A dozen years ago, Kathleen Decker, '94 M.Ed., was a young, eager, first-time principal. Walter Bracken Elementary was an underperforming school near downtown Las Vegas needing plenty of fresh perspective.
Today, Decker has helped make Bracken a model for other schools -- even some from as far away as Costa Rica, Japan, and Colombia. They come to see how the magnet school with a STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics) curriculum has made the steep climb into the top 5 percent for performance among CCSD schools. They come to learn from Decker, who in 2013 was named Principal of the Year by Magnet Schools of America.
"I made a lot of mistakes," she admits about her 14-year run at the school. "It took some time to get the amazing staff we have now." The key to the turnaround? "This school is no longer a part of the community -- it's the hub of the community."
Located near Eastern and Stewart avenues, the school is in one of the poorest areas of Las Vegas. When Decker arrived, the walls were painted a cold gray. Today the sand-yellow halls are filled with massive displays of student achievement, art, and other reminders that Bracken is now a success story.
Watching change occur slower than she wanted was perhaps Decker's biggest challenge through the years. "If you know me, you know that I like people to dive in with success in mind and it always works out. Having some people who need to see it before they believe is challenging for me because I believe in it right away when it is best for kids."
Bracken's list of changes is long and ever growing, as is its partnerships. The school won a Boston Museum of Science grant to help create on-grade-level engineering lessons. A local nursery and the Rotary Club help fund a garden and provide expertise on how to grow the vegetables. The garden has become part of lesson plans and Bracken students tend the vegetables, harvest them, and sell them at a farmer's market.
Opportunities for students to rub elbows with working world elements aren't overlooked. A recent Aladdin production, for example, put more than 60 students to work. There were actors, sound people and make-up artists, but also marketing and blogging teams to promote the event.
Art and math are conspicuously and purposefully intertwined so students know how subjects mesh. One art class builds animal structures out of Popsicle sticks. But the project employs measurement skills to assure the structures are stable. Separating art from math and engineering sounds silly to Decker.
"Have you ever met an engineer who was not creative?" she asked on a campus tour.
Beyond the Middle
The greatest turning point for Bracken occurred about seven years ago, when it became an empowerment school. Under that model, the staff person closest to the student makes many big decisions.
"It was a big game changer here," Decker said. "Our data was kind of stuck. We had moved our kids up from the bottom quite a bit, but we were kind of stuck in the middle."
Under empowerment, Decker gave up an assistant principal position to use the funds for teaching supplies, tutoring services, and a volunteer coordinator position. Parent volunteers now help gather support materials for teachers and make their photocopies, allowing educators to focus on instruction instead of administrative tasks.
Decker also reached out to community partners through the years, but not just for project funding. Leaders from MGM Resorts, Zappos, and other businesses shaped her perspective about her employees. "I had a lot of people talk to me about management style and empowering employees so we can get better results," she said.
Decker also says her years at UNLV helped create an enthusiasm in her for making Las Vegas better. "I love this community and the people in it, and they deserve nothing less than the best."
Turnaround Takes Commitment
One of Bracken's greatest successes is its Book Expo program, which encourages students to read series. This brought in the Advanced Reader program, which assigns point totals to books by level of difficulty and implements short quizzes to assure the students read the materials.
"We found even with our ELL (English Language Learner) kids this is highly successful because they become familiar with a character and they're not staring at a bookshelf for an hour trying to figure out what to read."
Decker said the changes have also created a culture of literacy. "When you're walking the hallways, they're talking about books. ... And yes, our reading scores have shot through the roof."
With others studying her model, Decker is often asked why so many other schools can't see similar results. She says turnarounds are a serious commitment, and you need to be willing to make mistakes to find answers. This can be difficult for some school leaders to embrace.
"They don't know what they don't know," she said. "All kids can do better; all schools, including mine, can always improve. We need to empower creativity in our leaders and let them know that there's the flexibility in place to use that creativity. This will help them succeed."