The Many Meanings of School

An archway of blue and yellow balloons greeted College of Southern Nevada students at the West Charleston Campus on the morning of Aug. 27, the first day back to school. Students ambled in with varying senses of urgency; some rode skateboards up to the campus buildings before greeting friends; others parked their SUVs and sedans in the surrounding lots and headed directly into the hallways.

The breadth of educational needs served here was apparent immediately inside the Student Services center, where an assortment of placards advertised vocational programs covering everything from wedding planning to green energy.

On the same morning at Clark County School District schools, many children showed up early to receive breakfast—more than half of the district’s schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-fee meals, making school about much more than math and reading. Indeed, at Whitney Elementary—where principal Sherrie Gahn became a minor celebrity last year with several appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show—parents show up with their kids to seek help with rent and utility bills. Gahn has done her best to assist, garnering national publicity and donations.

Meanwhile, at UNLV, some incoming freshmen have moved into dorms and set up a full load of courses meant to lead them toward white-collar careers, but fewer than 15 percent will graduate within four years with a bachelor’s degree; fewer than 41 percent within six years, according to 2011 statistics.

So what is the purpose of school in Las Vegas? Is it to provide social services to families, or to train our kids solely for jobs in our dominant industry? Is it simply to provide the basics of math and reading? Or is it to impart the skills necessary for critical thinking, and stir the curiosity for cultural engagement? Is it possible to do all of these things and still do them well?

For what seems like eons, community leaders have recited the notion that if we had better education, Southern Nevada would have better work opportunities—and that economic diversification depends on the quality and availability of education.

Yet it seems that the community is never clear on how to improve education on any level consistently. As we enter back-to-school season, teachers are still in a union-contract dispute with the district. This, after 1,000 teaching positions were lost at the end of the last school year, growing class sizes in some cases to as many as 40 students.

Similarly, UNLV’s budget was cut last year, resulting in the loss of positions and programs. Now, the Nevada System of Higher Education is considering a budget that would remain flat for 2013, but would shift some $13 million from community colleges to UNLV, based on the number of students who successfully complete courses versus the number who enroll. But this proposal, approved by the regents in August, will face challenges from a new and different budget proposal during next spring’s legislative session—meaning we don’t really know what will be the next step for Nevada education. It’s all egregiously convoluted.

Still, every fall, students come to school with expectations, whether it’s to have a meal or to have a good time, to learn a trade or to build a career. If we’re lucky, some of our kids will be well served by our system and go on to serve the community. But luck shouldn’t have so much to do with it.

Our schools—from kindergarten through graduate school—should warrant whatever attention it takes to be the kind of strong, purposeful pillars that define a community, rather than being its perennial lament.



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