“This is our musical fairy garden,” Katie Decker says. I look around the patch of weeds we stand on in the side yard of Walter Bracken Elementary School: There’s nothing much here but a chain-link fence. We are in a rough-hewn, working-class neighborhood a few miles northwest of the newly vibrant heart of Downtown Las Vegas. My feet are sinking into loose, dry dirt.
“It’s going to be great,” says Decker, who as Bracken’s principal since 2001 has helped turn a once-troubled school into a high-performer. “We’ll have wind chimes and big colorful PVC pipes kids can bang on; and they’ll build little huts. We’ll probably go with artificial turf.” She says this quickly, happily, with a certainty you don’t question. You instantly believe that, yes, this will be a musical fairy garden—whatever that is—and it’ll be awesome.
She’s wearing a purple sundress and narrow eyeglasses with her hair pulled back; her words come easily. She’s a communicator. If I’ve gleaned one driving philosophy in the first hour with Decker, it’s that she believes many of Clark County School District’s education woes actually can be addressed with attitude—not just a positive attitude, but a relentlessly capable and socially active one.
At first, it sounds a little like magical thinking to me—magical fairy garden thinking. I mean, we’re talking about a state that’s perennially near the bottom of national education rankings.
I remind her of this as we continue our tour of Bracken, which is also home to the magnet school called the STEAM Academy—Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. She greets the janitor by name; she sweet-talks the campus’ tortoises in the courtyard; she points to a giant outdoor chess set—every kid at this school learns chess in the third grade. Critical thinking.
I’m about to assert that it’s time to give up on public education, particularly of the traditional classroom variety. Decker has heard my line of doubt so many times, she’s answering me before I finish reciting the horrors of the CCSD educational sinkhole, and our conversation becomes a familiar duet:
Me: It’s a transient community where it’s difficult to recruit and retain qualified teachers; it’s a community based on low-education jobs that has no state income-tax pot; we have a growing English-as-a-second-language population that needs more attention in the classroom; 60 percent of our kids qualify as food-needy for free meals at school …
Decker: Community? Did I hear you say the word ‘community?’ That’s the point. There’s a way to fix everything. If the school district can’t help, someone else can. Parents, ideally; more likely a civic group or a business willing to donate mentors and time and money.
Me: Now, that’s magical thinking.
She stops and ticks off a list of businesses and civic organizations that have given generously to Bracken: the Las Vegas Rotary Club, MGM Resorts, the Starbucks down the street, some neighborhood teenagers. For Decker, community is key for students, for teachers and for the success of education. Social interaction isn’t only critical between kids of all kinds in classrooms, but between schools and the community—it’s a reciprocal relationship.
We walk on. I notice a giant periodic table on the science classroom wall, next to a poster showing the life cycle of a plant from seed to seed-giver; and nearby, a line of potted plants kids are raising. Chemistry, ecological cycles, community. I get it.
But not every campus hosts a magnet school where attentive parents want to send their kids, and which draws the attention of donors with its specific mission. The hard truth is that many schools aren’t very good at either networking with the community or socializing children, and these failures are mutually reinforcing—particularly when the common refrain, constantly reiterated in the media, is that our schools are terrible.
And throughout the school district, many parents I spoke with expressed concern that they’re sending their kids off to schools where, due to a variety of challenges in the classroom, they’re ultimately “just a number.” Large class sizes leave some teachers struggling to control ill-behaved kids, and test-score obsession leaves much to be desired in nurturing positive socialization. As one parent put it, “They just soak up all kinds of garbage from their peers there.”
So while we continue touring Bracken, I’m thinking the “It Takes a Village” approach seems as passé as “Just Do It” in this educational climate where polemical debates about core curriculum and testing have created a cottage industry of educational policy paralysis.
Because our village is a little sketchy, right? In May, a 15-year-old CCSD student was killed on the street during the theft of his iPad. One of the suspects, now awaiting trial, was an 18-year-old high school baseball star. In 2012, a couple of other students were charged with criminal assault after video-recording themselves punching a disadvantaged kid—bullying now stretches from the playground to Facebook to sexting and back. In 2011, one local principal made national news for trying to help indigent parents pay their electric bills—causing a brouhaha among teachers and other principals: Was that now their responsibility, too? And how can they teach kids to read in an impoverished climate like that? And why should the kids with better family lives lose traction while waiting for the others?
So I ask Decker the questions again in the context of this bigger picture: What are we getting our kids into? Is it really worth it to send them to public school anymore—is there still any social value in the old classroom model? Shouldn’t we be pursuing new, small-group or individualized models that leave the traditional classroom and its discontents behind?
