George Lucas Educational Foundation

Betting on Change: Growing Pains in Nevada's Boomtown

The Las Vegas building boom has stretched the creativity and resources of the fastest-growing school district in the nation. Read the article.
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Betting on Change: Growing Pains in Nevada's Boomtown (Transcript)

Narrator: Once a quaint outpost in the middle of nowhere, Las Vegas, Nevada has become a sprawling metropolis, and its public school system is still bursting at the seams.

Carlos: Clark County is the sixth largest school district in the United States. We have approximately 270,000 students today, and we, on the average, open up a school a month. It's kind of insane to be able to keep up with the growth. We have 6,000 people moving in to the Las Vegas Valley a month, from all over, and so our big push is literacy.

Narrator: At C. P. Squires elementary, 90 percent of incoming students don't speak English. For principal, Carol Lark, literacy is paramount..

Carol: [Speaking in Spanish]

The only hope our Hispanic youngsters have, I believe, is to master English, and then they will truly be bilingual. I say to the parents, it's your responsibility to teach them Spanish in your home, and please do that. And it's our responsibility to teach them English, and then they will have all their world open to them. And so I really believe that poverty and second language are absolutely not any excuse for not teaching children to read.

All: A, B, Cs and counting, one--

Narrator: Teachers here use a variety of techniques to teach and reinforce English language skills, from memorizing months with The Macarena..

All: May, June, July, August, September--

Narrator: To learning letters with computer technology.

Computer Voice: Find the balloon, T, T.

Carol: What I guaranteed each teacher was that if they would just slow down their speech, and teach everything three different ways, that these little five year olds are like sponges, and they will pick it up. And the brain research supports that dramatically. The first year it was very scary, because we weren't sure. Now we're positive. We know that it works, and when they go into first grade, we have 98 percent mastery of all letters and sounds.

Teacher: What did you pick? Baby animals.

Narrator: The school has received several grants and partnered with local business to create innovative programs like this one, where students get to take home a new book each month.

Teacher: There you go, that's yours to keep forever.

Narrator: There's also an annual district wide storytelling festival for fourth through seventh graders.

Student: She settled it on the last one, and then it was just right, and then broke it.

Ardelle: Storytelling is a way for kids to sequence events in their head. It also helps them to develop sentence structure and story structure, a beginning, middle and end.

Student: She saw the three bears and screamed, and went running out the window.

Student: [Speaking in Spanish]

Narrator: Squires also promotes literacy with after school programs for preschoolers and their parents.

Teacher: Number one, John is a student.

Carol: We knew we had to meet the needs of the entire family. So by working with the middle school across the street, the parents go across the street and get English lessons, which is going to enhance their future, in terms of job potential.

Doctor: Here, put this under your tongue.

Narrator: With the after school programs, and the opening of a new medical clinic on campus, the school has become the heart of the community, offering parents and their children everything from literacy..

Student: Stray cats are often lonely without--

Narrator: To line dancing.

Leah: The biggest thing, building self esteem. They didn't think they'd be able to perform. First of all, they couldn't even do the first dance. They said, we can't do this. Now they know three dances, we're working on the cowboy hip hop.

Narrator: While grants pay for many school programs, private citizens have also stepped forward to support their schools.

Announcer: Well, howdy, boys and girls, welcome to the McCaw's School Mine.

Narrator: Community volunteers built and financed the School Of Mines, and McCaw Elementary School, where visitors can explore a replica of a silver mine.

Teacher: This is the model of our mine. You can see a chute going up.

Narrator: Tours in the school of mines address curriculum standards in history and earth science.

Student: It has all these levels, called steps.

Narrator: And in hands on activities like panning for gold--

Teacher: Pick up the pan, let the ripples away from you.

Narrator: McCaw students teach visitors about the science of mining.

Cheyann: Over here are some little drills.

It's very interesting that I get to talk to kids, and I get to teach them what they want to learn. And they are always looking at it, and talking about it, and saying how cool it is.

Bill: I really think we ought to mount it on something that would look authentic.

Narrator: Local architect Bill Snider, volunteered to design the mine.

Bill: We went to Disneyland, and we went to the, "Indiana Jones" ride, where they created the illusion of taking people down underground and into a cave situation. So we sort of figured out, with the resources that we had, what we could do, and it's kind of funny, because the company that built the, "Indiana Jones" ride, actually did the work here for us as well. And what we did for them to do that, we had several kids help us write pleading letters to them, and we took the model that we built of this, and we set it in their lobby for about a month, before they said, "Okay, we surrender. How can we help?"

