14 Schools, 1 Plan: Nevada's New Blueprint For ELL Education

Students draw pictures of vocabulary words
Kate Sheehy
By Kate Sheehy
September 09, 2013

Nevada schools have the largest percentage of English Language Learners in the country. For the first time, the state has designated funds to go directly towards improving ELL education. The bulk of the money, nearly $40 million, will go to Las Vegas’ Clark County School District, the biggest in the state.

Kate Sheehy
Clark County's new Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky attends the first day of school at Cambiero Elementary, another one of the Zoom Schools.

Stephanie Shank teaches a class of around 20 kindergarteners at Reynaldo Martinez Elementary School in North Las Vegas. 

Shank has been teaching at the school for 11 years and says, over that time, the demographics of the Clark County School District, and her classroom, have changed dramatically. 

“It’s a very challenging place to teach 100 percent, it takes a lot of energy,” Shank said.

In Shank’s classroom, the majority of kids speak little English and Shank herself speaks only a few words of Spanish. She says she uses a lot of visuals and touch and taste methods to teach kids vocabulary.

“A lot of pantomiming, I act out, I feel like I’m a clown half the time,” she laughed. 

Kate Sheehy
Stephanie Shank has taught at Martinez Elementary for 11 years

Martinez Elementary is one of the 14 so-called “Zoom” schools in the district that are receiving the new state funding. These elementary schools have the highest number of children learning English as a second language and the highest number of low-income students in Clark County.  

The added funding will allow the schools to offer smaller class sizes, reading centers that offer tutoring for students struggling with English, and all day kindergarten. The schools will also offer pre-kindergarten, something that is rarely available to low-income students.

Danielle Miller is the Academic Manager who oversees the Zoom schools.  She says, “we know that the sooner you get into school, the more fluent you are with your language and that’s what we’re looking for."  

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Danielle Miller talks to an auditorium full of teachers from the city's new Zoom Schools.

In addition, the program is designed to provide a unified curriculum and strategy for teachers and students.

“I think when you see 14 schools work together with very similar populations, you’re going to see them make strides at all of them and not just one here and one here,” Miller says.

Clark County has long been struggling with educating its Spanish-speaking students. A recent study shows that less than half of ELL third graders in the district met state reading standards. By eighth grade, only 10 percent met those standards. Many here in Nevada believe the nearly $40 million investment is too little to meet the need.

 Sylvia Lazos is a law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and was on the school district’s ELL Review Board. Lazos estimates there are about 50 elementary schools in the district in which half of the students speak Spanish as their first language. The new funding is a big step, she says, but it doesn’t reach every student and school in need.

“It is by far not enough, the blueprint is there, it is still a high risk proposition because the needs are so great. And it’s going to take every teacher that was here today in this auditorium to buy into this dream, to this proposition,” Lazos says.  

To that end, Zoom school teachers and staff will be getting extra help from a team of trained ELL coaches who will regularly visit classrooms. Classrooms that Lazos says are now full of students from struggling, immigrant families:

So when you have that kind of a child as a norm in your school, you have to have a different level of preparation, a different level of teaching strategies.

Academic Manager Danielle Miller says even this small pilot program for the Zoom schools is at risk over the long term:

Kate Sheehy
Students draw pictures of vocabulary words

“I think at the end of the two years if the results aren’t there, we have to be able to face that criticism, say well what happened?  We gave you all this extra money, are we saying money doesn’t make a difference?” she asks.

Kate Sheehy
Stephanie Shank teaches kindergarten at Reynaldo Martinez Elementary. The Majority of her students speak Spanish as their first language.

But for Stephanie Shank and her students, the school year has just started.  Shank says she doesn’t really know how everything is going to work, but she realizes that this population of students deserves the very best teachers the system can find, and train.

Well I think they come to school way behind, and its our job, we’re not just trying to getting them to go from a 3rd grade education to a 4th grade education. I mean we have got to make up a big gap, you have to have high standards and you have to have high expectations. These kids can do it.