Graduation, not Education

By Joey Lovato, Luke Keck, Robyn Feinberg, and Jordan Dynes

“I love teaching, but that’s not the same thing as being a teacher…I entered [teaching] with a lot of passion, I was ready to make a difference, I feel like I did make a difference in a lot of students’ lives and that part was really rewarding. It’s just something that you pour your soul into, you don’t always get the feedback that I think is necessary to keep you excited about teaching.” Chris English is a teacher in the Washoe County School District. Well, he used to be. English quit after becoming “burned out” by the school district’s failures to accommodate the needs of teachers and their students, saying “I feel like the demands on teachers are higher than they have ever been before…I’m not very optimistic about the trajectory of things in our district right now, unfortunately.”

Data obtained from the Washoe County School District suggests that English is right to be wary concerning the district’s future. Although WCSD graduation rate rose to 73 percent in 2014, a three percent jump from the previous year, the quality of education has failed to improve. Out of all Washoe County high school graduates in the Class of 2014, 49 percent must take remedial courses in college, a dismal rate compared to the national average of 32 percent. “In the past 5 years or so there has been a large push at the district level to get lower level kids into higher level classes with the idea that those higher level students are gonna pull up the performance of that lower level student,” English explained, “[the district is] so focused on measures to get those lower level students to walk on the night of graduation that everybody else is kind of caught in the dust.”

Because of the addition of extra classes into school days throughout the district — for example, Wooster High School changed from a six period day to a seven period day during the 2012–2013 school year — English believes that teachers are forced to “water down the curriculum a little bit.” The district’s ACT scores reflect that, with only one in 10 high school seniors reporting scores which qualify them as ready for college, according to a report in the Reno Gazette Journal.

Although Area Superintendent Debra Biersdorff, the former principal of Wooster High, says that she would “like to see all of our programming expanded, especially as our district and community continues to grow,” English believes that teachers cannot effectively teach because they are already spread so thin. “We’ve created a whole bunch of positions that are somewhere in between teacher and administrator in our district within the last 5 years, that it’s taken [teachers] out of the classroom, which in my mind effectively makes classes bigger,” he commented, remarking that “I don’t feel like we’re getting the positive things out of those positions that were kind of in mind when they were created.”

The faculty isn’t alone in feeling this way. Jonah Yoelin, a junior in the International Baccalaureate program, an advanced learning track offered at Wooster High, believes that the education provided often fails to match the quality of learning that high level students need. “There needs to be more effort, I would say,” Yoelin remarked, “There are some classes that you can sit through and wonder if you’re really in an international baccalaureate setting.” One of Yoelin’s classmates, Daniel d’Olimpio, agrees that the school district does not focus enough on its higher achieving students. “I think that graduation rate is super important and needs its emphasis,” d’Olimpio conceded, “but also I believe that it’s really important for these kids that are spending their time doing the best they can in school to get these different programs that can really help them get into their dream college.”

Even a cynic would be inclined to believe that the people in charge of the Washoe County School District hold their students’ education as their highest priority. Unfortunately, according to a teacher who requested to remain anonymous, that is not always the case. This became increasingly evident in 2011, the source said, when a high ranking faculty member of a Washoe County high school said in a meeting that “behind the scenes” she was “massaging the numbers.” The source said that although “things were good, and I wouldn’t be shocked with small reported gains, I think the great majority of these large gains were due to one thing: better accounting of kids who left school before graduation.”

The source continued, clarifying “If [the administration] could find where [the students who left school] went…they were off the books, they could subtract them out of the denominator of the graduation rate equation. [The school in question] has a high transiency rate, so the effect of subtracting kids who left [had a higher effect] than elsewhere.” As a result, they explained that “it made [the school] look great, and credit for the gains was deceptively placed elsewhere, on whatever program sounded good to [that faculty member], and whatever she wanted to credit.”

In a state with the worst national ranking in education, it is no surprise that school administrations in Nevada want to raise their graduation rates to shed such an embarrassing distinction. Unfortunately for the students of the Washoe County School District, these desires appear to have come at a cost to the quality of their education. To many students and teachers, it seems that the district’s focus is on graduation, not education.

Audio editing by Joey Lovato. Interviews by Joey Lovato, Robyn Feinberg, and Jordan Dynes. Writing by Joey Lovato and Luck Keck, and editing by Joey Lovato, Robyn Feinberg, and Jordan Dynes