Back to School
Washoe County’s schools superintendent discusses the district ahead of the new academic year
As many students across the district prepare to return to classrooms, the RN&R sat down with Washoe County School District Superintendent Traci Davis to talk about everything from new school construction to resources for English Language Learners.
That new expansion at Damonte Ranch High School opened in April. And that’s the first project the district has completed since getting its new capital funding source through the approval of the WC-1 ballot measure, right?
Correct. And I was just at Damonte yesterday, and that extension is just beautiful. … Damonte has a lot of kids, and if you’ve ever been in Damonte when passing time happens, it is like going upstream with thousands of kids. But it’s so nice that they have the available space now. That will help reduce some of the overcrowding at Damonte. And then when you think of our two middle schools that we’re opening—Sky Ranch and Desert Skies—Sky Ranch is about 25 percent done. Desert Skies is a little bit less than that. It’s really nice to see, when we start groundbreaking, and we’re sitting in chairs under tents and having the opportunity to actually walk the floor of the gym and the cafeteria. … It’s really nice to see our commitment to the public around the transparency of what we promised—what we’d do with WC-1, that money. As you know, the district has been in a situation where we could not pass a bond to build more schools. We had to do a historic campaign of what would happen if we received the money or what would happen if we did not receive the money. When you look at the challenges around potential double sessions, it was time for Washoe County to build schools just because of the population growth. To see those schools come up—if you think of our elementary school, Nick Poulakidas out in the south, just the work is being done. And the schools are, right now, on track. And I’ve gotten to meet with the new principals of the schools. So, there’s the outside building, right? But then it’s also the structure of, academically, what will take place and be provided for those kids on the inside of the building. We’re working with the teams right now to start organizing that. You don’t just do that overnight. There’s a year of planning going into that. What’s nice is that the principals get to go to the construction sites and be a part of that work, to make sure there’s a match from what I call the operational side meets the academic side and functionality of the schools. … I think we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about repairs also—because part of WC-1 was to repair existing schools. Every day the average age of our schools goes up. So I think the average age is near 50 years old. That’s a long time when you think in school terms, if you think of owning a house that long and what types of things you’d have to maintain. A lot of our schools are lacking, so with WC-1, we’ve included that. And so we spend around 20 million dollars a year. Today, I was at Sarah Winnemucca, where we’re replacing the floors. I went to Clayton, where you can see that they’ve revamped all the stairs and put in brand new windows. It might seem like a little thing to say, but really it is a huge improvement to the actual buildings.
Are those schools still slated to open in August of 2019?
Yeah. It is 2019.
And when the new middle schools open, it’s my understanding sixth graders will be moved out of elementary schools across the district and into junior highs. Is that the entire district?
Basically—and part of this is around a larger vision of how we construct the district—our goal is to get most middle schools to a traditional sixth-seventh-eighth model. There’s going to be some exceptions just because of location. If you look at Cold Springs, they’re a fifth-sixth-seventh-eighth school. But globally speaking, the move is to try to get sixth through eighth. What happens is that you relieve the overcrowding in elementary schools. … I know parents are sometimes skeptical about sending their sixth graders to middle school, especially if that’s not what you’re accustomed to, right? It’s interesting when you look at models across the country. There are models that are K-8. There are models that are seventh and eighth. … From parents who have been somewhat skeptical this year about sending their kids to a middle school—all of them have come back and said, “Oh, my gosh. I’m glad you did that.” And the other piece to it is—the only place where we don’t build long connections with kids … is in the middle schools. Typically, you get four years in high school. And you get five or six years in elementary school. In middle school with the seventh-eighth model, I only get you for two years. With the sixth-seventh-eighth model, we get to build a continuum of connections and build longer relationships. And we know how critical middle school is for kids.
Moving the sixth graders is supposed to help reduce the need for multi-track sessions at schools. Will it eliminate it?
Definitely, that will help. That will help eliminate multi-track. Our goal is that we shouldn’t have any schools on multi-track for any long term. There might be some cases where schools are on multi-track because we’re building another school.
What’s going on with the Wildcreek School so many people were upset about? Is legal action still underway on that?
There are some things that are pending that I cannot address, but we are still moving forward with building a high school in Wildcreek—and still building a middle school in Arrowcreek. When you think about kids being on the bus for an hour or so getting down to Pine, it’s important that all of our communities have schools that they can go to and not spend tons of time on buses. We have some kids who are on the bus for an hour and half, but that’s because they live in remote spots. But there are opportunities where that doesn’t need to happen, and I think Arrowcreek is a great example of where that doesn’t need to happen.
Eventually, Nevada’s schools are supposed to start getting, I believe, a 15 percent wholesale tax on sales of recreational and medical marijuana. To my understanding, right now it’s being deposited in the state’s rainy day fund to later be put into the distributive school account. Any idea when you’ll start receiving those funds?
