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Concerted Effort

Clark County School District is ground zero for the issues rumbling in schools across the country. Here's how UNLV is linking research and outreach programs to help find solutions.

Business and Community  |  May 15, 2015  |  By Diane Russell
illustration of an apple that says unlv. clouds surrounding it says english, math, and special education. a magifying glass is placed above the apple and it says research.

Illustration by David Stroud

Symbiosis is one of those words so easily turned into glib corporate-speak. In the case of the relationship between UNLV's College of Education and the Clark County School District (CCSD), however, it is fitting. The link between the two never has been stronger than it is now, according to Education Dean Kim Metcalf. He said he and CCSD Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky "agree that the success of each of our organizations is dependent to some substantial degree on the other one."

The College of Education has grown from a training ground for entry-level teachers to serving the professional development of educators at all levels -- bachelor's, master's, and doctoral. But feeding the job market isn't UNLV's only goal. Administrators also are ensuring that research and community outreach programs directly tie into challenges faced by the nation's fifth largest school district.

Metcalf describes CCSD as a fascinating "urban context" unlike any other. "The issues themselves are not so unique, but the district is," Metcalf said. "In other large metropolitan areas, such as Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there tends to be a doughnut of suburban districts that surround the urban school district."

That makes it easy for suburbanites to distance themselves from some of the challenges in their neighboring urban district, Metcalf suggested. But these issues are increasingly touching all educators across the nation.

In Southern Nevada, those issues already are concentrated in one spot. CCSD is a massive district that includes both the urban core and the suburbs. With such a microcosm of national issues, Metcalf said, the College of Education has a unique opportunity to help CCSD meet its challenges while creating models that will help other districts down the line.

Math Proficiency

In 2013, approximately 28 percent of Nevada high school graduates enrolled in a remedial course during the summer or fall semester immediately following graduation, according to a 2013-14 report issued by the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).

"That's one of the reasons we have to look more closely at what we are teaching at all levels," said William Speer, director of UNLV's Math Learning Center and former interim dean of the College of Education. "We need to pay greater attention to problem solving and reasoning -- quantitative literacy, but not less attention to important mathematical skills."

Students do not have enough opportunity to develop creative, thoughtful interactions with mathematics, he said. They are doing, but not understanding -- eating, but not digesting. "Students who do not appear to be on track for college or careers need our attention, not more remediation," he said.

This spring, Nevada administered a new 11th grade math assessment for all high school juniors. He believes the assessment will help both the K-12 system and NSHE identify the gaps between the high school exit requirements and college and career entrance expectations.

"Too many students are caught completely unawares. Now the game-changer is that (this) assessment will tell them if they need to work more diligently to get up to speed for college," Speer said.

It is sometimes difficult for high school students to look well beyond their existing math courses to see what awaits them.

To go hand-in-hand with that assessment, Speer is working with the school district to develop a special math experience for 12th graders whose scores on the 11th grade assessment show they are not yet ready for college math courses. He anticipates the program will be in place by next academic year.

Other UNLV academic units also are involved. Last summer, for example, biochemistry professor MaryKay Orgill of the College of Sciences and education professor P.G. Schrader, along with several other UNLV faculty and graduate students, led a summer institute for 23 high school and middle school teachers from throughout Nevada. The goal was to show participants how to integrate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects through an engaging storyline.

The participants were asked to find answers to a "big question": "What would an alien eat?" They then participated in a series of hands-on activities in order to collect evidence that would allow them to develop an energy bar for a fictional alien in need of a stable supply of food to meet its daily caloric requirements.

Orgill said the institute was a success and another is being planned for this summer. It will focus on the math and science behind baking bread.

This year they are hoping for between 48 and 60 participants from Gear Up schools, schools that have a particularly high number of low-income students. The goal of the federal GEAR UP program is to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. The UNLV team is focused on helping the STEM teachers strengthen their own skills so their students will be better prepared for college success.

There are numerous examples across campus of programs reaching into CCSD schools. In February, for example, UNLV's College of Sciences hosted Math Day for CCSD students enrolled in magnet programs at Clark and Rancho high schools. About 120 students learned about various facets of mathematical studies and heard from speakers in a variety of professions who use math in their jobs.

"We wanted to talk to these math students about the universe of opportunities, in a huge spectrum of fields, that await them as they continue their studies in mathematics," said Tim Porter, dean of the College of Sciences. "It is sometimes difficult for high school students to look well beyond their existing math courses to see what awaits them in fields that increasingly rely on mathematical skills."

