Big in Vegas

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Its tacky hotels and cheesy cabarets have made the world's gambling capital a byword for human excess. But, thanks to a rapidly expanding and mobile population, it's the schools of Sin City that are now hitting the jackpot.

Gerald Haigh reports on a construction boom in the Nevada desert

Leave the casinos and hotels behind and stand at the edge of Las Vegas, just short of where the mountains start. Shade your eyes against the hot desert wind, and look around at the half-built housing estates marching out into the scrubland. Here's the reality behind the statistics that say Clark County, of which Las Vegas is the biggest part, is the fastest-growing school district in the fastest-growing state in the United States.

Starting from nothing at the dawn of the 20th century, the population of Clark County was 50,000 by 1950; now it is a million and a half. People pour in, drawn by the lure of work (every new Las Vegas hotel room creates two-and-a-half jobs, not including the construction workers) and the attraction of Nevada's sunshine and low taxes.

As a result the county's "school district", now the sixth-largest in the US, constantly battles to provide school places, and the problems land on the desk of Dusty Dickens, director of demographic zoning. "This year, our official enrolment (school population) is 255,800," she says. "Next year it will be 267,894. We grow steadily at 11,000 to 13,000 students a year."

To cope with this, the county is in the middle of a 10-year programme that will see 88 new schools built by 2008. The school district may have its demographic data and computer projections, but much of the problem-solving comes down to experience and local knowledge. To complicate matters further, this is a place where people are constantly on the move. A family coming in may well spend time in a rented apartment before buying a house; another may spend part of the year back home in Mexico.

"We do a lot of crystal ball work," says Ms Dickens. "The problem is that we have to start 30 months ahead when planning a new school; that's a long way ahead of the data."

It's no surprise, then, that despite the best efforts of Ms Dickens and her team, the numbers don't always add up. Recently, a school built for 920 children had 1,300 by the time it opened. "We have a large number of portables ready for when that happens," she says.

At least the actual opening process seems to go smoothly. Lee Douglass, principal of Joseph Neal elementary, who opened her school four years ago, says: "I didn't have to worry about anything; everything was on time. I was appointed in March, and between then and August I recruited my staff and did development work with them. The building was completed in July and in August we moved in."

Ms Douglass also spent a lot of the time between March and the summer visiting children who were coming to her, reading to them, reassuring them, and meeting their parents. "I had so many focus meetings," she says. "By the time we opened, everyone knew what to expect."

Clearly, there is a need for that kind of groundwork. The big downside to an expanding and mobile school population is the way children are moved around from school to school as their zones (catchment areas) are drawn and redrawn. When Joseph Neal opened it took in pupils from four elementary schools, many of whom had already moved at least once. "Most of them had already been re-zoned," says Ms Douglass. "Some had been to four or five elementary schools by the time they came here."

And there were more complications. Joseph Neal's roll yo-yoed between 700 and 1,200 in its first two years as children moved in from overcrowded schools and out again to new ones. On average, a third of the county's children do not complete even one full year at the school they first attend, explains Ms Douglass.

"You move according to which street you live in, and which house number," she says. "In one street I pulled in all the odd numbers. It's as clear-cut as that."

But the process is not exactly dictatorial. There is a zoning commission with elected representatives and public meetings, and some exemptions; for instance, high school seniors coming up to graduation don't move, and Ms Douglass tries to exempt her grade 5s, who are in their final elementary year. In the end, though, people have to go where they're put.

Dusty Dickens says: "People want to know why you're picking on them; many of them are comfortable with their schools, after all. But somebody has to move, and once the school board takes action, it's final."

Lee Douglass adds: "Everybody gets used to it. But it does mean parents don't want to commit too much to their school in case they are re-zoned the following year. It's a challenge to get parents on board."

With all that going on, it's hardly surprising that Clark County has problems with the performance of its schools. The high school drop-out rate is above average, and this year 30 of the 37 Nevada schools deemed inadequate are in the county. In other words, more than 40 per cent of the county's students are in the bottom quarter on national norms.

To the outsider, the wonder is not that there are schools in difficulty, but that so many of them succeed. Joseph Neal elementary, for instance, currently with 800 pupils, has test results (in language, arts, maths and reading) well above the national average. It is a delight to visit. The air-conditioned building is alive with colour and cheerful displays.

Children are open, friendly and engaged, and there is much the same focus on an imaginative approach to literacy and numeracy that you'd find in the best UK primaries.

The children and their principal evidently like each other, too - to a degree that seems remarkable in a school where so many people come and go.

Indeed, Ms Douglass is unfazed by the problems of pupil mobility, and is convinced the solution lies in sticking to a well-defined programme of teaching and learning.

"It makes you focus," she says. "You have to be so concentrated on instruction and curriculum that it makes you a little more tired than you might be in a more stable place."

A stickler for consistency and a predictable, secure environment, Ms Douglass swears by the books and resources of Harry K Wong, a writer and guru who is popular in the US and who promotes a child-friendly but highly organised and consistent approach to the teaching of young children. "It's procedure, procedure, procedure," she says. "If a new kid comes in, the procedures are so tight that it doesn't take long for them to feel at home."

Her cheerfulness and energy seem boundless. One Monday morning she emailed me from school at 5am Nevada time, having worked all Sunday night before flying out to Louisiana to speak at a course.

"I love it here," she says. "I have a wonderful staff - I personally hired them - and I have this fabulous building. Why would I ever move?"

At a time when budget cuts have taken away both her computer specialist and the teacher running her "gifted and talented" education programme, that sounds like genuine Las Vegas-style optimism.

The First Days of School by Harry K Wong and Rosemary T Wong is published by Harry K Wong. For more details, see

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