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School district continues work to return children to classrooms

By Jeri Chadwell

The Washoe County School District Board of Trustees discussed Tuesday graduation ceremonies, learning models and potential cuts to its Gifted and Talented and English Language Development programs. A large number of public commenters and a fair amount of back and forth between board members on various agenda items pushed the meeting, which began at 4 p.m., into the early morning of Wednesday, March 10.

Graduation ceremonies likely to mirror 2020

Graduation ceremonies are being planned by each high school and are expected to look a lot like they did last year—with social distancing, car parades and drive-through events. If state-mandated restrictions meant to mitigate COVID-19 risks are loosened, there’s a chance students will get a the more traditional ceremony experience.

Some who gave public comment concerning graduations said they preferred the smaller, school-based experiences of last year to the usual ceremonies scheduled at Lawlor Events Center on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno. Others said they hoped for the same Lawlor experience their older siblings got.

Prior to voting unanimously to allow Superintendent Kristen McNeill to move forward in working with schools to plan graduation ceremonies, the board debated and adopted language to state that students’ perspectives should be specifically solicited in the making of the plans.

Those plans will have to be approved by the health district and the Nevada Department of Education.

Gifted and Talented Programs spared—for now

Fewer cuts than expected were made to the district’s Gifted and Talented programs at elementary and secondary schools. These plans drew large numbers of public comments when they were first unveiled in late January.

Originally, the board had planned to reduce the number of its “school within a school” (SWAS) programs from three to only one. Instead, these programs will remain for the time being at Caughlin Ranch, Hunsberger and Roy Gomm elementary schools through 2021-2022.

The school board directed staff to look into options for a more regional approach to locating these programs for the 2022-2023 school year. Maps used by the district to identify where students who are in SWAS programs live versus where the programs are located indicate that greater equity for students could be achieved by distributing SWAS programs across the district instead of the current model where the programs are at schools that are fairly close to one another—and located in Reno’s wealthier neighborhoods.

The school board also voted not to cut four gifted programs at middle schools.

It was proposed in January to reduce the locations to three. Programs at Sky Ranch, Swope, Pine and Clayton middle schools will remain in place. The district intends to develop an Advanced Academic Placement (AAP) model pilot at Clayton that will recruit high-achieving students who’ve not been identified as Gifted and Talented or profoundly gifted to join the magnet program in an attempt to increase enrollment.

At the high school level, the board decided to push off a decision to phase out Hug High School’s GATE Institute. The board voted unanimously to delay this decision until more is known about education budget cuts to be made during the current session of the Nevada Legislature. Hug’s GATE Institute currently has 99 students enrolled. The trustees directed McNeill to come back to them with more information concerning funding and the GATE Institute no later than December 2021.

English Language Development program changes slowly move forward

Changes will proceed to the district’s English Language Development programs despite protestations from some educators and students who’ve participated in them.

Over the next several years, the district will transition from a model that mostly uses full time English language (EL) teachers to one called a “site facilitator model.” The new model will focus on having EL teachers who work with other teachers to keep English learners in their normal courses while working in language lessons alongside the material those classes cover—from history to math and science.

Mandatory implementation of the new model won’t take place for all schools in the district until the 2024-2025 school year.

Learning model decisions contentious

While schools may now operate at 75% capacity under Gov. Steve Sisolak’s latest directives, school buses are still limited to 66% capacity. In light of this and other challenges concerning staffing and family preferences, the board voted to continue with in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for middle and high school students.

The goal, however, is to get as many students into classrooms as often as possible—so all schools will develop and adopt a plan approved by the district’s deputy superintendent and area superintendents to allow for an increase in students participating in full-time in-person schooling.

Teachers, counselors and families will be able to appeal to their respective schools to prioritize the return of specific students at middle and high schools. Should the governor issue further directives increasing school capacities, more students will be able to return.

