Monday, April 30, 2012

Assembly Steven Brooks speaks on the educational learning curve.

Learning curve

Eleven years after it opened -- 11 years of turnover, turmoil and some unmet expectations -- Agassi Prep is still trying to get it right

The cafeteria sits so close to the administrative offices at Agassi Prep that a well-aimed meatball could easily land with a thump in the middle of the conference table. But there were no meatballs -- and no food fights -- on a February morning at the charter school in West Las Vegas. Elementary students ate rice and beans. Only the high-pitched clatter of lunch trays and laughter penetrated the office of Chancellor Mike Piscal.

The layout of the school makes the cafeteria an essential stop on any tour that ends in Piscal's office. Although the students are reasonably well-behaved, the cafeteria itself is the site of a battle, according to Agassi spokesman Francisco Aguilar. The school is feuding with the Clark County School District and the federal government over regulations that disqualify Agassi Prep from receiving funds for the school lunch program. Because the school uses its own vendor, Nevada Partners, and doesn't get food from school district sources, it is not eligible for the program, which subsidizes lunches for low-income students. Instead, the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education has been picking up the tab to provide lunch for every student at the school.

In many ways, this is the least of its challenges. More than 10 years after it opened, Agassi Prep, one of the first charter schools in Nevada, and arguably the most high-profile, is still finding its way. The school serves students from kindergarten to 12th grade (it's arranged into elementary, middle and high schools), and graduated its first class in 2009. Like all public schools, it receives more than $6,000 per student from the state and county, and supplements that with private funding. During the last school year, Agassi Prep spent $11,069 to educate each of its 600 students.

"My impressions were that everyone wanted the school to be one of the best schools in the nation," Piscal said. "It hasn't all come together, and there is some frustration about that. But people still wanted to make it happen."

Piscal has been on the job for more than a year. He is the sixth person to lead the school since it opened in 2001. But high turnover is not restricted to the chancellor's office. Teachers, principals and staff come and go like visiting teams. Former teachers said the constant turnover creates a chaotic learning environment. Although the school has a high graduation rate and sends most of its graduates to college, it has had little success getting students into top-tier institutions, and many of its graduates attend community college.

Piscal wants to change that. The charter school veteran came to Agassi in January 2011. Not only is he trying to increase academic rigor, especially at the high-school level, he's also supervising an increase in enrollment that will almost double the student body.

He's already had some success staunching turnover at the high school and middle school. When he arrived, many positions were held by long-term substitutes. Some students had four or five teachers over the school year. Most of those subs have since been replaced by teachers who survived a rigorous interview process, Piscal said.

Just as he straightened out the high school, he faced an exodus of elementary teachers. Principal Jenny Tan, who turned the school into one of the best-performing in the valley, left for Denver. Several teachers left to start a new charter school in Las Vegas. Many others decided to stay home with families. Elementary students who returned to school this fall found only a few familiar faces.

"The middle and high school went through their suffering last year, and the elementary school is going through it this year," Piscal said.

The mission at Agassi Prep is as lofty as the building itself, a contemporary amalgam of schools that embody the various stages of learning. Tennis star Andre Agassi wanted the school to offer a top-notch education to traditionally underserved students. So he plunked it down in one of the neediest communities in the valley, a neighborhood of public housing projects, low-income families and single-parent households.

Agassi Prep was one of the first charter schools in Southern Nevada, and it started with some advantages over other charters. Many independent schools struggle to raise enough money for facilities. But Agassi Prep had the backing of a famous athlete, and a fundraising juggernaut in the annual Grand Slam for Kids. Not only could it afford a school, it could afford one of the finest school buildings in the valley. The facilities include a university-style lecture hall, fully-equipped science and computer labs and a solar array that provides half the energy.

But a building isn't enough. The school's board sought out one of the area's most respected educators to get the school off the ground.

"We knew that certain kids were more highly impacted in terms of education," said Wayne Tanaka, the first principal at Agassi Prep. "There are five qualities that you might find in a student. One is low income. Two is single parent. Three is low levels of parental education. The fourth is the neighborhood environment. The fifth is language difference, having a non-English base. If a student has three out of the five, then a kid is at risk. They found a lot of those risk factors in this neighborhood, and that's where they decided to build it."

Tanaka was with the school for three years. Then the veteran educator decided to retire, again. He was followed by Kim Allen. Her tenure was fraught with high staff turnover and problems with regulators, who cited the school for having too many unlicensed teachers. Tensions with parents boiled over in heated board meetings.