Decker gives me a look. She takes a deep breath—perhaps the first in hours, days, weeks. She stops mid-stride and tells me that her own sisters—her own sisters!—home-school their kids; some in-town, some out-of-town.
“Listen,” Decker says. “Everyone’s different.” It’s a refrain I will hear again and again when asking experts and parents and teachers and bureaucrats and students about their educational philosophies, about their ideas for improvement, about whether we need to re-configure the classroom model. Or ditch it.
“But,” she says, “I believe in public schools. I believe they have value to the students and to the community.”
The public school dream
It seems like that’s an excellent place to reframe the education conversation—by asking first whether, as a community, we’re committed to the ideal values of public education. If we can remember them.
“Community” is a bit of a hot word in Las Vegas. People are somewhat obsessed with a perceived lack of community here, given the transience and suburban sprawl. Locals are frequently defensive about the “no-community” allegation from outsiders, and the last several years have brought a proud, sometimes clamorous movement to build—or rebuild—an authentic community, starting Downtown and moving outward. We’re pretty focused on the idea that creating more face-to-face, spontaneous interaction between different types of people in one densely populated city will spawn creativity and lead to more culture and business.
So the way that Decker conflates the value of community in school and school in community is noteworthy.
For starters, by putting everyone in a classroom, we’re teaching the fundamental value of togetherness rather than, well, encouraging educational sprawl.
But to be even more wonky: Historically and ideally, public education in America has served as an institution to unite a diverse population of immigrants. The goal: to provide an equal opportunity to advance socially, culturally and economically. The state-by-state spread of public schools after the Revolutionary War (yes, I just went to the Crossing of the Delaware in a story about the CCSD) was an antidote to a rigidly stratified world in which education had been reserved for the wealthy and primarily delivered by churches.
Notions of equality and diversity have always been at the core of public schools in the United States. Call it magical, absurd thinking, but compulsory, government-funded education should enable the people—in a nation governed by the people, after all—to participate effectively in the Great American Debate. In addition to the fundamentals—reading, writing, math, technology—public education helps define civic life and develop social consciousness. Indeed, public schools have long provided a framework on which we periodically fine-tune our national values—think of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in our schools.
Also important—and I’m never sure why Las Vegas policy-makers don’t embrace this—is that good public education attracts business. For years, studies have told us that a major barrier to economic diversification in Las Vegas is a weak school system, from kindergarten through the university. Perhaps if the community collaborated on, and prioritized, our network of schools as energetically as efforts like Downtown redevelopment, the city’s appeal for new industry would further multiply: In time, we’d have a more educated pool of workers and an environment that breeds a more complex and appealing culture.
Let’s get together
Since Decker’s arrival as a first-year principal 12 years ago—when Bracken also welcomed STEAM—the school’s students have shown a steady rise in test scores. They’re now second-highest in the district in math, third in science and 10th in reading comprehension. (About those reading scores, Decker says, “We’ll get ’em this year!”)
Regardless of the advantages of hosting a magnet school and the debate as to whether those test scores are the best way to measure progress, that sense of teamwork and ambition pervades the school—and that can’t be a bad thing. Throughout the Bracken campus, walls are painted with life-size images of people in different professions: Financial adviser. Optometrist. Councilman. Policeman.
“Motivation is a big factor,” Decker says. “They need to see what they can be.” As I look around at the somewhat downtrodden neighborhood and then back at the picture of the financial analyst and optometrist on the wall, I see a value in sending kids to campus.
We move on into the music room, which is painted red and blue with a Mickey Mouse theme. Decker tells me she let all of her teachers paint the walls in their rooms however they saw fit—which went against District policy, but gave the teachers a sense of investment.
Democratic socialization has often been both an ideal and a battleground. It’s even more complicated by the information and technological revolution—which offers both a means to abandon the classroom by choosing online education, and a new fear of what kinds of media some kids may be exposed to by their friends in school, making homeschooling a tempting retreat.
But the virtual world we’re in now makes a network of face-to-face neighborhood classrooms more valuable than ever. As mass media fractures information into innumerable niche outlets, creating echo chambers where we hear only what we want to hear, a public school system—we have 357 schools in CCSD—is one of few networks where we can work on fortifying an all-inclusive, diverse community that considers divergent ideas and fosters critical thinking. A training ground for both respectful cooperation and developing individualism. In an age of high-stakes standardized testing, and a culture of irony, this seems a dewy ideal. But the classroom may still be the last, best hope for planting the seeds of real civil discourse.
Of course it may also be the place where your kid learns to sext.