Washoe County School District Trustee Jeff Church
Washoe County School District Trustee Jeff Church

Trustee Jeffrey Church—who said he hoped to soon see all kids in classrooms and cited student absenteeism and suicides nationwide—disagreed with the language chosen by the board concerning as many students as possible back under current state guidelines. He voted against the continuation of learning models as they currently exist.

“I’d prefer a can-do than a can’t-do attitude. And what I’m kind of hearing, correct or not, is the kids and the parents—many of them are telling me they want to go back. And what I’m hearing tonight is that you know better, that they’re wrong. You know better what’s good for them and what’s not, regardless of what they want.”

Church said he was committed to the idea of a full return to in-person learning with the option for families to opt out and remain in distance learning.

District’s legislative priorities discussed

Prior to the start of the school board meeting, the legislature’s Assembly Committee on Education met for a work session on several bills that would affect K-12 education in Nevada. Among them was Assembly Bill 57, introduced at the behest of the WCSD.

The bill would temporarily waive the requirement for pupil growth learning measures to factor into teacher and administrator evaluations. The waiver on this requirement would extend through the 2022-2023 school year. Thereafter, metrics relating to pupil growth and learning would again account for 15% of the score on teacher and administrator evaluations.

The bill would also suspend until the 2023-2024 school year the requirement for teachers to work with the principals of their respective schools to develop learning goals for the pupils by which they would be evaluated.

Introduction of the legislation comes as the WCSD is still working on its own two-year plan to address delays in student learning resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for hybrid and distance learning. It passed out of the Assembly Education Committee on a vote of 8-4 and will next be read on the floor of the Assembly.

Public commenter threatens more angry rhetoric at future board meetings  

A slew of public commenters showed up to speak during the meeting. They said things like the school district is turning out “basement babies” and thatit’s teaching children to think of themselves as either “oppressors” if they’re white or “victims” if they’re people of color. They called face masks “stupid” and called for the resignation of WCSD Board President Angie Taylor.

The commenter who called for Taylor to resign or be dismissed claimed that she had said, “being white isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be.” He said if a white board member had said the same about students of color, they would have been excused from the board already.

The characterization of Taylor’s statement was misconstrued and taken out of context. During a previous board meeting, Taylor had made comments to that effect but was clear that the only way being white is a bad thing is if a person is espousing white supremacist ideologies.

Paul White

Paul White invoked the board’s recently passed resolution against racism in criticizing Taylor.

“Your resolution promises that you’ll tolerate no biased, racist, bigoted, hateful race behavior and that you’ll investigate it, confront it, challenge it immediately. Nice words,” he said. “Why hasn’t the board confronted, challenged and investigated the complaint I made against the board president for the most racist statement ever made in a Washoe County board meeting [sic] since the school was formed. Quote, ‘being white’, Miss Taylor said, ‘is not necessarily negative, but it certainly can be.’”

White claimed the district had invested “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to create the policy and said he believed Taylor had written the policy.

“Where’s the apology to 25,000 students who just happen to have white skin? Do they have a greater propensity for evil? According to Miss Taylor, yes,” he said. “How about the 400,000 county residents who just happen to be white? Are they inherently horrible, too, because of their skin color? For the board to not jump on this instantly—say anything, require her to apologize—you need to confront it this evening. Add it to the agenda this evening. You’re able to do that many times.”

He, like several other commenters during the evening, chose to invoke the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., while railing against the board’s anti-racism policy.

“Apology or she’s no longer board president,” White said. “Or throw away your resolution about how committed you are to hateful behavior towards anyone. What, unless you’re white? ‘It’s not the color of your skin,’ King said. ‘It’s the content of their character.’ And if you don’t act on this tonight and demand an apology—and it’s two weeks overdue—then this is a joke, just like the acoustics in this room, like why those tables aren’t 60 feet closer so we can hear what you’re saying. There’s a good reason the audience is getting a little bit larger every two weeks and will continue to.”

Another commenter referred to the pandemic as “so-called COVID,” and Taylor at one point had to ask the commenters to please remember that the governor’s directives still require the wearing of face mask. Many had taken theirs off or were wearing them below their noses.

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