Brian Thomas replaced Allen in 2004. He was followed by Jerome Meyers, who was replaced by Marsha Irvin, who came to Agassi Prep from the Clark County School District in 2008. They had different titles -- executive director, CEO, chancellor -- but all of them had the same job: to guide the school as it grew from three grades to 13.

According to former teachers, the frequent changes in administration led to staff turnover.

"A school is not the walls," Tanaka said. "A school is the educators within the building and the parents and the kids themselves."

Teachers at Agassi Prep have one-year contracts, and several of them said those contracts weren't renewed when new administrators came in. It wasn't just administrators who brought new staff. Changes on the Agassi foundation board and the school board often brought changes in the classroom. Roy Parker, who worked as an elementary, middle and high school principal, said turnover was incessant.

"It was a revolving door almost," Parker said. "That makes it difficult for a school to chart a course."

Not only did it make it difficult to carry out the mission, former teachers said student discipline suffered as a result. Students in the middle and high school often felt like they'd be around longer than their principals, and acted accordingly, teachers said.

Assemblyman Steven Brooks taught at Agassi in 2007 and 2008. He said student misbehavior often went unpunished. One student in particular never suffered any consequences for overturning a desk during an argument. Students would defy the dress code and write on lockers and bathrooms, he said. Another former teacher said students openly traded prescription drugs in class. Infractions like these happen at any high school, but Agassi administrators never established a formal punishment system because they were too busy learning on the job.

"Overall, the problem with Agassi is that they keep bringing in people from other states to take care of our children," Brooks said.

Chris Caballero, a security guard at the school from 2004 to 2009, said some students treated the school like their home. They would have pizzas delivered to classrooms. Wander off campus. He even caught students having sex in the building.

"The kids run the school," Caballero said. "The lifespan of the average Agassi employee is one year."

John Bailey, chair of the governing board, downplayed concerns about the turnover at Agassi. He said the school has an average amount of turnover for an independent school. The difficult economy in Las Vegas may have made things a little harder for the school, as teachers' spouses often had to move out of state to find work. The long school day also discourages teachers from staying, Piscal said. Teachers at Clark County schools usually get off work by 3 p.m., but Agassi teachers stay until 4. When teachers have children in Clark County schools, they often find it easier to transfer to a regular school so they don't have to find child care in the afternoon.

Many of the former teachers who spoke to CityLife did not leave voluntarily. One of the teachers who did only did so after administrative changes stripped him of his authority and left him worried about his future at the school.

"Every two years, there's been a different person at the top," he said. "Any time there were changes, that would affect staffing, and the majority of the staff has been released."

If you look at old faculty directories, only about 10 names remain from 2008.

Carol Foster, an assistant principal at the high school from 2006 to 2008, said the kids at Agassi need teachers and administrators who are dependable and permanent. Many of the students come from unstable homes, and they need structure and reliability somewhere in their lives, she said.

"The children need adults in the end to be there for an extended period of time to build trust," she said. "Agassi doesn't really assist in that effort. When there is high turnover, that doesn't happen."

Not everyone thinks high turnover is a problem. The school has always had teachers on one-year contracts, unlike teachers in regular schools, who are difficult to remove after a probationary period. Most independent schools use one-year contracts, Parker said. Josh Lyphout, a Teach for America grad and science teacher at Agassi Prep for the last four years, said the school has about the same amount of turnover as other charter schools.

"A lot of teachers start at a charter school thinking they are going to have the same work load as any other kind of school," Lyphout said. "Then they find out they have to wear a lot more hats at a charter school. They just get burned out."

Despite the high turnover, students perform well on standardized tests. Both the elementary and middle schools have received the highest ranking under No Child Left Behind. All the schools have performed at least adequately on standardized tests. That's better than neighboring public schools, although Agassi has an advantage in that it teaches fewer English language learners and special education students.

The goal at Agassi has always been to have the best teachers, not necessarily the longest-serving. What's the point of keeping a teacher, even one liked by students, if he or she doesn't get results?

That is what Piscal was hired to do. The high school has had three graduating classes and sent dozens of students to college. But it still isn't preparing them as well as it could be. The intent of the school, from the very beginning, was to provide an elite education to the neediest students in the valley. To compete academically with the top private schools in the valley. Students do well on the standardized tests that measure basic competence. In 2005, the middle school earned the only exemplary rating in Clark County under No Child Left Behind. The elementary school got the same rating two years later. In 2009, all three school received high-achieving status.

