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The “education mayor” takes on the city’s schools

Last year’s municipal election often sounded like a race for Clark County School Board. The finalists for mayor — Carolyn Goodman and Chris Giunchigliani — both touted their education backgrounds and promised to use to office to improve the schools.

Never mind the fact that city government has no authority over the school district. Both women said they would use the bully pulpit to promote dialogue about education. To the extent that the issue mattered to voters, they had to decide which person was better prepared to tackle it: the elegant founder of Southern Nevada’s premier private school or an outspoken special-education teacher and former union president.

They picked Goodman, who founded the Meadows School, a private school with an annual tuition of more than $22,000 and a strong record of placing students in elite universities. As the mayor of Las Vegas, she governs an urban area with some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Most parents in and around downtown Las Vegas certainly can’t afford to send their kids to a place like Meadows.

So what has Goodman done for them? As it turns out, the city has recently increased its attention to education issues. In March, the City Council voted to approve a set of priorities related to education. The city wants to improve graduation rates and literacy in elementary grades. Two council members — Goodman and Ward 1 Representative Lois Tarkanian, who has a background in special education — promoted the new programs.

“Mayors tend to be more focused on looking at cultural issues, growth and business,” said Judi Steele, president of the Public Education Foundation. “There have not been many mayors with an interest in education.”

The council’s support for public education is more than just lip service. The city is collaborating with the Public Education Foundation on a program called Literacy Liftoff. Almost 100 incoming kindergartners at Rex Bell and Matt Kelly elementary schools received three weeks of intensive literacy instruction before the start of the school year. Participating students and their parents get extra support for the first three months of the school year. The goal is to give underprivileged students, many of whom haven’t gone to preschool, a boost to prepare them for elementary school and beyond.

This approach jibes with the mayor’s educational philosophy. She built the Meadows School one grade at a time, emphasizing basic skills and educational rigor. Goodman said she told Clark County Superintendent Dwight Jones to take the same approach, focusing on kindergarten curriculum and building from there.

“Every year was building on the previous year,” she said.

This year is the first for Literacy Liftoff. But if it works, the city and Public Education Foundation hope to expand to other schools in Las Vegas.

It’s not the first time the city has gotten involved with schools. For decades, it’s run the Safekey program, which provides afterschool activities at Las Vegas schools. But Safekey is not an academic program like Literacy Liftoff, and it’s similar to other child-care services offered by Henderson, North Las Vegas and Clark County.

The mayor has also used the bully pulpit. A couple weeks ago, she participated in a screening of Won’t Back Down, the controversial anti-teachers’ union film underwritten by right-wing billionaire Philip Anschutz.

But the private-school founder comes across as an unequivocal supporter of public schools. She said vouchers and charter schools aren’t the answer to Clark County’s educational woes and will only undermine public schools, English-language learners and special-education students, who usually get left behind by school reform. In fact, she enrolled all four of her kids in Harris Elementary before she opened the Meadows School. Her anti-charter position puts her at odds with the Downtown Project crowd, which plans to open a charter school and early education center.

Goodman hopes to promote education at all levels in city recreation facilities, and wants to expand English-language programs and reading programs. The city has attracted the Nonprofit, Community and Leadership School of UNLV (a co-sponsor of the Won’t Back Down screening) to the Fifth Street School, and helped the Variety Early Learning Center renovate its new digs at Lorenzi Park.

“You’ve got to look at everything,” said Brian Knudsen, an administrative officer at the city. “We’ve got graduate and undergraduate students downtown. We’ve got Variety Learning Center at Lorenzi Park in the old museum. We have the Shakespeare company. We’re very focused on making sure we are providing adequate opportunities for learning.”

Even though the mayor doesn’t have any control over the Clark County School District, her constituents expect her to speak out. When she was campaigning, she would get education questions at every stop, including senior centers. She couldn’t avoid it. After all, without decent schools, the mayor can’t do much for the community.

“You have to know that until you improve public education, talented people aren’t going to come,” she said. “And the best and brightest aren’t going to stay.”