English Learners

Another challenge faced by CCSD is educating students who arrive at school speaking little or no English. These students aren't limited to the elementary grades. Students of all ages with limited English skills enroll in CCSD schools.

As of the 2012-13 school year, 16.5 percent of CCSD students were classified as English Language Learners (ELL), according to a 2012 Annenberg Foundation report. Overall, Nevada has one of the fastest growing ELL populations in the country, said Tracy Spies of UNLV's clinical and educational studies department. The top two non-English languages spoken among CCSD students are Spanish and Tagalog.

"A unique challenge when working with ELL is just because a child doesn't have proficiency in English doesn't mean they don't have a strong academic background," Spies points out. While one child may come to the CCSD with limited schooling because their life has been transient, a child of migrant workers, for instance, another child designated as ELL may arrive with a solid academic background, but learned in a different language.

Teachers have to overcome their stereotypes about students' cultures to be successful, Spies said, explaining that they must have an understanding of students' academic, linguistic, cognitive, and sociocultural needs.

To work effectively with English learners, teachers need additional training in second language acquisition and culturally relevant pedagogy, she said. The Education College offers four courses specifically for ELL teachers, leading to an endorsement that can be attached to teaching licenses.

Over the past three years, the college expanded the number of faculty in this area from just one to four to better address this growing community need. This has infused UNLV's teacher education programs with greater expertise in English language, content-area literacy, special education, and early childhood education, particularly for master's degree students.

I also hope we can use it to demonstrate to people that investing in the College of Education is a wise investment.

The college also has played a role in the implementation of the district's ZOOM schools. These schools, which have high percentages of ELL students, receive additional resources, including pre-kindergarten programs, full-day kindergarten with smaller class sizes, free summer school, and reading skills development centers.

In addition to overall ZOOM program evaluation, UNLV faculty members also now provide a series of weekend professional development training sessions to teachers in the district's ZOOM schools.

Spies said responsiveness has been one of the keys to the successful partnership in the ZOOM schools. UNLV professors listen closely to what the ZOOM teachers tell them so that they can tweak academic and workshop curriculum to align with what the teachers are experiencing in their classrooms.

Special Education Needs

The challenge of providing excellent education to students with disabilities in the CCSD recently became easier to achieve by virtue of a record-setting financial gift to UNLV.

In October 2014, UNLV announced that the late local philanthropist Kitty Rodman had left $12.9 million to the College of Education specifically to support scholarships and graduate fellowships for UNLV students studying special education, one of the college's areas of strength. It is the largest gift ever received by the college.

"The Rodman endowment will allow those already talented folks to move (the special education department) from being respected to being a top-tier program in the country," Dean Metcalf said. "I also hope we can use it to demonstrate to people that investing in the College of Education is a wise investment -- that things can get done, that people can really make a difference in the world."

The UNLV Foundation, the branch of the university that handles donations and bequests, anticipates that fund will become fully endowed in 2017-18 and eventually will award more than $400,000 per year to UNLV students.

Kyle Higgins, a professor in the education & clinical studies department, said the gift will help the College of Education train more special education teachers. Across the nation, school districts struggle to fill much-needed positions for that specialty, and CCSD is no exception, she said.

The college already has been hard at work to find innovative ways to fill the gap, said Joe Morgan, also a professor in educational & clinical studies. It is one of the areas for which UNLV has created alternative-route-to-licensure programs. The programs address the teaching shortage a couple of ways. First, they offer current teachers an efficient way to gain the specialty credentials in high-need areas. Second, they target recruitment efforts and student support to career changers likely to be attracted to teaching and then design the curriculum around their particular needs.

This year, for example, the college is expanding its alternative licensure programs to attract military veterans with bachelor's degrees in other fields. The veterans will jumpstart their new careers during an intensive, five-week summer session. They can then teach under a conditional license as they complete the remaining courses that lead to full licensure.

All these efforts, Metcalf said, will strengthen UNLV as a whole as much as CCSD. "Top Tier universities around the world established and sustain their reputations by meaningfully improving the lives of their constituents and stakeholders -- locally, nationally, and internationally," Metcalf said. "For this reason, it is no surprise that the most prestigious U.S. universities also are home to similarly respected colleges or schools of education.

"As UNLV begins its journey to becoming one of the top public universities in the country under President Len Jessup, the College of Education and its faculty have already begun the process of helping to reshape education in Nevada and beyond."