Narrator: Other privately financed learning environments include this tropical biosphere at Vandenberg Elementary School.

Teacher: What layer of the rainforest do we call that really high up?

Student: The canopy?

Teacher: The canopy, and the--

Narrator: But faced with staggering construction costs, and the lack of qualified classroom teachers for every subject, the district has decided to beef up its virtual infrastructure.

Teacher: Let's do a sound check real quick, and if it's all right, then we'll go ahead and get started.

Narrator: In Clark County, more than 4,500 students take online courses in everything from English One, to AP Micro Economics.

Jhone: The Clark County School District has about 15,000 new students every year. If we provide education at a distance, the student can be in their home learning without us providing a brick and mortar four walls building.

Teacher: Oh, Alyssa said no. What do you think, Alyssa?

Alyssa: I would think maybe 50.

Teacher: Okay.

Jhone: Online curriculum allows the student, if they have a question, to go ahead and e-mail the teacher right then, and not wait their turn as you do in a regular classroom, so the teachers and the students both feel that there's more communication in an online classroom when they're not physically sitting together, than they do in a face-to-face classroom with a teacher and 35 students.

Teacher: You have the full period to do this.

Narrator: Like many of his students math teacher Mike Patterson now splits his instruction time between real classrooms and virtual ones.

Mike: The particular design of this distance learning program, made me feel like I was still teaching, that I was still a part of the classroom experience. Students, they log in, I'm able to interact on a live whiteboard with the students, they raise their hand, and I see them in front of me. We speak through the mic.

If you look at your work, see if you should have been adding instead of multiplying them.

I want them to get as much as they can of a classroom, but online.

Narrator: Giving students the flexibility of scheduling courses online, also addresses another district challenge, a high dropout rate.

Carlos: Las Vegas is different than anywhere I've ever been, because think about it, if you drop out of school here, people have jobs. And just think, you can earn between 40 to 80,000 dollars parking cars here.

Joe: Okay, have a good night.

Carlos: So it's a very unique situation.

Joe: I think I can make up to 130 dollars a night on the weekends, maybe, and it's real easy, because you don't need the education to make the money.

Narrator: Now Joe Patterna can pursue his high school diploma and keep his night job, thanks to a unique high school that caters to students who have dropped out in the past.

Kay: We have kids that work early morning construction, we have kids that work late night at casinos, and so the high school that goes from two in the afternoon to nine o'clock in the evening is perfect for these kids. They don't have to give up their education if they need money, and they need a job. We have a day nursery with our school, which allows the mother and the father to come to school and have their child on campus and safely cared for.

Student: Does this have anything to do with the negative and the positive, when you've got to find the--

Teacher: Sure does.

Kay: I'd say the one thing that is common about all of our students is they're very graduation focused. They want to graduate, they want to be successful.

Narrator: Success for the Clark County School District means overcoming illiteracy, stemming the dropout rate, and addressing the needs of 15,000 new students each year. The key, says, Garcia, is embracing change.

Carlos: We have an advantage over everyone in this country, because with the growth, everybody expects change. You don't need a rearview mirror when you're going the speed of light. And here, we're going the speed of light. We're always building, we always have to train people, hire people. Our cup is not empty, it's overflowing with good things. Can we still improve? Absolutely. And I think that educators have to be critical of our own practices, and we can adapt programs and be at the head of it, and instead of reacting, pro-act to create things for the future, and boy, you can't beat that. It doesn't get any more exciting than that right now.

Narrator: For more information on, What Works in Public Education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Roberta Furger
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Rob Weller
  • Jeremy Settles


  • Kris Welch

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Additional Footage Courtesy of

  • The KLVX Communications Group
  • Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

Editor's Note: Carlos Garcia moved on from the Clark County School District in 2005. He now serves as superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District. Carol Lark, principal of C.P. Squires Elementary School when this video was produced, has also left the Clark County School District and is now superintendent of a school district in northern Nevada.

View all our videos about Las Vegas:

Betting on Change: Growing Pains in Nevada's Boomtown
Las Vegas's booming economy challenges the area's schools.

Mentors Improve Graduation in Las Vegas
In a place where dropouts earn $50,000 per year parking cars, Clark County, Nevada, schools keep students on the diploma track.

Late-Night Learning: Alternative Scheduling for the School Day
This unique school caters to students with full-time day jobs.

A Community Collaborates in Education
C.P. Squires Elementary School harnesses parents, businesspeople, and retirees for academic and financial support and staff after-school programs.

Simulating Environments: Real-Life Replicas Engage Students A rain forest dome and a mock-up of a silver mine enhance science learning in Clark County, Nevada.

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