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Money Matters
By Jackie Valley
Photos by Jeff Scheid
Every school is different. But some challenges and triumphs are universal. Take a peek into today's education world through the lens of Sunrise Acres Elementary School in Las Vegas.
Every school is different. But some challenges and triumphs are universal. Take a peek into today's education world through the lens of Sunrise Acres Elementary School in Las Vegas.

Second of a five-part series.

Damien can’t find the paper he was warned not to lose.

The barefoot boy, who could barely contain his wiggles when an adult measured his feet moments earlier, peers into the plastic bag he’s holding. Nothing. He looks up and around and then stares back into the sack.

The small piece of paper is his ticket to new kicks. A mobile shoe store has set up shop outside Sunrise Acres Elementary School on a warm October day, drawing a line of giddy, young customers.

“Who is (Damien)?” a volunteer shouts over the happy frenzy surrounding her: children discarding their old shoes and scampering into the trailer lined with shoes.

The second-grader, still consumed by his hunt for the missing paper, doesn’t hear his name called. Only his old shoes and crumpled socks remain in the bag. Concern turns to panic as Damien looks up, wondering what to do next. Before he can act, the female volunteer eyes the frazzled boy and answers her own question. She hands Damien the paper she found, containing his name and shoe size.

Crisis averted. It’s a joyful day again for Damien — one of more than 400 students who will pick out new shoes, courtesy of a nonprofit organization called the Goodie Two Shoes Foundation. The Las Vegas-based nonprofit provides free sneakers to disadvantaged children, some of whom may be wearing hand-me-down shoes from older siblings or ones that are tearing at the seams, too snug or too big.

“Damien, here’s size 4,” says Christopher Everhart, a volunteer assisting him inside the makeshift store. “Which ones would you like?”

Damien points to a pair of red Nike high tops. He slides them on, but they’re too tight. This pattern continues, and the reject pile grows larger. Finally, on the fourth try, Everhart hands him a pair of blue- and red-colored high tops. Damien slips them on.

“Tap the back of your heel — one, two, three,” Everhart tells him.

“One … two … three,” Damien says, wobbling while testing the shoes.

“Do they feel too loose?” Everhart asks.

Damien shakes his head. The pair of shoes is a winner.

He gives them one last test — a sky-high leap — and then strides back to class, his old shoes and socks in a plastic bag draped over his shoulder.

Another day, another dose of community benevolence at this urban school. It’s a welcome gesture because, in this building on North 28th Street, the finances of the children’s families and the school itself weigh heavily on staff members.

All photos: A second-grade boy, "Damien," gets his feet measured and tries on new shoes until he finds the right pair on Oct. 6, 2017.  He received a new pair of sneakers for free when the Goodie Two Shoes Foundation visited the school.

Neighborhood Economics

Sunrise Acres isn’t a stranger to community support. Boxes full of hooded, zip-up sweatshirts featuring the school’s jaguar mascot arrived in late November. There was one hoodie for each student from donors who have been quietly providing a helping hand.

Barbara Bell and Lindsey Slanker discovered the school through charitable work several years ago. They raised roughly $10,000 in the fall to fund the 874 hoodies.

Bell, who owns a uniform design company, noticed the school’s hallways were more beautiful than the ones in an expensive, private school her daughter attends. But that observation coincided with this one: There’s great need among the students, many of whom come from families living in or teetering on the brink of poverty.

Hence the motivation behind the goodwill: “Just to help the children, really.”

Friends walk hand-in-hand through the playground on Jan. 18, 2018.

Other community organizations and benefactors do the same. The school has received books for students as well as food to sustain them during winter break — a dreaded time for some children whose regular meals consist of free breakfast and lunch at school.

The school’s needs aren’t necessarily unique in Southern Nevada. Sunrise Acres is one of 272 Title I schools in the Clark County School District, meaning it receives federal money because a large share of students hail from low-income households.

