FEDERAL STANDARDS: Agassi school in class by itself
Middle school gets 'exemplary' tag from state
By ANTONIO PLANAS
Brian Thomas, principal of the high school at the Agassi College Preparatory Academy, prepares for a faculty meeting Monday. The academy's middle school is one of only five schools in Nevada labeled exemplary by the state for meeting federal standards. Thomas said the school's success can be attributed to advantages not available at other schools, such as longer instructional hours.
The Agassi College Preparatory Academy, at 1201 W. Lake Mead Blvd., opened four years ago and has only 150 students. Some middle schools in Clark County have more than 1,000 students. The charter school's day is about eight hours.
The Agassi College Preparatory Academy's middle school is the only school in Clark County labeled "exemplary" by the state for exceeding federal standards.
An official with the academy said the charter school, which opened four years ago and serves mainly inner-city students, can use tools not readily available to public schools, including more money to spend on each student, longer instructional days, and the ability to get rid of teachers who are not performing up to expectations.
More than that, it is exempt from some standards that larger public schools are required to meet under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The academy's middle school was one of only five schools in Nevada given the exemplary designation. It achieved that status because students exceeded federal standards by at least 4 percent, while decreasing the percentage of students who didn't meet federal standards the previous year by at least 4 percent.
Elementary and middle school students took a criterion-referenced test, which tests students on the state's curriculum. High school students were judged on how well they performed on the state's proficiency exam.
"We are very happy and proud of the exemplary status," said Brian Thomas, the academy's high school principal and former executive director. "But by no means do we feel that we've arrived. We have a long way to go."
Clark County School District Interim Superintendent Agustin Orci last week lamented the fact that he can't use the tools that Agassi has to bring the district up to federal and state standards.
"It's an example of a school that has very small class sizes. It's an example of a school that has an extended day," Orci said. "When you do those kinds of things, you'll have better results. That's the kind of thing we would like to do in the district, but it's cost-prohibitive."
On Thursday, officials announced that more than two-thirds of the district's schools didn't meet No Child Left Behind Act standards for the 2004-05 year. The number of failing schools ballooned to 205 from 141 the previous year.
In an effort to improve standardized test results, Orci said he will halt new educational programs and pledged to get rid of programs that aren't effective.
Orci also said teachers this year will benefit from a districtwide software program called the Instructional Data Management System. The Web-based system will allow teachers to track the performance of individual students and identify subject areas that need improvement.
Orci said teachers will use the software, which cost about $1 million, and give periodic assessments to students so they'll be better prepared for standardized tests.
Thomas acknowledged the academy has some factors that are favorable to students performing well on standardized tests.
He said the school has only 150 students. Some middle schools in Clark County have more than 1,000 students.
The charter school's day is about eight hours, while the average day for the school district is about six hours.
The academy also subsidizes state funding with private donations to increase the amount spent on each student to $7,900, about $2,000 more per student than students at public schools.
Thomas said his school has the flexibility of not retaining teachers based on performance or any other reason. Indeed, the Agassi School Board renewed the contracts of only six of its 18 teachers. Agassi teachers work on one-year contracts
The Clark County School District does not have the option of not renewing teacher contracts. Teachers in the district can be fired for cause, but once hired they're permanent employees.
Unlike Agassi schools, teachers terminated in the Clark County School District can appeal through the teacher's union.
An analysis of the charter school's performance indicates that, because the academy serves a particular population and is smaller than most middle schools in the district, the academy benefited from a state regulation that exempts a group's performance if fewer than 25 students in a particular category are being graded.
School performance is based on test scores on more than two dozen student group categories, including by ethnicity, students whose primary language is not English and special education students.
The academy was exempt from six categories because it didn't meet the 25-person standard. The school didn't have enough students to fill the categories of American Indian and Alaskan native, special education, students whose primary language is not English, Hispanics, Asians and students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
There are 36 categories of student assessments. If one category of students do not meet federal standards, the entire school fails.
Keith Rheault, the state's superintendent of public instruction, said the system favors smaller schools.
"There's a better chance they'll have every category filled at the bigger schools, and that's probably a disadvantage," Rheault said. "If you have less than 25 students in a category, it's really not a valid sample."
The five schools from five different counties that were labeled exemplary by the state would be considered small compared with Clark County schools.
Colt Goodman is chief of operations for the Keystone Academy, a charter school which served less than 60 students in Sandy Valley this year. The school met all the federal standards. The school was exempt from several categories.
Goodman said he is more concerned with the students who attend his school than with nitpicking state standards.
"If this school wasn't here, 80 percent of these kids would not attend school," Goodman said.
Three of the four charter schools in Clark County met all federal standards but also had several categories in which they lacked students.
Andre Agassi forever