The color of students’ skin or their family’s income level shouldn’t dictate the educational opportunities available to them, Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara stressed Friday during his second State of the Schools address.
Equity and access has become a major theme in Jara’s administration of the Clark County School District, which educates 320,000-some children in Southern Nevada. Earlier this month, an advisory commission created by the superintendent issued a report detailing four “failure points” regarding equity and access.
Jara didn’t mince words Friday morning when explaining the inequitable distribution of challenging educational experiences, such as dual-credit courses, career and technical education programs and Advanced Placement classes. One Clark County high school has 16 such programs, he said, while another has 44.
“If you’re lucky to live in a certain ZIP code, you’re given different opportunities,” he said. “It has to change.”
Even so, Jara pointed out that funding for those rigorous programs can be problematic — delivering a not-so-subtle nudge to state lawmakers seated in the Wynn Las Vegas ballroom. He said other states, such as New Mexico, Louisiana, Maine and Texas, put money toward dual-credit courses, career and technical education and Advanced Placement classes, which helps reduce some of the barriers.
The inequities, however, start in elementary school, where the number of children identified as gifted varies widely depending on the location. To that end, Jara said the district has shifted resources to begin gifted screening for all second-graders.
“There are brilliant children living in poverty,” he said. “We just haven’t found them so we will and we’re going to because we’re committed to addressing the equity issue.”
Jara also said he’s looking forward to seeing more black and Latino students enrolled in magnet programs given changes he announced last year regarding admissions criteria.
His efforts to level the playing field for all students haven’t come without controversy, though. When Antonio Rael took over as Clark High School’s principal last year, he set about reducing achievement gaps between the high-achieving magnet students and the neighborhood teens zoned for the school. But backlash over his leadership style and policy changes bubbled over by December, and, several days after parents and students complained at a school board meeting, the district removed Rael and Assistant Principal Christina Bentheim from the school.
Jara has declined to comment on the personnel change, but Rael spoke out this week and questioned the district’s commitment to equity and access issues.
“There are significant racial disparities in terms of academic achievement and performance on our school campuses,” he told The Nevada Independent. “It was absolutely true at Clark. That story became about myself and the assistant principal. Unfortunately, that story should have been about what is really happening in terms of student achievement and why are there these great disparities based off of race and ethnic breakdown.”
During his hour-long speech — which was attended by elected officials, business leaders and education stakeholders — Jara touched on a number of other challenges facing the district, including teacher shortages and leadership development. He also touted a partnership with NWEA, which provides standardized tests, and Khan Academy to better monitor students’ academic progress throughout the year.
Despite the ongoing struggles, Jara struck an optimistic tone and called on the community for support. The superintendent also vowed to work with Gov. Steve Sisolak and state lawmakers heading into the next legislative session, which is about one year away.
“Hopefully, 2021 becomes the best legislative session for K-12 education in the state of Nevada,” he said.