For land tracts within Sunrise Acres’ attendance zone, the average annual income ranges from $9,610 to $16,029. The median family income in those tracts falls between $17,670 and $33,320, according to Clark County data. At that high end, that’s slightly more than half of the the county-wide median family income — $59,993.

Staff know that every bit of community support helps. If students’ basic needs are met, they focus better at school.

Although household income isn’t the sole predictor of a child’s academic success, it can be a barrier. Poverty often breeds home and food instability, disrupting learning if children move frequently or go to school hungry. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds also tend to start school less equipped than their peers in more affluent homes.

Family members watch their children play outside on Feb. 21, 2018.

The financial ripple effect

The challenge isn’t lost on educators at Sunrise Acres. Enrollment numbers yo-yo over the course of the year as students come and go, leading to a 45 percent transiency rate. In other words, nearly half of the students are different by the end of the year.

The high student turnover reflects the financial realities of their families. Some live in weekly or month-to-month rentals; others couch surf with friends and relatives with no permanent address to their name. When the rent prices increase or their welcome runs out, it’s on to the next cheapest option. And, for many kids, that means a new school.

One of Sunrise Acres’ short-lived students is Martin. The fourth-grader with floppy, black hair and blue-rimmed glasses slides into a desk in a classroom. He appears at ease, talking to other students, as he opens a math program on a Chromebook.

“I move to schools a lot,” he says nonchalantly. “This is my third day here.”

The math problem on the screen involves finding the multiplication factors for the number “30.” Martin fidgets while gazing at the screen. He folds his hands. He stacks his hands.

Eventually, he admits being stumped.

“This one is hard,” he says.

Martin has attended six elementary schools since kindergarten, and his tenure at Sunrise Acres won’t be any longer. He’s gone within a month.

Transient students like Martin pose a unique challenge for teachers tasked with bringing them up to speed. The curriculum schedule isn’t identical at every school, so students who move frequently wind up missing chunks of content. It can have a snowball effect: Children never master the foundational basics of core subjects, making every foray into advanced concepts that much more difficult.

The school has taken steps to stop the revolving door of students.

Principal Margarita Gamboa tells parents of children who have changed schools often that studies show they’re at greater risk of not graduating. She then offers them a map outlining the school’s attendance zone — a small nudge to look for new housing, if the need arises, within the same area.

Not all take kindly to the gesture. Parents have snapped back at her, apparently offended by the suggestion. But others have stopped by the front office to confirm that a potential new rental unit is within Sunrise Acres’ boundaries.

Still, family circumstances force many children to move mid-year. That’s the case for 10-year-old Derek, who attends a free Thanksgiving meal at the school a week before the actual holiday. His mother, Rhonda, learned about the dinner from a flyer sent home.

The pair doesn’t have plans for the holiday. Rhonda, 37, says she’s on disability benefits, and the income wouldn’t cover the grocery items needed to make a proper holiday meal.

“This is actually our Thanksgiving,” she says, as Derek scrapes up the last bites of mashed potatoes and stuffing. “It was really nice for them to do this.”

This is Derek’s first year at the school. The fifth-grader, who has a black backpack slung over his shoulders and a sweatshirt tied around his waist, chatters about how he improved his grades at his previous school, Myrtle Tate Elementary School, in the northeast valley.

A mother and her son, "Derek," enjoy a free Thanksgiving meal at the school on Nov. 15, 2017.

“When I left, I was A-B honor roll,” he says proudly.

Derek wound up at Sunrise Acres after he and his mother moved to a nearby Siegel Suites, Rhonda says. But they’ve since relocated to another apartment by Boulder Highway and Tropicana Avenue, which is outside the Sunrise Acres attendance zone.

Like Martin, Derek doesn’t make it through the year at Sunrise Acres. He moves before the holidays end, onto another school and curriculum schedule.

For every student who does leave, there’s usually another child who takes his or her place. New students enroll weekly at the school. In fact, one little girl even took it upon herself to attempt enrolling.

