Magazine Feature

Musical Chairs

Booming Las Vegas schools struggle to make a place for everyone.

When she became an elementary principal nine years ago, Nadine Nielsen never imagined that negotiating rental policies at huge apartment complexes would someday be a part of her job. Today, that is just one tactic Nielsen is pursuing in her effort to foster a stable environment for her students at Helen Jydstrup Elementary in Las Vegas.

"Every child in our school lives in an apartment," Nielsen explains. "We're about two miles from the Strip, and there are new complexes all over the area. They all offer special 'one month free' move-in rates, so many of our families pick up and move every few months to get the deals." She hopes to persuade the owners to change those incentives to encourage longer tenancy.

Frequent relocation takes its toll on families, Nielsen observes. The stresses involved make it hard to maintain a secure sense of "home." Students naturally bring these stresses into the classroom. And, if their new apartment happens to be across the zone line, they have to change schools, too. Last year at Jydstrup, there were 700 transfers in or out among a total student body of just over 900. High turnover, says Nielsen, introduces a unique dimension of diversity: Almost everyone in her school is from "somewhere else."

The glittering, high-life image of Las Vegas familiar to most Americans masks a city grappling with the uneasy consequences of success. This is not only the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the nation; it is also one of the most "unsettled." For every 4,000 to 6,000 people who arrive in this desert community each month, some 2,000 residents pull up stakes and leave. Roughly half of the current population has lived there five years or less.

"In some ways, we're still a frontier town," observes Brian Cram, superintendent of the Clark County School District, which encompasses Las Vegas. Despite the difficulties, frontier towns offer an air of excitement -- the changing faces, the sharing of ideas, the mixture of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. People of color make up around 40 percent of Las Vegas' population. The city's gaming and hospitality industries are built on a vast infrastructure of low-skill, low-wage service jobs that require only minimal proficiency in English.

These demographics pose a constant challenge for the school district, as student transiency rates -- the proportion of students enrolled at a school for less than a full year -- steadily rise. Faced with shifting enrollments and the pervasive rootlessness of families, Las Vegas educators have developed an array of strategies for building solid but flexible school communities and giving new students a jump-start at fitting in.

Brian Cram points out a simple qualification many of his teachers bring to the task: "They're new here, too. They come from all over the country, even the world. They empathize with kids from different backgrounds, and they react well to change. Another advantage to our situation is that no historical stereotype exists in Las Vegas." He adds, half-jokingly, "The only thing that ever changes about this city is the way it looks and the people who live here."

Cram himself is a rare "old-timer," having moved to Las Vegas as a young child. The elementary school he attended 50 years ago was the only one in town at the time. Today there are 186.

Jydstrup Elementary is a product of the current population boom. Since its opening six years ago, the school has operated on a year-round schedule in order to accommodate 25 percent more students than the building's maximum capacity. Five "tracks" of students and teachers follow a staggered sequence of 12-week class sessions and 3-week breaks, so that one track is out on break at any given time.

To ease the adjustment period for newcomers, the school's "buddy system" pairs each arriving student with someone who has been around awhile. In matching student volunteers with new enrollees, teachers look for compatibility of class schedules first, then consider personality traits, interests and backgrounds.

"The apartments in our area attract a lot of recent immigrants," Nielsen says. "Already this year we've enrolled children from Argentina, Mexico, Albania, Romania, Turkey. We try to pair them up with classmates who speak their home language. Often the buddy is farther along in schoolwork or in learning English, which helps. Many schools offer bilingual and ESL programs for Spanish-speakers, but we have students from all over the world. We use ESL strategies whenever we can, like labeling things around the school in various languages. It's one part of our welcome."

When Mitch Mezzulo started Jydstrup's physical education program, he worked from a belief that physical activity is an instant connector for children entering an unfamiliar environment. "I always thought PE could be a great setting to work on social skills," he explains. "There's so much freedom. You're not locked in a classroom environment, and there's not always an authority figure standing over you."

A transfer student entering Mezzulo's PE class for the first time doesn't have to wonder how he or she stacks up against the competition -- there isn't any. "We don't keep score," Mezzulo explains. "I always mix boys and girls, and different ability levels, on the same team. Children with disabilities play right along with everyone else. I tell my students, 'If you want to compete against somebody, compete against yourself. Improve your skills. Improve your performance.'"