Here’s the thing. I think it’s intricate, right? The funds will come to us. … The question is … if the funds end up being on top of what we actually would get, or if there’s a balance between our local funds, and then they balance it out. Those are some of the questions that have come up. It’s the belief of the voters—and we hear this all the time—"We believed that was going to be on top of what you would already receive.” When you look across the districts, most districts are running a deficit. It’s no secret. It’s not just Washoe that has an issue with balancing its budget. What I think is interesting is that, when you look at how much money school districts receive now and how much they received 10 years ago, school districts are doing amazing work with almost the same amount of money. I am very proud to say that as I work with legislators, I think everybody sees that there needs to be an improved funding mechanism per-pupil. … People like to say, “Oh, Nevada ranks last in education.” But the truth of the matter is we don’t rank last in education. If you look at where we rank in education, we’re in the 30s, which I’m not saying that’s great, but we’re not last. The problem is that the algorithm is based on per-pupil funding, language spoken at home, if the parents have a post-secondary degree, and student achievement. The one thing that school districts actually control, which is student achievement, we’re actually doing a good job at. We have to do a better job, but people reporting that data have to do a better job of explaining that—because across this state, we are graduating more kids.
Well, there’s that school funding study being conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the state right now. It’s supposed to identify “the resources needed to serve our students in Nevada.” Having read it, I have to say it seems seriously vague, like the purpose is to see very generally how well people think the state’s various districts are doing.
I think it’s going to give people the opportunity to weigh in on how well the state is doing and if we’re funding education appropriately. And I know they’ve done this study in previous years. And the goal is, I think, to get public input—simply get public input about funding. Do you think we’re funding at the correct level or not funding at the correct level? And I think it’s great that it’s an opportunity statewide, right? So we have encouraged our employees … our parents, our community, anyone that’s receiving this, to take it and give honest feedback. I think that honest feedback will help drive robust conversation around what revenues look like across our state and how school districts balance their budgets.
You’re on the school safety task force Gov. Sandoval formed back in March. And that task force wants more funding for school police officers, right? Specifically, in Washoe County, the desire is to have them in middle schools. I realize we’ve had two school shootings in middle schools since 2006, but these events are still very rare. Do you think more police are necessary?
I want to be clear that every superintendent across the state believes that there should be more. The rural counties use school resource officers. Clark County and we use school police. But we believe in middle schools across the state, there needs to be a designated resource/school police officer. Most of us do that already in our high schools. We don’t necessarily do that in our middle schools, and we know that sometimes those are the years where, you know, kids struggle with a variety of things. I mean, generally speaking, everyone would say middle school is like the transition years for students, where they need more support. So, yes, I am in agreement with my fellow superintendents that we need to have some designated resources to put an officer in every middle school. Here’s the interesting thing. Most of the time people think when we talk about this, it’s preventative in the sense of put a school police officer there. But really what we’re talking about is, how can we stop being reactive and be proactive? Because what we’ve learned from our students … is that when they see a police officer in the school in high school, they feel safer. The police officer, especially in the Washoe County School District, is about building relationships with the kids. So, kids can come share information firsthand if they hear something. It’s not always in the sense of “You need a police officer in case something goes down.” … Many of the things that have happened in our schools that we’ve gotten resolved quickly, it was because kids have relationships with school police.
You’re also asking for more behavioral health specialists.
Yeah, and social workers. There’s this proactive side, and there’s a reactive side. As a result of these things happening, what do we need? That’s where we get into school police. But what measures do we take into account if you look at the needs of the individual creating the situation, right? There has to be something going on with that individual—whether it be trauma, mental illness. What are those things that we can proactively address?
Do you know how things are going with the grant money from Stacie Mathewson and Transforming Youth Recovery? I’m talking about that one million a year for 13 years to be put toward programs related to mental health, substance abuse and the like?
So, that program has been put on hold. We’re still doing some things in our district to address that with our counselors.
So the district is no longer receiving a million a year?
Yeah, that partnership hasn’t quite transformed in the way we wanted it to. But we’re still looking at some of things we all agree are important—our counseling department, our multi-tiered systems of support department. We have our own early warning index, and we look at those things to provide students assistance that’s preventative. And it’s not just about behavior. If we see trauma, if we see signs of suicide, what are the same things that grant would have done that we can do still as a district?
When you spoke with us back in 2016, you spoke about the 90 by ‘20 initiative—to have 90 percent graduation rates by 2020. Is the district still on track for that?