In March, the 6-year-old girl walked to Sunrise Acres alone and announced to the front-office staff that she was ready to start school. She couldn’t tell staff where she previously attended school, and her parents hadn’t registered her here yet. Minutes later, the girl’s older siblings arrived, including an 8-year-old with no shoes, to retrieve her.

She had slipped out of their home without permission, too eager to start her new school.

A problem with parent engagement

Gamboa and the school’s social worker, Kira Ward, sit in a small conference room, paperwork scattered before them in early November. They’re brainstorming how to solve a problem.

Days earlier, all Clark County principals received a memo from the district’s human resources department, alerting them to a new policy: All regular school volunteers — defined as anyone who helps out four times per month or more — must undergo a background check and get their fingerprints taken at their own expense. The cost: $60.

The policy change stemmed from a bipartisan measure passed during the 2017 legislative session under the auspice of student safety. But like other well-meaning laws crafted seven hours north in Carson City, it came with unintended consequences.

"I need them here.
I want them here."

Parents sign in to attend a Family and Community Engagement Services (FACES) program in the cafeteria on Nov. 9, 2017.

“We’re trying to increase parent involvement,” Ward says. “This is a huge challenge, a huge barrier.”

In this hardscrabble neighborhood, where many parents don’t have credit cards or even a bank account, $60 could be the tipping point to eviction or a day without food. Cost is only one concern, though.

The other lies in a deep-seated fear shared by Sunrise Acres parents who are undocumented immigrants. Gamboa and Ward estimate that roughly a quarter of the school’s parents fall into that category. Some parents feel the risk of deportation is too great, despite assurances from district officials who say the background checks aren’t shared with anyone.

“Man, now this is a deterrent for my parents,” Gamboa says, frustration etched in her voice. “I need them here. I want them here.”

The policy stands to affect more than just the go-getter parents who jump at any volunteer opportunity. It could also prove tricky for parents enrolled in the Family Learning Program, which involves parents in the school and, for those challenged by a language barrier, teaches them English. They’re here at least once a week.

The pair settle on telling parents not to volunteer more than twice a month. It’s a workaround that should spare most, if not all, parents from needing to undergo the pricey security clearance. Ward will check a volunteer binder monthly to make sure no one is in danger of being here too often and, therefore, out of compliance with the new policy.

Not even 10 minutes after leaving the meeting, Gamboa runs into a concerned parent on the playground. The woman, 24-year-old Marianna, scurries over to her, taking a break from painting lines for new walking paths on the pavement. She’s enrolled in the Family Learning Program but was recently detained for an immigration violation.

Now, she worries her “fresh start” could be hampered by the new policy she’s heard other parents mention.

“I don’t want those fingerprints to jeopardize me being able to come here,” Marianna tells the school’s principal.

The young mother of four rattles off a list of reasons she likes participating in the program and, on days like this, volunteering at the school: The parenting class helps her better understand her children. The activities keep her mind busy and productive. And she hopes the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will be more sympathetic if she’s contributing to the community.

Gamboa listens and nods. She’s heard similar concerns from others.

Then she offers what little reassurance she can: “I’m going to support you in whatever way we can.”

That support will start with the red binder, logging parents’ activities at the school.

Top: Students interact with a teacher during breakfast in the cafeteria on April 16, 2018. Middle: Sunrise Acres Elementary School students line up after eating breakfast in the cafeteria on April 27, 2018. Bottom: Tino Mora, left, a third-grade teacher, talks to students during class on Nov. 15, 2017.

A penalizing policy

By January, more financial headaches befall the Sunrise Acres community — except this time it’s the school itself facing money woes.

Three months after Sunrise Acres celebrated academic growth that catapulted it to four-star status under the state’s updated Nevada School Performance Framework, which is an accountability system, bad news arrives in the school’s next budget.