Above all, Mezzulo says, he wants PE to give every child a chance to experience joy. "Elementary students aren't cynical like older kids sometimes are. In my class, they can plunge in and forget about their outside problems, their home problems." In a "revolving door" school like Jydstrup, he adds, if students have only a short time to discover commonalities, they deserve a level field and a fast track.

A Climate of Trust
Amid the ever-changing mix of cultures, backgrounds and personalities in Las Vegas classrooms, the normal tensions of adolescence are bound to run high. Family transience and homelessness only intensify the social and emotional pressures. As schools seek to build community, teachers say, they must help students overcome the isolating forces of anger and fear. Many young people struggle with both these emotions behind a mask of "toughness."

A stenciled red star with an "S" inside it marks the sidewalk outside Jim Callahan's room at J.D. Smith Middle School. There's at least one similar emblem on every hallway and courtyard of the school, each indicating a "Safe Room" where students can go to take a break from their troubles.

"They come when they're having a problem with another student or with themselves," explains Callahan, whose 7th grade math classroom is a Safe Room. "If they feel they're about to do something inappropriate, they can come in here to cool off."

Counselor Dodie Mudery adds, "Sometimes they go to escape harassment. Sometimes they just go to get their morning hugs!" In Mudery's view, the Safe Rooms are one way Smith Middle School, with one of the highest transiency rates in the district, can help students find stability amid constant change. Sixty-three percent of the students are new immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela and other Latin American countries. Although Smith is a neighborhood school with no students riding buses, its neighborhood has the unique feature of encompassing every homeless shelter in the city.

"We do student surveys all the time," Mudery says. "'What do you need? What would you change about the school? What would make it better?'" The Safe Rooms came as a response to student requests for a place to get away and think things over.

Jim Callahan recalls a 7th grader last year who came to his Safe Room about once a month. "He'd say, 'Mr. Callahan, somebody just made me mad,' or 'Somebody just said something about my mom.' So I would stop my class and help him settle down."

Using occupied classrooms for this purpose began as a necessity. "We don't have an extra room," says Mudery. "We don't have an extra closet!" However, teachers find that, far from being a nuisance to the classroom students, the process serves a larger goal than the day's lesson.

"It reinforces the fact that if other students have a problem, they can do the same thing," observes Jim Callahan.

When "cooling off" doesn't work, Smith students have another, more structured, alternative. The Chairs program is a peer mediation service that was similarly initiated at students' request. The 20 to 30 "Chairs," or mediators, are nominated by their peers and given two days of training in conflict resolution and communication skills.

"If they were selected by the teachers," counselor Mudery says, "you wouldn't know whether this was someone most of the kids would look up to, respect or trust."

When someone requests a Chairs meeting, Mudery arranges a time and sends a formal invitation to the disputing parties and two Chairs. From that point, it's the students' responsibility.

"They go in a room by themselves," Mudery explains. "There are no teachers present. They talk it out, and, at the end of the meeting, they sign a 'peace contract' agreeing not to carry on any more of the process that was causing the problem. Breaking the peace contract [or refusing to attend a called meeting] results in a required parent conference or, sometimes, a suspension. In the entire last year, we had only one Chairs meeting that was not 100 percent successful."

The meeting in question involved a long-running tension between two groups of girls. One side went along with the Chairs' suggestions, but two of the other girls refused to set aside their anger. After three hours, Mudery says, the Chairs came out and described the impasse.

"They didn't think they could take it any further. They decided to close it off, but they still had everyone sign the peace contract. In this case, the two did sign -- they just didn't change their thinking. Later, they tried to cause trouble, but because the others in there had resolved their parts and signed the contract, they wouldn't go along, and it didn't go anywhere."

As Jim Callahan sees it, most children want an alternative to confrontation and violence. "If a safe option is there, they'll choose it."

The Full Spectrum
Las Vegas teachers and administrators emphasize that the social and academic challenges their students face are not unique. But rapid population growth and high transience tend to amplify universal problems.

Frequent relocation makes it difficult enough for students to maintain a solid commitment to schoolwork. Further, the nature of the employment base in this "24-hour city" offers young residents an unusual perspective on education. They don't have to look far to see college-educated professionals earning considerably less money than blackjack dealers or cocktail waitresses. The realities of menial labor are often hidden from view.

