Good sign: Superintendent Jones demands honesty on graduation rates

Victor Joecks

What’s the first step toward recovery for an individual in Alcoholics Anonymous? Admitting you have a problem.

What’s an encouraging first step for the Clark County School District? Admitting that it has a huge graduation problem – and, by implication, huge problems throughout the entire system.

When Dwight Jones was hired last November to be superintendent of the Clark County School District, he promised honesty and transparency to win over a distrustful and suspicious community.

Now, School District officials are acknowledging what critics have long suspected – that high school graduation figures have for years been inflated to paint a better picture than actually existed.

“We’ve known for a long time the community has been challenging some of the data that the district was coming out with,” said Pedro Martinez, Jones’ recently hired deputy superintendent of instruction.

“We need to have the trust of the community, the parents and all of the district’s employees,” he said. “The reality is when the data are not clear, then frankly people mistrust it. The new superintendent came in and said we’re going to find out the real numbers. Whatever the truth is that’s what we’re going to put out there.”

The issue became pointed this week when Education Week magazine reported that Clark County’s public school graduation rate was 44.3 percent in 2008, not the 68 percent figure that had been reported under Jones’ predecessor, Walt Rulffes. That’s a difference of 24 percentage points. …

Jones and Martinez have adopted a new formula to determine the district’s high school graduation rate. The formula is expected to lower this past year’s previously reported rate from 68 percent to 51 percent, a number they say reflects reality.

A graduation rate of 44.3 percent or 51 percent is a huge problem. But admitting that your graduation rate is substantially lower than the lie your predecessor told the public is great news. Great news.

You can’t fix a problem you won’t publicly admit you have. Between this show of honesty and his awesome-sounding growth-model plan, I’m cautiously optimistic that Superintendent Dwight Jones is serious about pushing substantial reforms, in contrast to the highly lauded but ultimately window-dressing education reforms we got out of the legislative session.

Jones’ biggest obstacle to improving Clark County schools is going to be the Clark County Education Association, which, because of the Legislature’s inaction, still has substantial power to hinder Jones’ implementation of needed reforms.

Let us hope that by showing the community the depth of the problem CCSD has graduating any student – white, black, Latino, male or female – the public will stand up to the CCEA and support Jones as he implements changes to increase student achievement.