Yes, actually, I think we’ve done a good job. Last year we had a record 84 percent graduation rate. If I think about when I started this journey, we were at 63 percent. When you think about not just increasing the graduation rate but how we close achievement gaps—because we had huge achievement gaps with a variety of kids—we look at all of our kids, whether they’re special ed kids, whether they’re our English Language Learners, whether they’re African American, Native American, whatever. We believe that we should not be having achievement gaps. We’re super excited, last year, for the first time, we closed achievement gaps in all subgroups. We’re very hopeful that will go up this year. I do believe we’re on track. And I know a lot of people talk about, “Oh, yeah, that was easy because they didn’t have to pass tests.” I always say to them, “If they didn’t have to pass tests, then why isn’t every district at a hundred percent, if it was that easy?” It’s not that easy. It is very hard. We have kids in summer school right now—because kids are faced with trauma; kids are credit deficient; kids are heads of household, where school is important and work is important. So we really have to champion and look at those risk indexes I talked to you about—because each kid might need something different.
That achievement gap can be quite wide for English Language Learners. What does the school district do to accommodate them at different grade levels?
I think that when you look at instruction, good instruction happens at every level. And a practice that might be effective in kindergarten is still a practice that could be effective in the 12th grade. And even though we differentiate, and maybe it’s scaled up based on the level of the student, some of those instructional strategies that are being used benefit our ELL students. And I’m going to say that they also benefit non-ELL students—like when we talk about high yielding strategies to read. English could be your first language, right? And I think that what we have to talk about is that kids faced with trauma are not always ELL kids. We have kids from America who are not reading at grade level because they don’t get the lap time, and they don’t have the necessary skills walking into kindergarten. Some of those same strategies we use—whether it’s early intervention around chunking or blending or letter sounds, it works for every kid. … We have some pull-out. We have some one-on-one. We have some group activities. We have an ELL department that does a lot of training on effective strategies for, specifically, our English Language Learners. … People always think of ELL as Hispanic kids. The truth of the matter is, we have over a hundred languages spoken in the district—from Swahili to Italian to Russian to Spanish. … When we think about the success of our students who have been refugees, right?—they’re not necessarily speaking Spanish.
And the district announced that it just graduated its first refugee student in May—a student from Syria, right?
We did. And I think that’s a testimony to resiliency, hard work, grit and what’s happening in our buildings every day. … When you come to a country, you may not speak the language or know all of those parts, but then you put your grit and your resiliency into it. She has a diploma. And that diploma means she met the requirements that every other kid had to meet to get that diploma. There is no special diploma for certain kids. I think people are sometimes under the impression that we do something different when we give diplomas out.
I get that not all English Language Learners are Hispanic or the children of undocumented immigrants. And the school district has no way of knowing who those students are. You don’t ask about people’s immigration status when they’re enrolling. But are there any resources specifically for kids who may be undocumented in the school district—
See, this is interesting. Are there resources for kids who come to the district? Not, you come through the door and you’re undocumented or documented. When you come through the doors of our schools, you’re a student of Washoe County School District, right? Whether or not you’re undocumented, that’s not marked anywhere. Then what supports do you need to be successful? … When you walk through the door, people make assumptions based on what they see, right? I could be undocumented. Would you know that? No! Because we have implicit biases around what people look like, and then we make these notions. It’s funny because if I was undocumented and I had white skin, would anyone be saying anything?
No, probably not. But I’m speaking about resources in terms of—
I don’t even need to know. It’s not my job to know what your status is. It is my job to educate you when you walk through the door—whatever your needs are. … My job is to educate kids. I don’t know how you got here. We don’t get into your business. … There are FERPA laws around giving out information. … When you enroll your kids, there are some requirements—shot records and things like that. But if you walk through the doors, our job is to educate you, not to figure out where your parents came from.
I ask because I’ve read a lot of recent studies about the unique stresses Dreamers and younger undocumented students face with trying to balance their studies even as they’re worried by what they hear and see in the news. They’ve got a lot on their minds.
I think that’s true. That piece I do think is true. Once they are in our schools, if they feel a particular way—based on what we don’t know and what they decide to share with us—but I look at this, and I don’t mean to water it down, but it’s no different than a kid who comes in and says, “My mom’s an alcoholic. I don’t know where we’re going to live.” It is very personal to the child. And then based on what’s personal to the child, we provide whatever that intervention is. … We’re limited in what we can do, but our job is to make sure you feel safe, make sure you have the resources you need to be successful, make sure we get you or whoever in your family in contact to whatever it is that is needed. But that would be no different than any other kid that would walk in with such trauma. I’m going to put that under the umbrella of trauma for students. Kids walk through the doors of our schools every day with trauma. Forty-seven percent of our kids are on free or reduced lunch. That’s half the district almost that’s on FRL. We have trauma. And trauma looks different for different children. And we have to figure out what those needs are. Ω