The school’s budget for the 2018-2019 academic year is $882,322 less than the current year. Its projected enrollment also is lower by 75 students.

Gamboa dashes off an email to her supervisor asking the inevitable question: Why?

The response she receives is one that has ruffled feathers across the district.

“You may have lost staffing since you have reached four-star status,” wrote Celese Rayford, a school associate superintendent. “The teacher-student ratio increases.”

Twenty-two Clark County elementary schools earned higher star ratings when the Nevada Department of Education unveiled the performance framework results in the fall. The upward momentum didn’t carry over to their finances, though. Of those schools, 18 saw their budgets shrink for the upcoming academic year.

Sunrise Acres’ budget reduction was the sharpest at 20 percent, or the equivalent of about 11 full-time positions. School leaders consider it a gut punch.

Here’s why: The school district receives a chunk of state money for class-size reduction purposes. The program, which dates back to 1989, adheres to the theory — based on some studies — that smaller class sizes benefit students, especially in lower grades. Per state law, the target class sizes are 16 students in kindergarten, first and second grade and 18 students in third grade. But funding fluctuates each biennium, which often renders those student-to-teacher ratios impossible. The current funded ratios are 17 students per class in first and second grade and 20 students per class in third grade. Kindergarten is not included.

Still, Clark County education officials say the class-size reduction funding isn’t enough to guarantee those ratios within every school, so that money goes to struggling schools first.

Which is how Sunrise Acres wound up with a smaller budget and, therefore, fewer teachers allocated for the upcoming year. The new budget contains money for one fewer kindergarten teacher, three fewer first-grade teachers, one fewer second-grade teacher and two fewer third-grade teachers. Based on enrollment projections, the class sizes in those grades would be 21 students in kindergarten, 20 students in first and second grade, and 23 students in third grade.

Gamboa doesn’t mince words when she explains the situation, both in English and Spanish, to the school organizational team (SOT) — an advisory group made up of parents and staff members who help mold the budget and academic plan — in late January. They’re sitting in the cafeteria after school, scanning the budget numbers.

“It made me very frustrated,” Gamboa says. “Somehow we still have to sustain.”

Sustain is the key word. Funding dips don’t warrant academic dips. The school must at least maintain its academic growth, if not exceed it in quest of the coveted five-star rating.

“Wow,” a parent member says as she eyeballs the projections.

The group discusses its options: The school can either forgo smaller class sizes — and lose those teachers — or leverage other funding streams to cover the staffing costs the district won’t provide.

In that sense, Sunrise Acres is lucky. The school receives $323,387 worth of federal Title I money as well as $942,753 from the state because of its designation as a Victory School. The latter revenue stream is known as categorical funding, a concept pioneered by Gov. Brian Sandoval, which targets specific student populations. Victory Schools have large numbers of low-income students, so the extra state money is supposed to give those campuses extra resources to support the children’s unique needs.

The Title I and Victory funds are essentially gravy on top of the money doled out by the district via the strategic budgets, but in urban schools with larger shares of disadvantaged students, they’re meant to level the playing field.

Without those additional funding streams, Sunrise Acres would have lost positions and been forced to make tough calls: Should the school eliminate classroom teachers or the people who provide wraparound support to students, such as the counselor or social worker?

School counselor Megan Gutierrez conducts a lesson about being a leader on Feb. 21, 2018.

Instead, the SOT votes unanimously to put a large chunk of the Victory and Title I money toward staffing rather than curriculum-related resources such as specialized reading programs, web-based instructional tools and student materials.

The move saves nine positions, including teachers in kindergarten, first, second and third grade to help keep class sizes small. Sunrise Acres won’t replace two teachers who are voluntarily leaving to take jobs at charter schools.

But the patchwork solution leaves major questions hanging in the air. For instance, what happens if the Legislature doesn’t renew Victory funding next session?

