Good news in Washoe County schools

The Washoe County School District’s website can be found at

Washoe County schools have been making remarkable progress in recent years, despite debilitating budget cuts, lack of support from the state, and other major setbacks. This progress was acknowledged nationally in February when the American Association of School Administrators named Washoe County School District Superintendent Heath Morrison 2012 Superintendent of the Year.

Morrison has held his position for three years, and, in that time, has seen the district’s graduation rate rise from 56 to 70 percent, among other indications that Washoe County schools are on the right path. Morrison attributes this success to newly established and well-defined sets of goals, namely the one outlined in the district’s mission statement: “Every child, by name and face, to graduation.”

“I think the biggest thing that’s happened over the last three years is that we work with our community and our internal and external stakeholders to create a strategic plan that really kind of defines for our school district [what] success was going to mean as a school district,” Morrison said. “It’s really given us a shared vision and plan to work towards.”

The plan devised for Washoe County schools has a number of facets. It aims to increase graduation rates, enroll more students in Advanced Placement courses, improve literacy and expand community and parent involvement in the schools.

And the plan has worked wondrously well so far. When I graduated from high school in 2008, the state graduation rate was 51.3 percent, the lowest in the country.

Although we have all been rightfully thrilled by the national attention the Washoe County School District has earned, there is still more room for improvement, especially in a state such as this, which notoriously devalues education. Too many students still are not graduating, and they still are not prepared for life after high school, whether it is university or otherwise. On numerous occasions, I have witnessed university professors explain to bewildered students the concepts of semicolons or adverbs. I feel like these things should be handled before students reach college.

Education has long been a neglected issue in Nevada. This has been painfully true for those of us who have recently slogging through the education system with its continuous budget cuts. Education was historically not a priority in Nevada because its main industries, gambling and tourism, required neither college nor high school degrees, Morrison said. Cuts to the already neglected school system only made goals of higher graduation rates and subsequent college enrollment more difficult to attain. But, of course, not unattainable.

“I can’t think of any other state that has had the challenges that we have,” Morrison said. “As a school district, we really try to come up with an idea of how we can, not why we can’t. We don’t start every conversation with what limits us. We think about what it is we’re trying to do for kids and try to figure out a way to make that happen.”

In addition to seeing students through secondary school, Washoe County also prides itself in preparing and enabling students for the transition into college. Technology and online learning opportunities are used for acceleration and remediation so students will be more prepared to begin university classes after graduation, which is an excellent step for schools to take toward overall improvement.

“I would challenge anybody to find a stronger collaboration and partnership between K-12 and higher ed than what we have right here in Northern Nevada,” Morrison said. “Ultimately, we don’t want to just graduate more kids who need to go on to university and take remedial courses. We want our kids going to college really ready for credit-bearing courses. That collaboration and that kind of partnership you just don’t find across the country, and I’m really proud of that.”