, targeting dropouts in Clark County, Nevada, where nearly half of all high school students fail to graduate on time.
DAVID WILSON, principal, Chaparral High School: I know in my own life, you know, when I have made a poor decision, usually, I'm a little bit ashamed of my decision. And I'm not wanting to face the music or face somebody saying why.
But the whole point of our effort wasn't to do anything other than say, you're loved, you're wanted. Please come back.
RAY SUAREZ: One of the dropouts Wilson and his team found was Isaiah Quiambao, a senior who stopped coming to school only a few weeks into the year.
ISAIAH QUIAMBAO, senior, Chaparral High School: I was pretty surprised. I didn't know they were going to come to my house. And it made me feel like I was actually important, like they actually wanted me back. They said that they will do anything for me to come back and basically get my diploma.
DAVID WILSON: Isaiah was embarrassed that we were there, but just a wonderful young man. And getting the commitment for him to come back to school and explaining the importance of having a high school diploma was huge.
RAY SUAREZ: Wilson came to Chaparral in 2010, when it was one of the worst performing high schools in Nevada, a state that ranks second to last in the nation, ahead of only the District of Columbia, in graduation rates.
That year, Chaparral was designated a turnaround school by the district, which brought financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education, but meant 50 percent of the staff had to go.
Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez said the district was looking for dramatic changes at the high school that was graduating roughly one in three students at the time.
PEDRO MARTINEZ, deputy superintendent, Clark County School District: You know, Chaparral is an interesting story, so almost 100 percent poverty. Almost -- you know, a vast majority are Latino, are Latino students.
I started in the district in May. And that was one of the first schools I went to go visit, because I wanted to see for myself. We already had decided at that point that we were going to turn it around. If you went to go see that building, frankly, it wasn't a clean building, it was not a building that had a great learning environment.
RAY SUAREZ: Clark County's efforts appear to be working for students like Quiambao, who is now on track to graduate by June and hopes to one day go to art school.
But an uphill battle remains for Las Vegas, which finds itself still reeling from the hand it was dealt by the recession. For a long time, this was the fastest-growing city in the country. Casinos drove employment. Employment drove housing starts. And those twin pillars, construction and entertain, meant Vegas was one of the places you could come in America with very little education and make a decent living.
But when the recession hit and the tourists stopped coming and the bottom fell out of the housing market, this city became one of the capitals of American foreclosure and showed people just how vulnerable they were without an education.
BARBIE TIVAS, Las Vegas, Nev.: The competition is fierce in Las Vegas.
RAY SUAREZ: Barbie Tivas planned to graduate from high school with the class of 1984. But she says she grew up in an abusive household and never earned a diploma after running away.
It's always your first priority in this town is to try to get something that is in the gaming industry. And so when I realized I couldn't achieve that, I went to the second best, which is food and beverage.
RAY SUAREZ: Tivas and her daughter, Anastasia, who is also a high school dropout, are now taking online courses together in hopes of completing their GEDs. The family was hard-hit by the recession. And the women are hoping that more education will boost their prospects in the future.
BARBIE TIVAS: We were homeowners. And because I lost my job in the casinos because of the downturn of no one coming, we couldn't afford our mortgage. So, like countless other people in Las Vegas, we're renters again.
And we're blessed to still have a roof over our head when a lot of people don't have that. But it's taken a long time to see the end of the rainbow.
RAY SUAREZ: But even on the day we were talking with Tivas, the end of the rainbow seemed elusive.
BARBIE TIVAS: I am -- I'm on my way to a banquet server position on call, and I just found out my shift was canceled. So, they offered me a shift tomorrow which pays substantially less than what a dinner shift pays. But I'm lucky at least they offered me a shift for tomorrow, because it's pretty standard to get canceled with nothing to replace it.
RAY SUAREZ: It's a frustration the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce is well aware of, and chamber CEO Kristin McMillan says the employment game has already changed for less educated workers.
KRISTIN MCMILLAN, CEO, Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce: The hotel casino jobs, the valet parking jobs, those sorts of things that were very popular amongst the younger generation, felt they didn't need high school graduation, a college education, those jobs now are being held onto by people that have been at those properties for a very long time. And there's not likely going to be many openings in those areas for high school dropouts.
MAN: We have got a couple of things that need to happen for graduation. We have got two proficiency exams we have got to pass.
RAY SUAREZ: Aiming to entice new businesses to town, the Chamber is now partnering with the Clark County School District as part of the Reclaim Your Future initiative. They work together to connect mentors from the business community, like Jared Shupe (ph) from the Bank of Nevada, with high school seniors like Montel Beddis (ph), in hopes of getting the teens across the finish line to a high school diploma.
MAN: Remember what our goal is for fourth quarter?
MAN: Get a 3.0. I have been working on that too.
RAY SUAREZ: On top of getting the community to recognize the need for a more educated work force, Martinez says his district's efforts are starting to pay off in the classroom as well. And as proof, he cites the freshman class back at Chaparral High School under the leadership of Dave Wilson.
DAVID WILSON: What are you reading?
PEDRO MARTINEZ: In ninth grade, he has right now more children that are on track with credits than in the history of that school -- or in the last 10 years.
And, so, for us, that's what -- when we look for a turnaround, we're looking for things that change the culture, change the learning environment. And we want to see early indicators of it going in the right track. And we're seeing that at Chaparral.
RAY SUAREZ: It's a type of bet the city of Las Vegas is known for, taking a chance on a once failing high school, knowing that what looked like a long shot could end up paying off in a big way.
JEFFREY BROWN: Online, we have a story about how the recession has led out-of-work adults in Las Vegas to go back to school.
The American Graduate project is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.