Councilwoman hopes to make pandemic ‘microschool’ program permanent

By: - January 8, 2021 6:23 am
microschool student

The Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy is a facilitated homeschool program subsidized by the City of North Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of City of North Las Vegas)

A public-private partnership launched to offer parents an alternative to Clark County School District’s virtual learning format may stick around even after the district reopens its brick-and-mortar classrooms.

In August, the City of North Las Vegas launched the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy. SNUMA has kindergarten through eighth grade students unenroll from CCSD and participate in a facilitated homeschool program that involves remote teachers (who are provided by third-party education companies located out-of-state) and in-person “guides.”

Following encouraging results from the first semester — and with no concrete timeline for reopening approved by the CCSD School Board — the City of North Las Vegas in December opted to extend SNUMA to the end of the academic year. The next semester for SNUMA students begins Monday.

SNUMA was originally funded by $320,000 of CARES Act money received by the city and earmarked for childcare. In December, North Las Vegas City Council unanimously approved $143,800 of the city’s general fund for the program, which it is calling the first public-private microschool in the country.

Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown, who helped spearhead the partnership, this week told the Current she hopes SNUMA can be operational “long term” — even after CCSD reopens and welcomes kids back into physical classrooms.

“The students currently enrolled in the microschool are extremely satisfied,” she said. “The parents, the students are happy. They’re getting experiences they might not get elsewhere.”

The retired principal also noted her 35-year career at the school district, adding, “I have nothing against CCSD. But this is an option. This is a school choice option.”

According to the city, the cohort of approximately 50 students enrolled in SNUMA made impressive academic gains over the first semester. The program reported that 78 percent of children arrived in August reading below grade level and only 38 percent went into winter break reading below grade level.

Goynes-Brown pointed to the small student-to-adult ratio as one big factor.

“We can do 1-to-3, 1-to-4,” she said. “They get a lot more individualized attention.”

CCSD has some of the largest class sizes in the country, which has made reopening amid a pandemic that requires social distancing all the more difficult.

The CCSD School Board is next week scheduled to vote on a reopening plan that would bring kindergarten to third grade students back to physical classrooms first. Plans for when other grades might return have not yet been disclosed.

In December, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee sent a letter to CCSD requesting the district allow the city to rent its school buildings and buses for SNUMA.

That letter has so far gone unanswered, according to Goynes-Brown.

North Las Vegas isn’t the only municipality looking at schooling options. During a Las Vegas City Council meeting on Wednesday, Mayor Carolyn Goodman indicated she wants the city to explore how it can be further involved in education. The city currently operates a small mobile pre-K program called Strong Smart Academies.

Goodman acknowledged there were “discussions” about what more the city could do — especially given legislative constraints — but she added she wanted more than just talk.

“We need a pathway,” she said.

Goodman suggested there is an appetite for the city to take over elementary schools located within its boundary lines. (Taking over middle or high schools would be cost prohibitive, she noted.)

The mayor also criticized school closures.

“I look at our poor little people in their most formative years,” she said. “We should be repeating this year. We need to be in school, which we said (back in March).”

School Board Trustee Linda Cavazos was one of several trustees who criticized SNUMA when it was first announced in August. Some trustees and education groups raised concerns about the impact such a program might have on CCSD schools, which would lose per-pupil funding due to the drop in enrollment.

This week Cavazos, who is now board president, acknowledged she was aware of the efforts and discussions by the cities of North Las Vegas and Las Vegas.

“It’s fair to say it’s on our radar,” she said. “It would be foolish if it weren’t. I do believe these efforts are being made with good intentions. They’re trying to help students. A lot of the students being served are our neediest.”

She declined to comment further, saying it wouldn’t be prudent given the uncertainty of specific details related to the proposed reopening of the district.

Nevada Action for School Options President Don Soifer, who is also a member of the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority Board, sees the increased dialogue about school choice and delivery options as a good thing. Nevada Action for School Options, a nonprofit, is part of the SNUMA partnership.

“There’s been a fundamental shift in how people relate to their education system,” said Soifer. “These circumstances have really forced all of us as families and as a community to really consider what’s most important about our systems, about what’s less important, and what we really need from the systems that we’ve always relied on.”

“I’m optimistic at the level of focus on broad public dialogue about what support families need and what needs school systems and schooling are created to address. There’s broader potential for considering how options meet needs and how they can better meet needs.”

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and two mutts.