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What Happens in Vegas...Should Happen

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Nadia DeLeon’s alarm clock goes off at 5:30 a.m., an hour when thousands of other Clark County elementary school teachers are still entertaining sweet dreams of high-performing students and air-conditioned classrooms.

It’s early, but DeLeon set her clock herself. That is, she and her colleagues at Culley Elementary School chose their school’s starting time, based on what they believe works best for their kids.

At 7:30, she’s inside her classroom, reviewing lesson plans. By 7:45, she’s outside on the blacktop, listening to morning announcements—“Tonight at 11p.m., the buses leave for the field trip to Carson City!”—and greeting her neat line of fifth-graders. Not 15 minutes later, the kids are seated, ready to learn.

 “A typical elementary school here starts after 9 and gets out after 3. We start before 8 and get out after 2,” DeLeon explains. “That way, middle school siblings can swing by and pick up their little brothers and sisters…

“We’re not like other schools,” she adds.

No doubt! At other schools, the morning bell is dictated by decisions made at the bus depot. At other schools, the budget is developed in district offices; the daily schedule decided by the principal; and the curriculum picked from an official list of district-approved resources. Not so at Culley. Here, in the shadow of Las Vegas’s famous Stratosphere tower, it’s the teachers and education support professionals who hold the cards.

It’s the people who know best. Culley’s educators share the flexibility and freedom to make decisions through Clark County’s “empowerment program,” a 5-year-old partnership between the Clark County Education Association and the school district. Started in 2007 with just four schools, including Culley, the program now encompasses 28 and serves as a model for any low-performing school that seeks to transform itself. Its approach to reform is exactly the kind of collaborative work supported by NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign.


“You can have bold reform and union buy-in when you put kids first in the equation,” wrote NEA President Dennis Van Roekel in a discussion on National Journal’s Education Experts blog. And that’s happening across the country, he noted, from Colorado to Connecticut. In Denver, Colorado, it means a new union-led school, designed and run by teachers. In Evansville, Indiana, it means rewriting the contract so that educators can spend more time in professional development—and get paid for it. And in inner city Connecticut, it means allowing teachers to sit down with university advisors to make data-driven decisions about the learning environment.

These stories don’t usually garner headlines, Van Roekel notes, “because rather than a public fight, the ‘drama’ is the discussion and development of a bold reform plan that works for students and is jointly developed by administrators and educators.” But these are the stories of transformation that NEA celebrates—and these are the stories that should help lead the national discussion around school reform. (You can read more of them, and also watch videos from the sites, at

With $3.5 billion in federal School Improvement Grants going to the lowest performing schools across the country this year, there are countless competing plans on how best to spend that money. (Fire all the teachers! Hire a new completely unprepared staff!) But it’s stories like Culley’s that show the answers already are there—because the people in the schools have them. Wrote Van Roekel: “Bold reform is done with educators, not to them.”


Math quickly follows the morning bell at Culley and, inside Emily Bassier’s fifth-grade classroom, the kids are taking apart the concept of time: years, months, weeks, and so on. “Gino spent 72 hours in California. How many days is that equivalent to?” Bassier asks.

First the kids consider: Multiplication or division? They each draw a balloon labeled 72. Then they draw arrows flying out of the balloon: A sure sign that they’re envisioning division. Meanwhile, Bassier and two other adults, a special education and a resource specialist, patrol the room.

“You’ve got it! You’re a genius!”

Culley’s teachers chose the EnVision Math curriculum last year and the presence of the extra adults in Bassier’s room also reflects their priorities. Every year, the Clark County school district hands hundreds of thousands of dollars to Culley’s School Empowerment Team and allows them to prioritize their own spending, choose their own curriculum, and write their own schedule and calendar. It means tough choices—no field trip for the fifth-graders this year. “We’d rather have new science books,” says Bassier, the team’s chairman. But it also means that the people who know best can contribute to those decisions. Generally, the team has prioritized higher levels of staffing over new levels of programming, and it also has supported technology. A quick look around Bassier’s room reveals an interactive SMART Board, as well as a document projector. This year, teachers can tap into a new roving laptop lab too.

Bassier came here from another elementary school in Las Vegas. It was more typical—the kids were poor, the teachers were doing their best to keep up. “Both jobs are ridiculously hard, but I feel like everything we do here is so much more purposeful,” Bassier says. “At the other school, it was like a chicken with its head cut off. Let’s try this for a couple of weeks; if it doesn’t work, let’s try something else.”

When educators commit to a curriculum or program of their choice—because it makes sense for their specific students—it makes a huge difference, says DeLeon, who represents Clark’s teachers on the district-wide empowerment committee. “It really allows our school to focus on the instruction that our kids need.”

After 90 minutes, math segues into social studies and Bassier’s students quickly bury themselves in primary-source documents from the Mayflower’s voyage. This particular lesson isn’t out of a book—it was written by Bassier. So long as it adheres to the state’s skills and knowledge standards, she has the flexibility to design her own work. “I’ve talked to teachers who have said this is the first place where they’ve been treated like professionals,” she says. “We’re not expected to be just robots with a teaching manual.”

