City of Las Vegas enters school choice debate with plan to open charter

And they aren’t the only Southern Nevada municipality taking a more hands-on approach to education

By: - June 18, 2021 6:00 am

The City of Las Vegas operates a preschool program, which includes Strong Start Go, a mobile classroom pictured here. The city is now planning on opening a K-5 charter school. (Photo courtesy of City of Las Vegas)

The City of Las Vegas wants to open a charter school. And with it may come with an ask for $900,000 in federal covid relief funding.

If approved, CLV Strong Start Academy would be the first city-run charter school in Nevada, say officials. The school could also draw national attention from the so-called school choice movement as an innovative new route for the expansion of charter schools, which are tuition free, publicly funded and privately managed.

In March, the City of Las Vegas informed the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority of its intent to apply for a charter school license. The Charter School Authority is the primary authorizer of charter schools within Nevada.

On Wednesday, the city took another next step forward. Las Vegas City Council approved bylaws for a proposed nonprofit corporation, called CLV Strong Start Academy Elementary School Inc, which will formally apply for the charter school license and be charged with operating the school.

Councilman Cedric Crear cast the lone vote in opposition.

“I’m not sold on the whole concept of the city being engaged in running a school,” he said during the meeting. “We have so many challenges that we’re facing. This is a very, very, very uphill battle.”

Crear said three charter schools within one three-block area within his ward have all faced significant struggles. Crear represents Ward 5 — one of three wards being targeted for the proposed charter school. Ward 1 and 3 are the others.

According to Tammy Malich, the city’s director of youth development and social innovation, CLV Strong Start Academy would open for the 2022-23 school year at three “incubation sites” co-located with the city’s existing Strong Start preschool program. Class sizes at the charter school would be capped at 20 students, resulting in a total enrollment of 180 students. Then, in following academic years, the charter school would relocate to one permanent location and expand into third, fourth and fifth grades.

Malich said parents of students enrolled in the city’s preschool program expressed a desire to stay within the same program and curriculum. The Strong Start preschool program, which runs through a public-private partnership with Acelero Learning, has existed for four years and involves three physical locations and one mobile RV classroom. The free head start program only enrolls low-income families, but the proposed charter school would be open to all students.

Acelero is not involved with the proposed charter school.

Malich added that parents of students who participated in Vegas Strong Academics — the pandemic day camp setup by the city to provide a physical space for CCSD students to participate in their remote learning — also wanted the city to become more involved in education.

“From the parents’ perspective, their kids were more successful than when they were in the district prior to the pandemic,” said Malich. “We feel like it was a result of smaller class sizes, more one-on-one attention, really personalizing things. CCSD was teaching. We were facilitating and supporting, but we really had that environment.”

Malich believes offering continuity between a city pre-K program and city elementary charter school will set up students for success once they transition to middle school.

But it’s expected to come with a cost.

No ask for money was on the agenda this week, but Malich says city staff plans to return to the Las Vegas City Council in upcoming months to request American Rescue Plan money to supplement the base per-pupil funding that all charter and district schools receive from the state.

The state’s base per-pupil funding amount for the next two academic years is approximately $10,000 per student. Malich says the proposed charter school will request from the city an additional $5,000 per student — or $900,000 total for one year.

Malich says the charter school, if approved, would also apply for startup funding money through Opportunity 180, a nonprofit that awards charter school grants. It would also explore fundraising opportunities through the city’s established philanthropy arm, the Mayor’s Fund for Las Vegas Life.

Malich, a former Clark County School District assistant superintendent who spent three decades with the district, said the additional money is needed because a small charter school doesn’t have the ability to scale up efficiently and effectively. The school plans to have all licensed teachers — something not all charter schools have — and offer unique programming, including bilingual English-Spanish education.

The city council on Wednesday also appointed the proposed charter school’s board of directors. Linda Verbon, a retired kindergarten teacher who taught at a private school founded by Mayor Carolyn Goodman; Nancy Brune, the executive director of the Guinn Center; Sylvia Lazos, a UNLV law professor and local education advocate; and Alain Bengochea, a UNLV assistant professor of early childhood education, were appointed for two-year terms.

Three others — Nicole Thompson, Greta Peay and Beverly Mathis — were appointed for one-year terms. Thompson is a current licensed teacher within CCSD. Peay is an educational consultant. Mathis is employed by The Public Education Foundation.

The board of directors were unanimously appointed.

