In the deeply impoverished community of North Las Vegas are two contrasting schools. The first is Rancho High School, the largest public high school in the state of Nevada, with more than 3,000 students.
Rancho has a thriving magnet school embedded in it, drawing 1,000 highly motivated students from around Las Vegas into a program that offers specializations in pre-med, biomedical engineering and aeronautics, and opens the doors to the country’s top universities. For the more than 2,000 students in the general education high school, however—more than 70 percent of whom are poor enough to qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, more than 200 of whom the school district has identified as being homeless—the prospects are bleaker. Only 52 percent of these students graduate, and years of funding cuts have led to retrenchment on a grand scale. Over the past few years, as Nevada’s budget situation deteriorated, the school lost upward of twenty of its 160 teaching positions. The grounds, which used to be cared for by a full-time gardener, are now episodically tended. The "block schedule," which allowed students to take eight classes instead of six, over two days, has been eliminated—the unpalatable alternative would have been to increase class sizes from about thirty-five to forty-five. Teachers have had to make concessions, including accepting additional furlough days. Further budget cuts down the road, after the school uses up the $771,000 of American Recovery Act money it received last year and the $638,000 it received this year, plus a roughly $1 million school improvement federal grant, make it possible that there won’t be teachers for the noncore classes within a few years. In what could well be a sign of things to come, some AP classes are now offered only every other year.
A couple of miles west of Rancho, 625 lucky students are enrolled in the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. The state-of-the-art K-12 charter school, which opened in 2001 (it is the brainchild of the retired tennis star), is backed by state funds and the deep pockets of donors from around the country. It has the declared aim of preparing all of its students for admission to college.
The sprawling campus, a swirl of walkways, airy teaching buildings, a grass-covered amphitheater, inner courtyards, libraries and music labs, cost more than $40 million to build. The school’s charter stresses that admission preference will be given to local residents whose families live in poverty.
The students are almost all African-American; if they were in the local public school system, it is doubtful, to say the least, that they would be taken on expenses-paid fifth-grade field trips to visit universities across the country, or on senior trips to Paris. It is a fair bet they wouldn’t have access to Suzuki violins in kindergarten, or a Senegalese drum instructor who recently returned from a drum-buying trip to West Africa, or a hall in which Cirque du Soleil teachers come to work with the kids on balance and focus. "We surround the entire student," explains the school’s chancellor, Marsha Irvin. "We have the counseling support, the resources, our athletics program. We have what’s called a balanced scorecard."