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Las Vegas Races to Expand Social Services Amid Growth Boom

In the next Big Picture election report from Las Vegas, the NewsHour looks at how the Nevada city's recent population increase has strained school and health care systems and local residents and leaders discuss how the burden on social services is impacting their views on the 2008 election.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Finally tonight, day four of our Big Picture visit to Nevada, one of the early political caucus states and site of tonight's Democratic presidential candidates debate.

    Judy Woodruff and Ray Suarez are talking to people in and around Las Vegas all week about the issues that matter to them in this election year.

    Judy?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's impossible to listen to Nevada voters, as we have all this week, without hearing the role that this state's rapid growth plays in their political views. Nowhere is that connection clearer than in two areas, health care and education, both under extraordinary strain.

    Ray Suarez has our report.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    If you think Las Vegas' reputation for excess lives only on the world famous strip, you need to go to school, to a brand new school, Rancho High, built to relieve overcrowding and a thousand kids over capacity on opening day. Twenty-two portable classrooms were quickly set up in the school's parking lot.

    The city's explosive population growth means Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas, is in a constant state of catch-up. In fact, the district builds a new school, on average, once a month.

    In most places in the country, schools only occasionally rezone — that is, redraw their district boundaries — but here in Las Vegas, the school system is growing so fast that schools have to rezone every year, so a sixth-grader may have attended three different elementary schools since kindergarten.

    Combine that growth with the fact that Nevada's per pupil spending is in 50th place in the country, and you've got serious challenges.

    For one, the district started this school year down 1,000 teachers. At Rancho High School, that means there's only one teacher for every 50 students at the school.

    More than four decades ago, Bob Chesto graduated from Rancho High. Today, he's principal of the new Rancho, built right next to the old site.

  • BOB CHESTO, Principal, Rancho High School:

    There's a critical shortage of highly qualified teachers. That means you're an expert at what you do. There aren't very many of those. We have a critical shortage, not only in Las Vegas, but in America.

    And I don't think it's an emergency; I think it's a catastrophe. I have 20 openings right now. It's the end of October. So what have we done with those students for 60, 90 days so far? They've had long-term substitute teachers in there.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Clark County schools have recently shifted to majority Hispanic. And at Rancho High, 2,600 of the 3,600 students are Hispanic, the overwhelming majority of them foreign-born.

  • BOB CHESTO:

    Two thousand of the 2,600 have very limited English skills or no English skills at all. They've come in with an ability level, hundreds by the hundreds, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten ability. And we have four years to get them ready to pass the Nevada Proficiency Exams.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    The population shift has put pressure on the district to find teachers who are qualified to teach English as a second language to what's called ELLs, or English Language Learners. At the same time, the federal government has reduced the funding for ELL, and the student population is transient, with 1,000 new students predicted to enter Rancho High School in the middle of the school year and 1,000 other students expected to leave.

  • BOB CHESTO:

    I spent 20 years in the Army, and so I use militaristic analogies. I always feel like a high school is on the front lines, and we're in combat, and we're receiving fire and returning fire. And we're running out of bullets, and we're running out of guns, and we're running out of food, and we're running out of water. And supply lines had better advance.

    No one wants to see their children not do well, myself included. I want them all. I expect them all to go to college, or to community college, or to advanced trade schools. I expect that to happen.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    As is the case nationally, dropout rates are high among minority students. The district has been able to bring graduation rates up slightly; still, only 60 percent graduate. Walt Rulffes is the superintendent of Clark County schools.

  • WALT RULFFES, Superintendent, Clark County School District:

    We have a theme here, "Keep your eye on the cap," and we try to keep everybody focused on helping students graduate, because across the country we have this, I think, a horrific issue of almost a third of our students who don't graduate from high school. And without a high school diploma, a student hardly has a fighting chance for success. And so we're focusing more and more on ways to keep students in school.