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The Game Changer

Dwight Jones faces tough odds in his new role leading Clark County School District in Nevada.
Superintendent Dwight Jones is often found at his desk before the sun rises.

Before the sun rises most days, Dwight D. Jones is at the office. Since becoming superintendent of the Clark County School District (CCSD) in Nevada last December, 4:30 a.m. arrivals are common. “There’s just hardly enough time in the day,” Jones says.

To be sure, the challenges facing the nation’s fifth-largest school district are great. The recession not just hit, but smacked, Nevada, and the Clark County district—which includes Las Vegas and the surrounding rural areas—has cut nearly $5oo million from its budget over four years. Couple the staggering financial woes with a dismal academic track record—roughly half the students don’t graduate—and it’s easy to understand why Jones doesn’t sleep.

The 49-year-old father of three was the commissioner of education in Colorado when the Clark County Board of Trustees hired him to run its 308,000-student district, not bothered by his thin experience as a superintendent. Jones previously served for four years as the superintendent of Colorado’s Fountain-Fort Carson School District, which has 50 times fewer students than the Clark County district.

Jones, in a note to the community after being hired, said the Clark County board brought him in to be “a game changer.” And in his first year, he has explained to the community the district’s weaknesses and immediate reforms—putting each at-risk high school senior on a personal graduation plan, starting Saturday and after-school tutorials for struggling elementary and middle school students and moving toward a system in which all students in grade 8 take algebra.

Dwight D. Jones

  • Superintendent, Clark County (Nev.) School District
  • Age: 49
  • Salary: $270,000
  • Students: 308,447
  • Schools: 357
  • Staff: 37,361
  • District size: 257 sq. miles
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunches: 54%
  • Demographics: 43.4% Hispanic, 30.2% Caucasian, 12% African American, 6.6% Asian, 5.8% multiracial, 1.5% Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 0.5% Native American
  • Web site:

“I always say the best economic development strategy and the best anti-poverty strategy is a forward-thinking education reform strategy, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Jones says.

Among the fastest-growing school districts in the nation, Clark County has seen its student enrollment steady, but the population has become more at risk. About 54 percent of the district’s students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals, and more parents are unemployed or are working multiple jobs to pay the bills.

“We have families with a higher level of need than we used to have,” says Carolyn Edwards, president of the Clark County school board. “People are struggling to make ends meet and to pay their mortgages. That has an impact.”

Edwards says that Jones stood out during the national search for a superintendent because he saw the need to move quickly to improve the schools.

“He understood that we had a sense of urgency about making some changes and really raising the bar for student achievement,” she says.

Hard Work Pays Off

Jones grew up in western Kansas, the son of hard-working farmers who didn’t go to college but demanded that their nine children attend. Jones earned a bachelor’s degree of education from Fort Hays State University in Kansas in 1985 and his master’s in administration and supervision from Kansas State University in 1989.

The Jones’ were one of the few African-American families in the area, and Jones recalls facing “quite a bit of racism.” His third-grade year sticks out. Other children repeatedly barked racial slurs, and no adults at the school intervened. The experience shaped the rest of his life.

“That’s really what drives me to say kids deserve better, and as adults we’ve got to do better,” Jones said.

He began his career as a teacher at Morris Hill Elementary School in Junction City Kansas in 1985 and later taught at the middle and high school level. He worked his way through the ranks as an assistant principal and principal and became an assistant superintendent of Wichita Public Schools in 1997.

After a year, he left to work on school turnarounds as an operational vice president for Edison Schools Inc., where he supervised 11 campuses in Baltimore, Wichita, Kansas and Kansas City, Mo.

In 2001, Jones dove back into district administration as an assistant superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson School District, near the Fort Carson Army base. Jones was promoted to chief of the unique district in 2003. Of the 6,000 or so students, 58 percent were from military families, many at war.

Despite the toll on the children, under Jones’ leadership, 80 percent of the schools moved from a state rating of “average” or “high” or “excellent,” he said. The achievement gap also narrowed. For example, in 2003, on the 10th grade reading exam, part of the Colorado State Assessment Program, the difference between l0w-income and non-low-income students in scoring proficient or advanced was between 10 and 21 percentage points. In 2007, the gap fell to between 2 and 4 percentage points. The racial gap, however, remained, with white sophomores scoring about 10 percentage points higher than black and Hispanic children in 2007.

Jones points to the progress made among the younger students as evidence that the district’s focus on literacy paid off. Among third-graders in 2007, at least 73% of the students, no matter their race, passed the state reading exam.

Pushing Policy Reform

Jones’ work in Fountain-Fort Carson drew the attention of the Colorado State Board of Education, and the elected body unanimously named him the state’s commissioner of education in July 2007. He was the first African American to hold the position, charged with overseeing a $3.8 billion budget and the education of the state’s 830,000 public school children.

Ken Turner, who served as deputy commissioner under Jones in Colorado, says that Jones’ finesse with lawmakers and the business community helped push through numerous bipartisan school reform bills. The state revamped teachers’ evaluations to include a student test score component; allowed districts to create their own “schools of innovation” that operated like charter schools with more autonomy in staffing and programming; and, with a 4-3 vote of the state board, adopted the common core standards.

Jones also oversaw the development of a new model for determining students’ academic growth for the state’s accountability system. Based on students’ scores on a criterion-referenced test, the statistical model compares each child’s annual progress to the average growth made by other students in the same grade level who scored at the same level. “He did it in a way which was pretty remarkable,” Turner says. “He did it using open source [software], which means all the tools he developed are now widely available to other states.” About 20 other states, including Nevada, have adopted the model.