Students at Agassi have not done as well on Advanced Placement tests that earn college credit. Students in three graduating classes have taken a total of 37 AP tests and passed only four of them. The school has gradually added AP classes. It started with one in 2009 and now offers six. Students will take 59 tests this year, almost three times as many as last year.

Piscal started his teaching career at the Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, one of the nation's top private schools. He taught English to the children of celebrities and learned about the art of teaching from veteran faculty. Then, in 1992, riots broke out after police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. He began to think about how he could take that experience and make a positive difference in the lives of at-risk children. Inspired by Spike Lee, who used credit cards to finance his first film, Piscal put his first summer program on plastic. He called it the Inner City Education Foundation.

After a few years, he opened View Park Elementary School. Eventually, students at that school, who were almost all low-income and African-American, would outperform their peers at schools all over the state. View Park became one of the best schools in California. Almost 80 percent of students scored proficient in language arts on standardized tests. The results on math tests were almost as good. And it happened in a community where fewer than 10 percent of students earn college degrees.

"At View Park we closed the achievement gap," Piscal said. "On English tests, we scored as high as white students in suburban schools."

But as ICEF added middle schools, high schools and more elementary schools, the organization struggled to replicate View Park Elementary's success. Proficiency rates on the most recent round of standardized tests hover between 40 and 50 percent at most ICEF schools.

Piscal said the real success of his schools is measured by students who attend and graduate from top schools. His schools have sent students to the best schools in the country, and almost all of them are on track to graduate on time.

Piscal left ICEF in 2010. He resigned during a financial crisis that started when California slashed funding to charter schools. Piscal said he resigned to save his schools. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan bailed out the ICEF schools and tried to merge them with another charter. Piscal's resignation preserved their independence.

Now he wants to bring the ICEF system to Agassi Prep. He has already beefed up the AP offerings, and joined a program that sends high school students to prestigious universities for the summer. While he and his staff focus on adding more rigor to the curriculum, they will also brace for a flood of new students. The high school is doubling its size.

That growth may make it more difficult for Piscal to tighten up the academic standards. Parker blamed the school's rapid growth for some of the problems with turnover and administration.

"It was a school that grew really quickly," Parker said. "It needed more infrastructure and support. I've been in education for 30 years, and I never heard faculty and staff say there wasn't enough administration until I came to Agassi."

But Piscal thinks the school needs to grow in order to add enough AP classes and electives to prepare students for college. Right now, there just aren't enough teachers to make that happen.

Former employees have seen this before, a new leader with an ambitious vision. Unfortunately, most of them don't stay long enough to see it work. Unless Piscal can show results immediately, a volatile board might show him the door. Or he might choose to leave on his own.

"He's got a plan, and it sounds good," said one. "But he's got two years to make it happen."

Friday, April 27, 2012

Alpha Phi Alpha Honors Steven Brooks

Alpha Phi Alpha Honors Steven Brooks

Assemblyman Steven Brooks joined four other leading Nevadans in receiving top awards from Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s oldest black fraternity.
Brooks, who is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, received the fraternity's Award of Merit during the group’s 64th Western Regional Convention held recently in Las Vegas.
“To be honored by my fraternity, with its 105-year commitment to public service, humbles and inspires me,” said Brooks, who also belongs to Theta Pi Lambda, the Alpha Phi Alpha alumni chapter in Las Vegas.
Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas, state Sen. Steven Horsford, and Las Vegas Councilman Ricki Barlow received Awards of Merit as well. Clark County Assistant Sheriff Greg McCurdy was recognized with the Award of Honor.
The awards, which recognize community involvement, are among the highest the fraternity can bestow.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

It's About Results

In 2010 voters elected Brooks to the Nevada Assembly, giving him 62 percent of the vote in a three-way contest to represent the northeast Las Vegas Valley.

While serving on the Transportation, Judiciary and Health and Human Services committees, Brooks helped pass bills promoting green energy while protecting consumers (Assembly Bill 441), providing employment opportunities for Nevada residents on state-funded public works projects (AB 144) and a bill that ensured Nevada received its fair share of funding for vital Health and Human Services and energy programs (AB 172).

Brooks is asking voters in Assembly District 17 to return him to Carson City in the 2012 elections.