Hoping to Change Odds, Las Vegas Gambles on Once-Failing School

BY Mike Fritz and April Brown  April 17, 2012 at 1:16 PM EDT


Las Vegas welcome sign. Photo by Mike Fritz/PBS NewsHour

Fist bumps and high-fives — it’s how principal David Wilson interacts with students as he walks down the halls of Chaparral High School in Las Vegas.

The unconventional style is a trademark of Wilson, who was brought to the high school in 2010 as part of a turnaround effort by the Clark County School District. At the time, Chaparral was one of the worst-performing high schools in Nevada, a state that ranks near the very bottom in national graduation rates.

“When I came to the school, the best description would be chaos,” Wilson said of the school’s dilapidated structures, lack of toilets for students and a staff of 134 teachers who were unsure if they’d have jobs going forward.

Staffing was the first priority on his agenda.

Designated a ‘turnaround school,’ Chaparral received as much as $1 million in aid from the U.S. Department of Education in the first year, according to the Las Vegas Sun. Yet it meant that 50 percent of the staff had to go.

Clark County deputy superintendent Pedro Martinez said bringing in Wilson was part of a larger district initiative — known as Reclaim Your Future — that aimed to stem a growing trend of academic truancy.

Martinez said the district knew it had to go a step further to change the culture at Chaparral, where only 33 percent of students were graduating on time.

Earlier this year, Martinez and Wilson led teams into Las Vegas communities in search of dropouts. They knocked on doors and tried to entice wayward students back to class. Martinez said the off-beat approach is starting to show signs of success.

“When we look for a turnaround, we’re looking for things that change the culture, change the learning environment,” Martinez said.

The strategy — and Wilson’s leadership — seem to be working. At the moment, more of Chaparral’s ninth-graders are on track with credits “than in the history of that school or in the last 10 years,” Martinez said.

Watch Tuesday’s NewsHour broadcast for more on Wilson’s efforts at Chaparral and how economic opportunities are drying up in Las Vegas for workers with little education.