Back in the Action

Jones says his three years as commissioner gave him invaluable experience working with lawmakers and designing policy, and he’s now excited about implementing, and not only overseeing, similar reforms in Clark County.

“For me, getting back to where the action takes place—that’s in the building where kids are taught, being able to support teachers—it’s just really what I enjoy doing and think what I’m best at,” he says.

It might not sound like a good way to make friends, especially as the new guy in town, but Jones doesn’t believe in sugarcoating. Since taking the helm of the district about a year ago, he has been waking up the Clark County community with alarming statistics.

Half the students in the nation’s fifth-largest district leave without a diploma. About 45 percent of the 12th graders had yet to pass the state proficiency exam at the start of this school year. Some 9,800 seniors—out of 20,600—were at risk of not graduating. In April, Jones recruited Pedro Martinez, the deputy superintendent of Nevada’s Washoe County School District and the former chief financial officer of Chicago Public Schools, to serve as his deputy superintendent.

With diplomas on the line, the two sprinted to work. The district’s 49 high schools have begun tracking students by name, and those at risk were sent to Saturday or after-school bootcamps taught by the best teachers to prepare for the state exit-level exams. Schools also offered online courses that allowed students to recover lost course credits in eight weeks.

About 2,500 seniors were so far behind that school officials tried to persuade them to return for a fifth year to finish. About 85 percent have stayed, and district officials are encouraging some into adult education programs. “It’s all hands on deck,” Martinez says. His main vision is that all students are “ready by exit.” Whether students enter college or choose to work after high school graduation, what matters most is that they have the knowledge and skills to perform and be successful in either environment.

The district has also partnered with Workforce Connections, an affiliate of the Department of Labor; the United Way of Southern Nevada; and the Nevada Public Education Foundation to start a mentorship program at 10 of its neediest high schools. Each campus will have a “graduate advocate coordinator” to oversee the mentoring, which will pair students with business volunteers, charged with preaching the importance a high school diploma and higher education. In some cases, companies have offered scholarships and job shadowing opportunities.

“Instead of the community turning their backs on us,” Martinez said, “they opened their arms.” Raising Expectations

With Nevada adopting the common core standards, Jones is pushing more rigor in Clark County’s classrooms. He’s getting rid of remedial classes, which had become the default for students. Instead of low-level pre-algebra, students will take algebra by eighth grade, and advanced biology will become the norm, not a basic principles of science course, which had been the norm. “I personally think the dropout rate is based on the set of low expectations,” Jones says. “Kids know the difference.”

To prepare students for the more challenging curriculum, the district is rolling out Saturday and before- and after-school classes for 46,000 struggling students in grades four through eight. Next year, 22 of the 59 middle schools in the district will adopt a tougher program—either the College Board’s pre-AP Springboard curriculum; Project Lead the Way’s science, technology, engineering and math program; or International Baccalaureate. Enrollment in the district’s virtual high school was up 33 percent this school year, from 9,000 to about 12,000. Jones said his goal is to have 100,000 students over the next five years take some form of blended learning.

The district also has embraced the state’s new growth model, publishing color-coded school report cards on its Web site so the data is transparent to parents. Teachers are receiving training on the growth model this year, and it could become part of their job evaluations depending on the outcome of a governor’s committee that is working on a redesign of the state appraisal system.

But Jones has a long way to go to boost student achievement. Reading scores on the 2011 Nevada Criterion Referenced Test plummeted in all grade levels except fifth grade. Only 48 percent of sophomores passed the high school exit exam in reading on their first attempt. District officials say that a tougher state test and higher cut scores that required students to answer more questions correctly to pass contributed to the decline, but Jones says that schools must intervene sooner with struggling readers especially with their growing population of English language learners. More time with students is key, Jones says, and principals are trying to double block reading classes and extend the school day. “I’ve always said, ‘Hope is not a very good strategy,’” Jones says. “It looked like here we were hoping the kids would get it.’”

Jones also has a personal stake in improving the district. He and his wife, Jenifer, enrolled their youngest son, age 8, in a neighborhood school. They have two other children, ages 21 and 19, and all three are named after Jones’ favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys (after a coach, the city and the star logo).

A Bad Budget Deal

If there’s one factor that could derail Jones’ efforts, it’s the state’s gloomy financial picture. The district has cut $100 million from its $2 billion operating budget this year and is looking to cut another $50 million. Negotiations were underway with the teachers’ union to try to avoid teacher layoffs—300 to 400 support positions already have been eliminated—but as of early December 2011, no agreement had been made.

“It’s been real hard for him, I’m sure, to come in with a reform agenda and to be in a position to cut so significantly,” the district’s chief financial officer, Jeff Weiler, says of Jones. “He doesn’t cry about it. He understands the situation. You’ve got to deal with the cards you’re dealt. He’s very driven.”

Martinez, the deputy superintendent, says the district has set aside about $5 million to carry through the reform efforts and was able to afford some of the programs by stopping “rogue spending,” where schools rush to spend their money by the end of the fiscal year. Officials also are taking stock of how they spend their federal Title I and IDEA funding. “It’s pretty amazing, but at the end of the day, that wasn’t my biggest challenge,” Jones says, referring to the district’s budget shortfall. “I think the biggest challenge is, I felt our expectations were too low. We’re trying to change the culture in the community. Ultimately, it’s going to make my job harder because I’m trying to get the community to expect us to deliver a better outcome.”

Ericka Mellon is a K12 education reporter for The Houston Chronicle.