The funding losses have irked staff and administrators at other schools that increased their star ratings this year as well. State Board of Education Member Felicia Ortiz says she met with the principal from Galloway Elementary School, which stands to lose five positions after becoming a three-star building. A teacher stopped by during their meeting, Ortiz says, and delivered a blunt assessment:

“She said, ‘I don’t even know why I bother to try to help these kids if I’m only going to be punished when they do well.’”

Gamboa understands the sentiment. In April, she emails the district’s human resources division with the following list of concerns:

“1. It is frustrating that it feels like we are being punished for demonstrating improvement.”

“2. The increase in class size would be unrealistic to meet the needs of our students. It’s challenging to work at an at-risk school.”

“3. Teachers feel unsupported when (you’re) increasing class size.”

“4. Sunrise Acres ES would have to surplus 11 teachers. (We utilized the majority of our Title I and Victory funding to reduce class size.) But then what about next year???”

“5. Sustainability is the goal, but would be very challenging to say the least! Sustainability: the ability to maintain at a certain rate or level; avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain.”

Mike Barton, the district’s chief academic officer, acknowledges the apparent injustice of the situation. But he says the district is obligated to ensure smaller class sizes in struggling one- and two-star schools.

The state released star ratings last fall for the first time in three years and, under the tougher criteria, more Clark County schools received two stars. Barton calls it a resource issue — not enough money to go around to keep all class sizes small — and laments the hit schools that improved are experiencing as a result.

“We should not be doing that to a school, frankly,” he says.

State Superintendent Steve Canavero says $301 million has been pumped into the class-size reduction program this biennium. School districts determine how to divvy up that money, he says, adding that it’s unrealistic to achieve the desired size ratios in every classroom. The teacher shortage poses a problem, as does the very architecture of some schools — they simply don’t have the room for extra classes.

Clark County officials said the district received $112 million this year for the class-size reduction program.

School districts request variances, most of which are granted, for classes that aren’t hitting the prescribed ratios, Canavero says. In the first two quarters of this fiscal year, the state approved variance requests for 983 classes. The state monitors compliance by examining districtwide ratios.

Canavero says the situation bears a conversation at the state level so schools like Sunrise Acres don’t feel penalized for doing well or, more importantly, slide backwards because of funding reductions. One possible answer: a scaffolded funding system that gradually decreases a school’s extra revenue after it shows improvement.

“As a school performs, how do you responsibly remove those investments that leaves behind the capacity for doing work?” Canavero says, summarizing the question at the heart of the conundrum.

The topic has surfaced at various governmental meetings this spring as the calls for more state K-12 funding intensify. In the case of schools that have increased their star ratings, it’s not that anyone really wants to yank funding from them. The problem, of course, comes down to dollars and cents.

State Sen. Mo Denis, who chairs the interim legislative committee on education, didn’t deny the need for fixes, such as scaffolded funding. But he framed the barrier this way when attending a budget advisory meeting hosted by the school district: “If we had a magic tree with money on it, that would be real easy to do.”

Ortiz says she sympathizes with the schools put in this position.

“It keeps me up at night because if I put myself in those teachers’ shoes, how can they feel confident that we have their back?” she says. “I wouldn’t want to work in that environment, so why would they?”

But the funding cut tied to Sunrise Acres’ star ranking isn’t the only financial blow the school receives. In early May, principals across the county receive an email from district leaders announcing a $68 million deficit, which they attribute to an arbitration award that would boost teacher pay and health-care contributions.

The result: Each school must shave more money from its strategic budget for the 2018-2019 academic year. For Sunrise Acres, the enrollment-related cut amounts to $93,876.

The school axes a third-grade teaching position as well as a support-staff position. To Gamboa, it seems like another unnecessary casualty in a battlefield where the odds for victory are already shaky at best.

“We’re bleeding in the teacher pipeline. We’re bleeding in the funding pipeline,” she says from her office, the quiet place where she pores over student-achievement data and the school’s budget. “None of that is being addressed so our education system sucks.”