Still—even as the ideal collides with the real, the musical fairy garden with the dirt yard, Decker opts for togetherness.
Bracken’s magnet school students and neighborhood school students occupy the same classrooms—10 of 22 kids in each first-grade class are from the neighborhood, 12 from the magnet school.
Her Asperger’s syndrome kids are mixed in classrooms with other kids; she had a classroom wall physically knocked down between a class of the language-disabled kids and another class. “If you put language-delayed kids with other language-delayed kids, how are you going to get them to speak?” She has two teenage children of her own who struggled with dyslexia early on; now they volunteer at Bracken as mentors.
Several times, Decker has pulled in older neighborhood kids to be a part of the campus. “I saw these kids out there skateboarding on our sidewalks, and it was creating quite a racket,” she says. “So I went outside and I said, ‘Hey. Do you guys like to paint? Because I need some walls painted. Would you get permission from your parents and help me out with that?”
Within a few weeks, walls that were once tagged with graffiti were painted with creative murals; weather-damaged block walls across the street from the school were painted with kid-friendly scenes, and the whole neighborhood benefited.
“If you tell them to get off the property, you’re going to get a fight,” Decker says. “If you include them in a goal, you’ve got a new partnership.” She also let them in on plans that the City of Las Vegas had for a new nearby skate park. “It’s not all about my school. I knew they’d be happy to hear that they were getting a new park in their neighborhood.”
That networking doesn’t end on the block. The academic turnaround at Decker’s school couldn’t have happened without significant buy-in from the community—not just the district, nor the parents, nor the neighbors, but from dozens and dozens of community partners such as the Rotary Club and the Terry Lanni Foundation.
Bracken/STEAM has gotten businesses big and small to lend a hand, or write a check, without dictating curriculum. How?
“I just ask,” Decker says.
She goes to every networking opportunity she can, meets people and sees her job as principal as connecting to the entire Las Vegas Valley. “I tell people all about my school. I tell them how we’ve gotten better. I tell them how much I love these kids,” she says.
“People would ask me, ‘What do you need?’ And I’d say, ‘A 10-pack of iPads.’ Soon enough, I had enough iPads for each teacher to have one. Then we’d sit and share apps at lunch together. Then we got more, so that we could have two or three for each class to share with kids. Now every student has an iPad, but they are not allowed to take them home—we lock them up at night.”
When she decided to have a mini-construction site for her “little engineering students,” she called an architect to help design a play area. Then she asked, “Do you know anyone who has concrete? We also need concrete.” And she got another referral. And free concrete. And a mini-engineering site was built.
“People really do want to help,” she says. “They just don’t know how. I’m not shy about telling them.”
Her enthusiasm is truly contagious. I feel like writing her a check as we stand there. Especially when we take one more look at the dirt and weeds where the magical, musical fairy garden could be, and she tells me the kids voted on what they wanted it to be. So democratic.
But it should not be solely the principal’s job to network or fundraise for extra donations or programs. The more she tells me, the more I picture a slew of principals standing on corners holding out donation cups—not the ideal model for education. So this is where it falls on the rest of the city.
Ideally—why does this have to be magical thinking?—the community would reach out to the schools more, rather than limiting our conversation about CCSD to a series of negative headlines.
The school district has programs aimed at community networking. For example, the CCSD School Community Partnership Program facilitates connections between businesses, organizations and schools. There are programs ranging from businesses becoming a Focus School Project Partner to help a school’s select programs, to one-on-one mentorship opportunities. It’s about embracing public schools as the core of the Las Vegas community.
But that would mean owning up to other community responsibilities. One huge social burden that teachers and principals say sucks up valuable teaching time is providing social services to underprivileged families—social services that should be dealt with by Las Vegas’ threadbare social safety net. Someone needs to attend to abuse and neglect issues, hunger, poverty, health problems. These may not be the formal responsibilities of the public school, but schools have always had a mission beyond the chalk and books—a mission that responds to the reality beyond their walls.
So for now, Bracken, like many Clark County schools in underprivileged areas, has a clothing program and a food bank. “If we have a kid on campus who’s inappropriately dressed, we just fix it,” Decker says. “We don’t dwell on it. We establish an atmosphere of action.”
She counsels parents as needed and expects some to meet her every Friday to go over their kids’ homework. That doesn’t mean they all do; some are at work; some are in jail; some simply don’t want to come. When community services are available, she refers them. When they’re not, she just keeps working, keeps reaching out, keeps communicating with the child.
“If I have two kids like that, and I work with both, and one fails and one succeeds, well—one succeeded. That’s better than not trying at all,” she says. “What are we going to do, just find something to blame and give up?”