Halle Hewetson Elementary School was languishing as one of Nevada’s lowest performers in 2005. Fewer than 25 percent of the students performed adequately in math, and only 15 percent performed adequately in English and language arts.
That autumn, Lucille Keaton took over as principal. Today those numbers stand at 90 and 79 percent, respectively. Hewetson students ranked 10th among their peers in the state in writing last year. And a parent-teacher organization that had just 13 members in August 2005 has grown to more than 400 today.
Shepherding such a startling turnaround in even the best of circumstances is difficult, but to achieve them in a low-income (Title 1) school in a predominantly Spanish-speaking North Las Vegas neighborhood deserves special attention. Keaton was named one of 63 National Distinguished Principals by the National Association of Elementary School Principals in 2010, and last spring she was inducted into the Nevada Public Education Foundation Hall of Fame.
Keaton started her career in the district 17 years ago as a kindergarten teacher. The Mexico City native, whose first language is Spanish, used her expertise in English as a Second Language curriculum for more than a decade before becoming an assistant principal at Hewetson. Two years later, she was in charge and eager to change the school’s culture.
“Something was desperately needed to change on that campus to make achievement happen,” says Keaton, whose enrollment is 920 students, 89 percent of whom are Hispanic.
Like an auto mechanic working under the hood of a clunker, Keaton knew her school needed a complete overhaul and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Teaching methods were tweaked, goals were established, accountability was a must, and it was all nonnegotiable. Initially, Keaton encountered resistance to this discipline—for the first few years of her reign, the average annual turnover rate for Hewetson teachers was about 17. Eventually, though, everyone fell in line: After the most recent academic year, only three teachers departed—one retired, and two left the state.
Hewetson students read 76,000 books last year, with some students reading as many as 150. “It’s so wonderful when you go to dinner with them, and you’re actually having some really good conversations with these kids. They’re talking about the authors and different series, recommending different books … and you just go, ‘Wow! What a difference!’”