PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Washoe schools superintendent Traci Davis and school board president Angela Taylor are watching a sales tax ballot measure that will appear on the November ballot.

When a recent study showed Nevada had clawed its way up from 50th to 49th in the nation in the quality of its schools, folks at the Washoe County School District knew what they would soon be facing. And they were right—most news coverage did not distinguish between state and county performance.

“Look at Washoe County and judge it on our own merits, rank us on our own, and we’ll be in the upper half,” Richard Jay of Reno wrote in a letter to the Reno Gazette-Journal. “Washoe County is 15 percent of the student population, while Clark County is 51 percent. Looking at our SAT scores, Washoe County combined were 1670 compared to 1491 as the national average—11 percent higher. Our ACT scores were 25 compared to 21 as a national average—16 percent higher. Advanced placement exams: 56 percent of students took at least one AP exam, compared to the 33 percent national average; 34 percent of students passed at least one AP exam as compared to the 20 percent national average.”

The Washoe County School District received some more major awards this year—most recently, being named a “District on the Rise” by Education First, an education-improvement organization based in Seattle. It said the WCSD is “doing more with less,” which is just the message the district can use with a sales tax increase dedicated to school needs on the November ballot.

“The district directs its scarce resources to data-driven teaching and turning around low-performing schools,” the Education First report said. “The results: strong support among staff and community for reform—and achievement gaps that are closing.”

In recent years, the district has received awards for music instruction, and math and science instruction—the latter a presidential award. Washoe student Ella Breider is going to Wellesley after being named a national ACT semifinalist. Administrator Robert Sidford was recognized for blending technology instruction with academics.

There has even been non-academic recognition, such as an environmental award for less polluting buses and an administrative award for the district’s data system’s ease of access to student records.

And two school board members, Barbara McLaury and John Mayer, have received recognition for their work.

So for the school district, being grouped with the rest of the state is particularly exasperating when considering how far the district has come:

“Dropout Factories—that was the label given to nine out of 13 Washoe County high schools last fall [of 2007] by researchers with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools. These high schools have 40 percent fewer seniors than freshman. Researchers used enrollment data submitted by school districts to the U.S. Department of Education.” (“Will they graduate?” RN&R, Jan. 17, 2008).

By contrast, this year, three Washoe County School District high schools were placed among Nevada’s top 10 high schools by U.S. News and World Report. And the Washington Post named Wooster High first among Nevada public high schools for percentage of students who take and pass college level tests.

All this didn’t happen overnight. The district can’t drop a dime in a slot and get an award immediately. It has taken time, suggesting that the school board that was so demonized by the daily newspaper and community figures like Perry DiLoreto and Kathleen Sandoval did some things right.

Washoe schools superintendent Traci Davis: “For me, when people talk about the work here, I think that every superintendent and every group of board members brought something to the mission for kids. …You see, long term, a commitment to what’s valuable for us to move this vision along and everybody brings something forward, right?”

Too much emphasis can be laid on awards, particularly national awards. And just as a state legislator last year asked why the University of Nevada, Reno needed more funding if it had reached “tier one” status without it, talking too much about the district’s accomplishments could lead voters to think the November ballot question is unnecessary.

Washoe teachers leader Dana Galvin said, “The district could get to the point where we don’t have full-time subs in the classroom.” Her predecessor as head of the Washoe Education Association, Natha Anderson, said, “If it does not pass we will be going to double session.”

That kind of argument can backfire because it sounds like a threat, as some school board members have acknowledged.

Why does the district need money if it is doing so well now?

School Board President Angela Taylor: “Because we’re going to get more kids. We’re going to have more kids, which doesn’t have anything to do with the academic success that we’ve had. I’ll use the statement that the superintendent always said, that we are academically rich, but we are infrastructure poor. So one doesn’t replace the other. Academically we’re proud of the progress that we’ve made. We want to be able to continue that progress. But as we get more and more kids—ten thousand more kids over the next 10 years—we’ll have an impact.”

There are, of course, problem areas, as the RGJ’s series on special education is demonstrating, but no indication so far that the district fails to deal with them when they are known and within the resources it is given.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...