It turns out throwing money at a problem actually works sometimes.
Case in point: zoom schools. The 2013 Legislature approved $50 million in extra funding to invest in elementary schools with high populations of English language learners and struggling students. These “zoom schools,” located in Washoe and Clark counties, used the funding to decrease class sizes and provide additional pre-kindergarten classes, reading centers, and extra school days.
And it worked.
School administrators told the Legislative Committee on Education recently that preliminary data from the first year of operations is very promising. When the school year began, just 10 percent of the pre-kindergarten students spoke English, but by the end of the year 80 percent of them had acquired the skill. Only 35 percent of the pre-kindergarten children had the expected level of reading during the fall, but almost 100 percent were reading at grade-level by the summer.
Kindergarten class size decreased from 40 students in many classrooms to a maximum of 21 children. Eighty percent of the kids in those classrooms met the end-of-year benchmarks in writing skills and articulating letter sounds.
There’s no magic, really, about the zoom schools. We’ve known for a long time what it would take to improve our educational system. Serious class-size reduction strategies were prioritized by Govs. Richard Bryan and Bob Miller, along with early childhood learning programs.
But during the “taxes are evil” era, kindergarten was denigrated as “babysitting” and education champions like Speaker Barbara Buckley were chided, publicly and privately, for spending so much energy on advocating for full-day kindergarten. Funding pre-school programs was out of the question. Republicans only compromised a little by allowing a few more schools in poorer areas to have full-day kindergarten along with some “pay as you go” programs for more affluent schools.
But in just one year, the zoom schools have proven their worth. The program has money for the upcoming school year and both school districts hope to add additional zoom schools and use every penny. It will be up to the 2015 Legislature to reauthorize or possibly expand the funding.
Just a few days after the great zoom report, this year’s national Kids Count study was released, more in line with the usual education news in Nevada. Once again, Nevada’s public school system ranked 50th in the country. It’s the third year in a row we’ve been dead last.
Dale Erquiaga, Nevada’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, noted progress has been made despite the poor ranking, telling the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Nevada continues to gain ground, but we remain in 50th place. That’s unacceptable.” He went on to imply it’s less about money, and more about reform, stating, “We’re changing the way the state department (of education) works and expect districts to do the same.”
Kids Count reported that Nevada still has the worst high school dropout rate in the nation, double the national average, and the lowest percentage of children in preschool.
It seems obvious you can’t be the worst at both ends of the preschool-to-high school graduation continuum and expect to be anything but last.
Erquiaga acknowledged that Nevada’s children need help, noting the poverty rate where one in two children qualify for subsidized school lunch. But he said, “There’s no excuse for us to be 10 to 20 [percentage] points behind the rest of the nation. Districts have to continue rethinking their efforts before students fall so far behind they can’t catch up in time.”
Exactly. That’s why the extra $50 million spent on zoom schools needs to be expanded to every elementary school with struggling students. The way students “catch up” is through smaller classes, extra services, and more time in school. It’s all possible, but it takes money.
Don’t all our kids deserve the opportunity to zoom?