High school teachers in Las Vegas report that significant numbers of their students are self-supporting, sometimes with two jobs. Wayne Tanaka, principal of Clark County High, observes, "In cases where families are moving a lot, a child who is old enough may decide to stay in an apartment with friends. I've had students tell me, 'My mom and dad don't live with me.' Listen to how I said that. Not 'I don't live with my mom and dad.'

"Sometimes it's because the parents have addictive behaviors, or a single parent has abandoned an older child. The other side of this is how wonderfully resilient many kids can be. They stay in school, find jobs, pool resources and help each other out."

At Valley High School, most students' families have experienced the strains of the Las Vegas economy firsthand. The school's transiency rate is among the highest in Clark County. In journalism teacher Karen Vaughan's view, a welcoming school environment offers transient teenagers an essential antidote not just to social isolation but to dropping out. She and her students use the school newspaper to strengthen the Valley community.

As a practical concern, Vaughan notes the difficulty of keeping the paper going with a staff that's always changing. "During the first month of the semester, I've had four students leave the staff and seven new ones come in." Consistency of writing ability, she adds, is not a high priority, but unity of spirit is.

Two years ago, a survey revealed that Valley students represented 37 different cultures. Vaughan and her students decided to address this startling fact in a project they designed for a local bank's educational grant competition. Hoping to win enough money to buy a new copy machine, the journalists proposed a special newspaper supplement called Spectrum that would explore cultural diversity at Valley.

The idea didn't win first prize, but it did garner enough funds to cover the copier. And the success of the original five-part series convinced Valley's administration to fund it as an ongoing project. Twice a month, Spectrum focuses on a particular cultural group represented at the school, combining student interviews, geographical information, folktales, recipes and other items, such as basic words and phrases in that culture's language.

"They call us the United Nations school," says senior Andreas Ramírez. "At Valley, you can always find someone to relate to. Spectrum promotes unity throughout the school."

A highlight of each issue is a first-person essay by a student from the featured culture. In competition for a $20 cash prize and publication in the newspaper, the writers explore such close-to-home topics as the lives of their ancestors or what their families went through to get to Las Vegas. One essay by a Filipina student relates the experience of being the only person from her culture at her previous school. In Valley's international environment, she says, "difference" is what everyone has in common.

A few of the essays have probed the discomforts of diversity, says Vaughan. "A Black student wrote that everyone judged him more harshly than they did his White counterparts, that he always had to prove himself twice. He described what it feels like to step into an elevator and see a White woman clutch her purse tighter."

Initially, the school administration questioned the appropriateness of running a more "hard-edged" piece. Says Vaughan, "They were concerned that we would be destroying unity rather than building it. That's why we turned it into a positive. We got a dialogue going. Teachers had their students respond to the essay: 'Is that the case for you? How do you feel? What can we do to change it?' It's important to say that those feelings aren't wrong. We can never make problems better by ignoring them."

Working on the paper has helped Vaughan and her students recognize the complexity of cultural categories. "We have so many different Hispanic cultures," she says. "And this year we did a Jewish issue for the first time. Recently, several of the kids said we had been writing about minority groups but we should look at Irish and English, too. We try to keep it fresh."

Last spring, the Spectrum staff produced an issue that challenged even the newspaper's previous assumptions about culture. Valley High has the technical facilities required for deaf education. Deaf students and hearing students attend classes together, yet the concept of "deaf culture" had never been openly discussed.

"That one we had to handle a little differently," Vaughan recalls. "We're not talking about traditional deaf recipes and dances! We had some of the deaf kids write for that issue. We put in some sign language so all the students can learn basic phrases. We had an article about what it was like for one of our teachers who is deaf to achieve her master's degree at a hearing university. Another teacher brings his dog with him to listen for the bells, so we wrote about the dog."

With each issue of Spectrum, Vaughan says, a whole segment of the community suddenly comes into focus for their peers. "The purpose of all these things is to make kids understand how important they are."

It is this simple conviction that keeps Las Vegas educators attentive to the faces behind the daunting statistics of growth and transience. Teachers at Jydstrup, Smith and Valley agree that no single program can meet the challenge of creating a place for everyone. Like the highly mobile students they serve, schools, too, must remain resilient.

As these varied approaches attest, there are effective ways of helping new classmates speed up the transition from strangers to friends. A crucial ally in this effort for transient students and their teachers alike is one small spark: natural curiosity.

"The big city can be a scary place," says Karen Vaughan. "To see that people are interested in where you came from helps new students feel they don't need to hide that part of themselves, that their stories can be embraced."