Bridget Bilbray-Phillips, who is scheduled to become principal of Doral Academy of Nevada, a new charter school emphasizing the arts and culture. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES
Whoever heard of something rising from the ashes of a phoenix? That’s what’s taking place just off the 215 Beltway on the far west side of town. Doral Academy of Nevada charter school is moving into a former University of Phoenix campus and plans to hold its first classes in August. The arts-integration school is the passion project of two women, one a beloved figure of Las Vegas’ educational system, the other a highly motivated housewife.
The latter, Joani Zibert Williams, describes Doral Nevada as her two-and-a-half year “pipe dream … a very Mom-driven decision.” But what drove Mom? In Williams’ case, it was a conversation the Mountains Edge resident had with the principal of her local school: “She said something to the extent of, ‘Who are you to question the education of your kid at my school?” Williams was taken aback by the possessive attitude she said she encountered. Although the stay-at-home mother oversaw two Girl Scout troops at her suburban school, the principal “didn’t know who I was.”
Driven, she says, by overcrowded schools and high turnover among principals, Williams decided she “wanted some better options. The schools out there were built to hold 700 kids” and were running at double capacity, by her estimate. (Doral Nevada’s goal is to have one teacher for every 25 students, with a student body of 760, from kindergarten to seventh grade.)
However, starting a charter school out of one’s living room was easier said than done. “It took a lot of knocking on doors,” she recalls, and hearing the word, “No.” While there was no shortage of excited parents, she recalls, getting people to actually serve on the board of a startup academy was difficult. Others were unfamiliar with the charter school’s arts-integration concept and wary of it.
THE ROOKIE AND THE PRO
“She’s worked tirelessly for this vision,” says Doral Nevada principal-designate Bridget Bilbray-Phillips. She ought to know: The veteran educator exudes a near-evangelistic fervor, leaning forward in her chair as she speaks and frequently punctuating Willams’ remarks with nods. A 28-year veteran of the Clark County educational system, Phillips arrived from Tucson in 1984 to teach at St. Viator’s Elementary School.
Joining the Clark County School District in 1986, the ’82 University of Arizona graduate rose through the grades … and the ranks. In 1996, she opened Daniel Goldfarb Elementary School and, in 2003, did the same at James H. Bilbray Elementary School, named after the former congressman — and Phillips’ father. In 2010, she received a HOPE Award (“for commitment to education”) from the Obama administration.
Williams is understandably proud of her newest recruit. “Bridget’s knowledge and skill is unmatchable. I don’t think anybody would hold a candle to it.” Former Sunrise Acres Elementary School principal Arturo Ochoa agrees. “When I was young and going through leadership training, Bridget was with me, so we go back 25 years,” he recalls, describing her as “always, always, always a hardworking, dedicated, sharp lady,” adding that he would gladly come out of retirement in order to teach at Doral Nevada.
“It’s just amazing that it happened, to be quite honest,” says Robert Howell, lead representative of Academica Nevada, the company that will manage the school day-to-day. “It’s created tremendous demand.”
ARTS IN ACTION
So what is arts integration? Doral Nevada’s application to the state describes it as blending “content and skills between an artform and another academic subject. … Arts integration has been positively linked to increased student engagement, motivation and persistence. The arts can engage students who are not typically reached through traditional teaching methods, including those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. … Through experimenting with different artforms and processes, students learn to take risks through exploration and to develop flexible thinking skills.”
“You’re teaching through and with the arts,” Phillips says. “It’s a much higher level [of education].” She puts abstract concepts into concrete terms by describing the arts-integration curriculum she saw in action at the Vancouver Arts & Academics Academy in Washington state. A chemistry teacher there devoted nine weeks to the study of the periodic table of the elements. Then he had students create their own periodic tables, one of which consisted of various genres of rock music.
Another class was dedicated to the creation of simple machines. Students worked with a local museum to build an interactive Hansel and Gretel display. Ochoa has seen similar results locally, at Robert Taylor Elementary School, in Henderson. There, fifth-graders from low-income homes presented a Shakespearean play, while others created a Renaissance fair. “Everybody got into the act,” Ochoa recalls. “It was awesome! Did it impact test scores? I am positive it did.”
It’s not a performance-driven curriculum (compared to, say, Las Vegas Academy) but one that uses the arts as teaching tools. It’s a matter of taking what’s being taught and putting it into physical application. A history class that Phillips visited in Vancouver was tasked with re-creating a historical epoch. To that end, it built a fully detailed, historically accurate medieval castle.
‘JUST BLOWN AWAY’
According to Phillips, the charter schools that enjoy the highest level of academic success are arts-integration ones. Florida’s Doral Academies, which will receive a franchise fee from its Nevada emulator (1 percent of per-pupil funding), and will supply training and educational materials, served as Williams’ inspiration. “When we walked through the hallways of those schools, we were just blown away” by the media-production facilities on hand, as well as the other artistic infrastructure Doral had in place, she recalls. Also impressive to the visitors from Vegas was a class devoted to entrepreneurship, teaching children how to someday start their own businesses. Doral’s K-5 school in Florida ranks in the top 3 percent of all Sunshine State elementary schools.