“We get to decide what we want to teach, when we want to teach it, and how we want to teach it. We’re not dictated to,” DeLeon says. But, at the same time, that flexibility is balanced by serious expectations that every child can and will succeed. Even as educators make their own decisions about curriculum and instruction, she notes, “We are completely accountable for every child in our classroom.”


The state of Nevada has had a law on its books allowing school-based decisionmaking since 1993. But it wasn’t until 2007, when a new superintendent was hired, that Clark County took advantage of it. “One of the new superintendent’s goals was to look at doing things differently and Clark County Education Association (CCEA) approached him with the concept of empowerment schools, meaning a school with the freedom to have more flexibility,” recalls CCEA President Ruben Murillo.

At that time, seven schools applied for empowerment and four were chosen, including Culley. Each receives $400 per student in extra money to pay for smaller class sizes, as well as an extra 29 minutes in their school day—which, per their union-negotiated contracts, employees are paid for. “We’re not going to authorize more hours without more compensation,” Murillo warns.

That first year was a whirlwind. Carolyn Stewart, CCEA’s liaison to the empowerment schools, recalls visiting Culley’s faculty lounge, hoping to talk to her members about their progress. But the lounge was always vacant! And not a soul on campus had extra seconds to stop and chat. Hard work, yes. But rewarding work too. Before empowerment, not one in four Culley kids could read on grade level. At the end of the first year, nearly half could, and their school proudly wears Nevada’s designation as a “high-performing school.” “What better testament that collaboration works?” asks Assistant Superintendent Billie Rayford.

This year, the list of empowerment schools expands to 28, but there’s not an extra cent for those schools to lower class sizes or extend their day. (Does Nevada’s governor really think that “gift certificates” for education, available for purchase at state motor vehicle offices, is really the solution to their horrendous funding crisis?) Meanwhile, the overseeing Central Design Committee, which, in addition to DeLeon, also includes community members, school district administrators, and representatives from other school-related unions, will continue to make improvements to the program.

More training might be in the works. “We really need to have a greater understanding of what it means to be empowered. Does it mean the principal is empowered—and she’s the only one? Unfortunately, we still have principals who believe that,” Stewart says. “You can’t just wave a magic wand and be empowered. It’s not a hat you can just put on. You really have to feel it in your soul.”

At Culley, the collaborative spirit extends to every adult, including education support professionals like Brock Woolston, who recently led an investigation of a proposed scheduling change. What happens if recess comes before lunch, he asked thoughtfully. What would it mean for hand-washing? Where would the kids line up? Where would they get their lunch cards? Is this going to frazzle staff? “What’s really nice with empowerment is we work as a team to solve problems and brainstorm solutions,” noted Woolston, who also serves on the School Empowerment Team. “The transparency is really wonderful. We all buy into it, so we all own it.”


After their virtual trip to Colonial America, Bassier’s students pack their bags and really start moving. For nearly an hour every day, every student at Culley has reading class—but not necessarily with their regular classroom teacher. The kids are ability-grouped, which means they might pick up their books and walk to a classroom down the hall.

In DeLeon’s classroom, she announces to her readers, “Bring in a shoebox. We’ll be doing a project next week,” and the kids applaud. “A shoebox project!” one echoes excitedly. Next door, in Bassier’s classroom, her reading group is working on bar-graphing their votes for the most important event in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. (Parents: Bad news. The tragic death of the Baudelaire grown-ups does not receive the most votes.)

“We are two completely different teachers with two different styles,” DeLeon notes, “but we’re allowed to stay true to who we are. Empowerment recognizes that we’re not cookie-cutters.”

Too many reform efforts make that very assumption—that educators, as well as students, are interchangeable. And that’s a problem. But the solution relies on the active involvement of NEA and its members.

At its core, NEA’s Priority Schools Project is about collaboration. Nobody knows more than you about how things can and should work, but first you need to step up and then you need to sit down with other school leaders. “Make sure your voices are heard,” Murillo urges. “Have your say about how the work and roles of teachers are changing—I’d rather that, than have somebody else tell me how it’s going to be done.”

At Culley, it’s clear the work and role of the teacher has changed for the better. “For me, [empowerment] has revolutionized the way I see my job,” Bassier says. These are educators who lead, who think purposefully and jointly about their mission, which is just this: Success for their students. “It can happen for every kid,” Bassier promises.

At the close of the school day, in those extra 29 minutes funded by empowerment, it’s happening in the back of Bassier’s room, where she has five fifth-graders, all sipping chocolate milk, snacking on cinnamon rolls, and staring at their teacher as she draws that same math balloon from earlier that day. Multiplication or division? She turns to each student, asking them to try again and then again.   “Stop, listen, and focus,” she says. “Michael just told us he spent two days playing a video game. I want you to tell me: How many minutes was that?” “Oh, boy!” Michael says.

Photo: Isaac Brekken

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