More than 64,000 students are headed back to school Monday across the Washoe County School District. Little will change for most students, but there are several potential developments that could affect public education this year — from a big ballot measure to the school board election.
For more on what's coming, our reporter Julia Ritchey caught up with the Reno Gazette-Journal's education reporter Trevon Milliard.
Q: What changes can parents and teachers expect this year?
Milliard: Looking back from last school year, it will be lot of the same. We are still on that balanced calendar, so as parents know, we're starting school pretty much earlier than anywhere else in the state. We do have that sprawled out school year. There will be more of the similar conditions we had last year with a lot of overcrowding in a lot of schools. That's not going away anytime soon. ...But not a lot of big changes.
Q: What about on the district level? Has Superintendent Traci Davis created a set of priorities this year?
Milliard: Yeah, there's this kind of — I'm calling it the 'calm before the storm.' They're preparing for what's about to come. We all know there's overcrowding, but they can't do anything yet about it. They have to wait out this ballot question [this November] that could provide close to $800 million over the next decade. So now they're just trying to get by.
For example, this winter they approved half a million dollars for the four most ovecrowded schools by adding portables, putting two classes in the same room. So you're going to see a lot of that. Things that they normally wouldn't do, but they have to do for the time being. Not good conditions, though.
Q: How will the school board elections this fall affect the direction of the Washoe County School District?
Milliard: It stands to have a huge impact. Every major decision, or at least most of them, goes through the school board for approval. We're not talking about one or two players switching out here; we're talking about a majority of the board being replaced. And those board members being replaced are largely on the same side of pretty much every discussion, [such as] the hiring of Traci [Davis] and the controversial way they did that.
It stands to move the direction of the board in a new direction. Who's to say what direction that will be until we see who gets elected. But those who are running are calling for a different kind of board.
Q: Your newspaper just published a big investigation into the state of special education, finding among other things, that students with disabilities only have a 29 percent graduation rate and in some cases face abuse. What has the response been like from the district, and are there any course corrections taking place because of that story?
Milliard: It's been interesting. They worked with us on the project because they had to give us a lot of materials. So it wasn't a surprise to them to see our findings. They were seeing it as they were giving it to us, and sometimes probably seeing it for the same time that we saw it. So their response has been to try to create all these ways to improve special education with a goal of a 60 percent special ed graduation rate by 2020. [Click here for official response from WCSD.]
...To meet that, that's a big jump. They're doubling the graduation rate. So when the graduation rate comes up for 2016, we're going to need to see improvement that honestly hasn't been there for years. So we'll know pretty early on if it's helping...
They have a lot of things in place from trying to get the teachers they need to leadership changes... and putting a lot more responsibility on schools to improve special education for their students, not on central office.