Downtown Achieves started with the simple idea of helping area schools succeed at educating their students.

Written by Hektor D. Esparza

Community6

Downtown Dynamos help at the Walter Bracken Elementary School Art Fair Farmer’s Market.

It’s no secret that the Clark County School District (CCSD) has struggled with its graduation rates. Transience, poverty, single-parent households, a lack of mental health services, among other issues, are all factors which present challenges to academic success for area public school students. But if recent numbers are any indication, academic success is on the rise for Southern Nevada students. In 2014, the graduation rate for CCSD high schools was 71 percent—up significantly from 2012’s 62 percent.

One big reason to be optimistic for local students is the bold and ambitious initiative called Downtown Achieves (DA), which completed its second full school year in June and shows no signs of slowing down. A far-reaching endeavor that is equal parts exploration in the humanities and rigorous collection and examination of hard data, the ongoing and open-ended initiative represents a determined, focused effort by stakeholders that include CCSD, the City of Las Vegas, local businesses, and nonprofit agencies to make academic success a greater possibility for even the most disadvantaged youth.
Downtown Achieves started with the simple idea of helping area schools succeed at educating their students. They asked, How do you make grade school students ready for middle school, middle school students ready for high school, and high school students ready for graduation?

As DA co-founder Brian Knudsen explains, “What’s been happening from our perspective is that you see a newspaper article that says, ‘[in education] Nevada is ranked somewhere in the bottom ten percent,’ and people get angry about it. They go to school district meetings, and sometimes they complain about district trustees or the superintendent or the teachers and that’s about it.” There is frustration on all fronts because the challenges are so vast and varied that parents, teachers, and administrators as individuals are not in a position to understand the issues much less come up with meaningful solutions.

Volunteers from Wynn Resorts helped the students at Owen Roundy Elementary School expand their vegetable teaching garden into an Outdoor Garden Classroom. Wynn Resorts also sponsored the original garden.

Volunteers from Wynn Resorts helped the students at Owen Roundy Elementary School expand their vegetable teaching garden into an Outdoor Garden Classroom. Wynn Resorts also sponsored the original garden.

It turns out there are so many factors that contribute to academic success or failure—from food security to stable housing to language and cultural barriers—that any sincere effort to help Las Vegas schools succeed must be a multi-faceted, multi-agency endeavor. DA’s proposed solution is a collective impact model similar to other education reform programs applied with varying levels of success in school districts across the nation. Locally, DA is an initiative focusing on 11 Clark County schools populated by students living in the environs of downtown Las Vegas. By and large, the majority of students at these schools share similar socioeconomic backgrounds and thus experience similar challenges and obstacles to their academic success.

BLVDS began interviews and research for this article in October 2013 when the initiative first launched. At the time, Knudsen held a position with the City of Las Vegas and a leadership role over DA. He has since left that position to become CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Nevada. Though Knudsen is still involved with the initiative, Executive Administrator Michelle Layton took over day-to-day operations of DA in November 2014. Before taking this post, Layton served on DA’s teacher engagement committee and built a noteworthy career in CCSD and the private sector in marketing and education prior to that.

Michelle Layton reading to the students at Hollingworth Elementary School.

Michelle Layton reading to the students at Hollingworth Elementary School.

According to Theo Small, vice president of the Clark County Education Association, a confluence of circumstances contributed to the decline of the 11 schools in DA’s purview. As he says, “A part of what is important around this thinking is that we have allowed schools to fade away because of who is attending them. We have a system where, because folks don’t have as much money or they may not speak the dominant language or they may be the wrong skin color, they are perceived as less important. That has been a pervasive kind of thinking in the past.”

As bleak and accusatory as that may read, the past two years of DA’s development have demonstrated that this, albeit intentionally coordinated community, is rising to the challenge of fixing of what others may have neglected to maintain.

As Knudsen explains, “Downtown Achieves aims at isolating the challenges associated with academic success here in Southern Nevada. Whether they be specifically related to the teacher and the classroom or tangential factors like health care, housing, transportation or food security, the goal is academic success in this geographically isolated area.”

Small says core principles which support academic achievement are already understood. The task at hand is to encourage and facilitate the effective models and methods to become more commonplace. As he explains, “What we know about good teaching is that teachers really need to understand the whole child. We know that they need to have a working knowledge of each child regardless of which age they’re at. And for this to happen you really need buy-in from the teachers at the schools.”

One of the most challenged schools participating in DA is Park-Edison Elementary which educates

Chefs Xelyna and Matt from South Point Casino visit CT Sewell Elementary School and cook some delicious veggie pizza for the students.

Chefs Xelyna and Matt from South Point Casino visit CT Sewell Elementary School and cook some delicious veggie pizza for the students.

students from among the lowest income households in the valley. Martha Calderon, whose daughter Sarah was in first grade in the ’13-’14 school year, says this about their experience there: “I am really happy with this school. They are giving a lot of attention to my child, and I am willing to work with them on whatever they need. I have had bad experiences in other schools with my daughter. She did not want to go. She didn’t want to do a lot of things. Now she wants to go to school and see her friends and teachers. And if she is happy, I am happy, too. She is really trying here. She’s not stressed.”

Another indicator Park-Edison is getting it right is Kimberly Fundaro. During the ’13-’14 school year, Fundaro was the school’s reading and data coordinator and had her own children attending. “My two children go here, and it’s not even their zone school. I have been criticized by family members who say, ‘Why are you letting your kids go downtown?’ My kids are getting a wonderful education. They’re getting cultural diversity. They’re getting opportunities that they might not get anywhere else, and I just think I wouldn’t have them go anywhere else.”

According to DA Executive Administrator Layton, their particular collective impact model is built on “The 4 Rs,” which are: Research, Relationships, Resources, and Results. Following the close of the 2014-15 school year, Layton says, “The preliminary data matches our expectations, but now we have the data to back it up. One exciting item already implemented is having UNLV PhD students embedded at DA schools for a four-year period to observe, collect/track data, and gauge success. Three schools have had their PhD student since the beginning of 2015—Crestwood Elementary School, Fremont Middle School, and Valley High School. Four additional students will be embedded in the fall.”

Professional chefs George Bailey and Xelyna Rodriguez from the South Point visited Ruby Thomas Elementary School for a demonstration of a new way to prepare the veggies grown in the garden.

Professional chefs George Bailey and Xelyna Rodriguez from the South Point visited Ruby Thomas Elementary School for a demonstration of a new way to prepare the veggies grown in the garden.

Layton further explains that, “DA was able to provide needed computers to DA schools in need of technology through a relationship with a local business. The computers have been used in the classroom, as well as have provided access for parents to the CCSD portal on campus when technology is not available at home. Another example, DA recently teamed up with a local nonprofit and business to provide over 2,000 students at three DA schools additional food. It’s about connecting resources to those who can use them, and it reinforces DA’s belief that it takes a community to make a classroom.”

At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, some teachers and administrators interviewed for this article expressed hesitancy to lend their full enthusiasm to the launch of Downtown Achieves citing previous experiences where they were let down by other ambitious education initiatives which failed to realize their stated goals. Two years into the rollout of DA, it appears everyone is making good on the commitment to connect the schools to urgently needed resources.