We often hear Nevada’s high school graduation rate described as low, dismal, embarrassing. It sits at 70 percent while some states are approaching 90. Even though Nevada lags behind, there is a growing patchwork of programs and interventions that are working. For our series “Making It To Graduation,” Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Bliss talks to some of the educators and mentors who are on the ground level trying to improve the graduation rate one kid at a time.
In between classes, you can find hundreds of middle schoolers hustling across a sunny courtyard at the heart of Archie Clayton Pre-AP Academy in Reno. You’ll also spot Principal Bruce Meissner offering high fives and fist bumps. Around the courtyard, you’ll notice huge logos for several Pac-12 schools. And if you were to chat with a few students, here’s what they’d tell you:
“I want to go to probably like Stanford," says Axel Jurado.
“I want to go to New York to become a journalist, so NYU or like somewhere up there," says Ava Morgan.
“Oregon. I’ve always loved Oregon," says Gage Smith. "It’s beautiful up there and I would be the first one to go to college in my family."
It’s not a coincidence that every eighth grader at Clayton can quickly rattle off college plans. Their responses are a product of the “college-going” culture Principal Meissner has created so that students will forge a pathway that requires a high school diploma.
“At assemblies," Meissner explains, "we’re always talking about, ‘It’s not a matter of whether or not you’re going to college. It’s what college you’re going to and what’s going to be your major—what you’re passionate about.'”
Meissner came to Clayton five years ago to lead a transformation effort using federal dollars from a School Improvement Grant. Back then, student scores in math and reading were too low.
“Clayton was really a school that had a high poverty rate but not high enough to qualify for funding from Title I," he says. "And we’re a very diverse population. We draw from West Fourth Street and the whole downtown corridor, the homeless shelter—all those students are zoned for Clayton."
The school still works with a lot of at-risk youth, and now, it also attracts students from all over Washoe County whose parents are willing to drive them across town for that “college-going” culture. At Clayton, each kid is placed on an academic team named after a university. Throughout the year, they attend special assemblies, reciting their team cheers while sporting college T-shirts.
Clayton is also the only school-wide pre-AP academy in the country, preparing all of its students for those difficult Advanced Placement courses that look so good on college applications.
“I tell our kids to be a little bit cocky," Meissner says, "about the knowledge and the experiences that they have so that when they go into high school, they should have that belief system within them that they can be successful.”
Along with getting students to set their sights on college, parents often need buy-in as well.
“It’s really a matter of identifying that this is something that is possible," says Jafeth Sanchez, an education professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, "and allowing that broadening of the possibilities not just for the students, but for the parents, so that they’re able to break that cycle.”
Sanchez works with the federal GEAR UP program, which helps low-income students get to college. For many local families, she says that aspiring to anything beyond high school is not the norm, so that option may get overlooked or seem impossible.
“And that stems from just a historical background that Nevada has had," Sanchez explains, "in terms of gaming and mining and other careers that have not required a post-secondary education, so it really requires so much effort in terms of changing that entire history.”
GEAR UP starts working with students in the 7th grade, offering everything from tutoring to campus visits to college readiness workshops.
“There isn’t a silver bullet," Sanchez says. "We can’t say it’s just GPA, and it’s just credits. It really has to be this holistic perspective.”
Another part of that holistic approach is providing social support. Over at the Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows, that’s what the BE GREAT: Graduate program is all about.
“It’s that one-on-one relationship they may not normally get in a school setting or at home because Mom or Dad is working late or two jobs," says Tina Colliver, the club’s education director.
Colliver is a mentor for Carmen Dwyer, a rising 11th grader at Sparks High.
“In getting to know Carmen the last four years," Colliver says, "I’ve been able to watch her grow up from a little girl to a woman.”
After her mother left several years ago, Carmen joined the club and asked for a mentor.
“I don’t really have a mother-figure," Carmen says, "so Tina was kind of there to like help support my sister and I throughout growing up and going into middle school and high school.”
Now, the two talk about everything—school, boys, and how Carmen can be a role model for her younger sister.
“In my opinion, what it comes down to is support," Colliver says. "And I think without that support, I do wonder sometimes where she might be or what she might be doing, but luckily she stumbled into the Boys and Girls Club one day and we were able to provide her with some skills and opportunity.”
But not every kid is going to stumble into the help they need without uniform safety nets in place statewide. That’s why educators and advocates are waiting with high hopes to see if Governor Sandoval’s historic increase in education funding will be the change Nevada has been waiting for.