On Location Interviews with Superintendents
Las Vegas Superintendent Dwight D. Jones
Las Vegas-Nev.—Dwight D. Jones, newly minted Superintendent of Clark County School District, has a saying, a sort of inspirational dictum, he repeats time and again to those around him: “Hope is not a strategy.”
In December, Jones officially stepped into the role of leading the country’s fifth-largest school district, which includes Las Vegas. He has needed an abundance of hope to take on such a daunting job, which includes the dual mandates to vastly improve education quality (raising a graduation rate that is among the worst in the country) and drastically reduce expenses (cutting 14 percent of an already skeletal budget).
Jones accompanies his sense of hope — the aspiration to provide all CCSD students with a quality education — with sober, rational pursuit of effective strategies to achieve those aspirations. His manner during our interview reflected both his sense of hope and his groundedness: he applied the same unfussy candor when discussing large-scale ambitions and granular policy matters. It was the manner of a man who knows the task ahead won’t be easy — and who’s ready for it.
Marisa Suescun (MS): What initiatives are you proudest of so far?
Dwight D. Jones (DJ): In Colorado [where Jones served as Education Commissioner], we developed the Colorado Growth Model for measuring how students progress. It’s an apples-to-apples comparison of how our schools are performing: it takes into account students’ academic growth over time. Fourteen states adopted it, including Nevada prior to my arrival. But it was not yet implemented. So my biggest accomplishment so far is the work in implementing the Growth Model.
MS: What are the greatest challenges you have faced in your first three months as superintendent?
DJ: Number one is budget. Out of a $2.1 billion budget, the governor is proposing cutting $300 million — which would mean 4,000 employees. That’s substantial. It’s about understanding that everyone has to make a sacrifice, and determining what’s the level of sacrifice. Secondly, we need better results. Our graduation and reading rates are not at the level they need to be. Our system right now is producing these results, so we need to change the system. To do this, we have to change the culture.
MS: What do you mean by “changing the culture?”
DJ: To foster a culture in the community that we need to achieve more — to raise the bar. To do this, we’ve got to be very accessible, be on message, and have a lot of conversations. One way is to put out transparent data, so parents can judge how their schools are doing compared with other schools, including those with the same demographics. That would start a different conversation among parents, and help them make informed decisions.
MS: Using the Growth Model data, how does CCSD measure teacher effectiveness and student growth?
DJ: Our Growth Model measures the academic growth kids make in the core content areas (math, literacy, social studies, science). Students ought to make at least a year’s growth in a year’s time. This growth is measured on a test. We don’t yet have accountability measures. That will be considered in this year’s legislative session. The growth model will count for up to 50 percent of the teacher’s evaluation.
MS: How do you balance meeting standards measured on tests, while still encouraging creativity?
DJ: It’s important that we establish the “what” — what do we want students to know and do. The state of Nevada has adopted national core standards: students should be able to move into post-secondary education or work, without remediation. The “how” should be at the discretion of the professional teacher. You need measurements to ensure that students are getting there. Because you can’t just hope, you ought to know.
MS: What will be the impact from the projected $300 million in budget cuts? You have stated it could mean cutting $270 in per-pupil spending and increasing class sizes by two to five students.
DJ: Those conversations are just starting. We are asking parents, community leaders, business and church leaders, “What do you recommend that we cut?” We are asking employees, “What do you recommend that we cut?” For example, employees might consider furlough days; we might learn they are willing to pick up more of their health-care costs.
MS: You said you want to transform the system to improve education quality, while at the same time make these cuts. Is it possible to do both?
DJ: Absolutely, it’s possible. We must focus our resources, and some programs we’ve got to cease and desist. We call those “sacred cows:” someone might like them, but if they’re not getting progress, we must reconsider. Online courses would help provide a rigorous environment to prepare students for the future, but at the same time cut costs. For example, if a calculus class has 10 students at three different schools, you could combine them into one class with one teacher. This has already been implemented in rural districts.
MS: How do you handle the great diversity in the student population?
DJ: Number one: we want to make sure that kids learn English as quickly as possible. We want to maintain rigor as they learn. When a kid speaks a different language, people sometimes equate that with the kid not being bright, when in fact the kid could be very bright. We train teachers in the inclusion model, which means support takes place within classrooms. When you pull students out, sometimes the rigor starts to change. We have to embrace the diversity. The different cultures and perspectives are an asset to the school district.
MS: President Obama has highlighted science and math education as a national priority. How can you encourage more students to pursue science and math?
DJ: Our Career and Technical Academies (CTAs) show that the best way to improve math and science is by helping kids connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the different jobs out there. The CTAs are some of our best performing schools, with high graduation rates and rigor. Kids can articulate, “This is what I’m learning,” and how it’s connected to the world. When they can make that connection, boy do they make a real effort! To the president, I would say, make the connection. He mentioned solar and wind energy. Well, that’s math and science, so those will be the jobs of the future. #