Lazos in an interview said she is happy the City of Las Vegas is doubling down on its investments in K-12 education.

“We need to work fast,” she said. “We need to innovate quickly.”

CCSD, she added, is a slow-moving monopoly that doesn’t meet the needs of all children, specifically those in Ward 3, which she was appointed to the Strong Start Academy board to represent.

The Charter School Authority’s application deadline for new schools is July 15. If the city submits its application as planned, the Strong Start Academy proposal would likely be heard and voted on by the state Charter School Board at the end of this calendar year.

Not just the City of Las Vegas…

While Strong Start Academy would be the first city-run charter school in Nevada, it would not be the first time a Nevada municipality has dipped its feet into providing K-12 education.

The City of North Las Vegas last year launched the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy, a so-called “microschool.” SNUMA has kindergarten through eighth grade students unenroll from CCSD to participate in a facilitated homeschool program that involves remote out-of-state teachers and in-person “guides.”

SNUMA is free for North Las Vegas residents and city employees. The city has funded the cost of the program with its CARES Act and general fund dollars.

Although it was originally announced as a reaction to the coronavirus pandemic and families’ demand for in-person learning options, the City of North Las Vegas plans to continue the program into the coming school year, even as CCSD resumes normal in-person operations. Approximately 100 families have already indicated they intend to return to the program, according to a city spokesperson.

“The calling cry was ‘keep it going’ and ‘please do more,’” said Assistant City Manager Delen Goldberg.

North Las Vegas is now launching a new education initiative, called LearnNLV, focused on improving educational outcomes for K-12 students. Among its stated priorities is expanding SNUMA and helping new charter schools open within the city. Goldberg says the city helps recruit new charter operators and provides support for logistics such as finding suitable buildings or lots for the charters to locate.

LearnNLV will also employ ‘parent ambassadors’ who will do outreach to caregivers on the educational options available to them.

Goldberg emphasized to the city council and in an interview with the Current that the initiative isn’t meant to undermine CCSD and will also involve efforts to better bolster existing district schools.

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “Our council isn’t concerned about who gets the credit or who is doing what. They just want equal opportunities for their constituents. We’ve stepped up to make that happen. And anyone who wants to stand next to us, we encourage them.”

North Las Vegas City Councilman Isaac Barron, a CCSD teacher, said after a presentation on LearnNLV that he wouldn’t speak poorly of a district that has been overwhelmed.

“But anything we can do to render more assistance to our residents, help them bridge that gap, I can’t think of a higher calling,” he added.

Nationally, some education groups have long advocated for cities to be more hands on with education.

“It’s always struck me as weird that mayors don’t have more control over education,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based charter school incubator. “Knowing how important K-12 is to the vitality of a city, I think it makes a lot of sense for mayors to find creative ways (to be involved).”

Indianapolis is at the forefront of mayor-led charter efforts. Two decades ago, in 2001, the Indiana State Legislature gave mayors the ability to authorize new charter schools. Today, there are nearly 50 city-authorized charter schools, which enroll approximately 18,000 students.

That growth has created problems for Indianapolis Public Schools, the district where the majority of those students likely would have enrolled. ISP has been forced to restructure and deal with persistent budget cuts, according to local news reports. Brown says within the past few years the school district has become more collaborative with the mayor’s office and more innovative with education, leading to better outcomes overall.

To be clear, one city-run charter school is different from a city-as-authorizer model of charter schools. Malich says the City of Las Vegas did not consider asking the Nevada State Legislature to make it an authorizer, though that idea was informally floated within charter school circles before the 2021 session.

Malich told the Las Vegas City Council the plan is only to establish a K-5 charter school and not continue into higher grade levels.

Still, the move by municipalities to become providers of K-12 education could signal a shift in how the so-called school choice movement is evolving within Nevada.

Brown called the City of Las Vegas “courageous” for taking on the political risk. While it may technically be a city-established nonprofit with an appointed board of directors that answers to the Charter School Authority, the city itself will no doubt be tied to the success or failure of the school, particularly if additional public funding is involved.

Its success, added Brown, could provide a model for other municipalities to follow.

Malich welcomes having all eyes on the City of Las Vegas.

“It’s exciting to trailblaze and exciting to set the pace,” she said. “I feel very fortunate to be in a progressive city where (city council) is willing to do this. I think every city should take some level of responsibility for education, whether directly like we are doing, or how we did it until this charter.”

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. 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, three children and one mutt.