However, when Williams and her committee (all of whom are in their mid-thirties and include a teacher and an accountant) lobbed their 441-page application at the state, in late August, it was not initially well received. The Office of Charter Schools reported that, “the application did not sufficiently explain a specific pedagogy for arts infused instruction or provide the emphasis in the curriculum on incorporating art.”
This was one of several respects in which Williams’ group was faulted for being short on specifics, although it “demonstrated an in-depth analysis of how students were currently served within the targeted school location.” But it was noted that Doral Nevada’s plan leaned heavily upon “educational management organization” Academica Nevada to make the plan pencil out. Doral’s goal is to post surpluses of $54,334 and $22,773 in 2013-15. “We just want to have a comfortable budget,” Williams explains.
Still, her proposal appeared on track for rejection until the Doral Nevada steering committee held follow-up meetings with the Nevada Department of Education in September and October. The oral arguments swayed a hitherto skeptical review board. “The [review] board told me it was refreshing to see someone with so much heart and drive,” Williams recalls of the meeting, “and to see so much enthusiasm on the part of [our] board … they wouldn’t give up on it.”
Doral Academy of Nevada remained under wraps until a Jan. 15 parental meeting, held at the Silverton Casino Lodge, which drew an estimated 500 people. Phillips and assistant principal-designate Danielle Marshall were introduced as the school’s brain trust, and the curriculum was laid out. In addition to the three Rs, science and social studies make up the core K-5 subjects, with Spanish added in sixth and seventh grades. “Specials” include music, theater, dance, violin, visual arts, chorus and media production.
Thirty hours of annual “parent service” are expected but not mandated. To explain what is meant, Phillips offers a tour of her current bailiwick: Somerset Academy of Las Vegas-Oakey, a small school that was called Cumorah before Academica Nevada took it over. (Phillips became its principal last August, just as the threads of Doral Nevada were coming together.) At Somerset, parents serve as administrative assistants or can be found in the classrooms, supplementing faculty.
Somerset’s music teacher spends two days a week in training at the Smith Center, then holds after-school sessions on campus. Another aspect of Somerset’s curriculum is its STEAM class, led by Marshall. Its components are science, technology, engineering, arts and math … ergo, STEAM. Next door is a garden plot, subdivided between each of the school’s classrooms. There, the little STEAMers grow plants and make scientific observations.
FREE THE FIDDLES!
After Ochoa left Sunrise Acres Elementary, he tried to help the local Foundation to Assist Young Musicians jump-start a violin-teaching program in 2009, using several dozen violins acquired during the Clinton Administration but subsequently locked in a closet. Thwarted by his former school, Ochoa turned to Phillips, who was then director of CCSD’s School-Community Partnership Program. “Bridget just shook her head. Within minutes, [she] offered me a solution” — making FAYM a CCSD partner. The fiddles were freed. “Bridget was able to see the possibility and make it happen. It was a win-win situation,” Ochoa concludes. “I have lots of gratitude and respect for someone who can see through the red tape.”
While winding down her brief Somerset tenure, Phillips is gearing up for Doral Nevada. Since it will be pulling students from many Mountains Edge schools, she’s building a “data wall” that will enable her to track the educational progress of every Doral student simultaneously.
Somerset is one of five area schools run by Academica Nevada, to which Doral’s management services will be outsourced — to compensate for a lower level of state budgetary support than regular public schools receive (approved charter schools currently receive $6,179 per student, compared to $7,763 for Clark County public schools; next year’s amounts will be set by the Legislature). “We do everything to run the school except educate the kids,” explains Howell, of Academica Nevada, which will provide a legal, financial and human-resources support system. It return, it receives a $450 per-pupil fee.
Academica Nevada is also in negotiations to purchase the former University of Phoenix building, which it will rent to Doral Nevada at $12/square foot/year triple-net, a figure in line with average Las Vegas Valley commercial rents. Roughly 10 percent of Doral Nevada’s monthly budget goes to Academica Nevada: $16,363 per month this year, escalating to $21,818 in 2014-15, as the student body is expected to grow. Already the lottery for student placement at Doral Nevada is oversubscribed. Howell says the school will start with 760 students and has 1,000 applications.
“We prefer to buy existing facilities,” if they’re suitable … but few in the southwest part of the valley are, according to Howell. So any sequel to Doral Nevada will probably be a ground-up project. The ex-Phoenix campus was, Howell discovered, “very helpful. They had nice, large rooms, sufficient bathrooms” and a tremendous amount of Internet infrastructure already in place. Not bad for a school that has to be ready by late summer: “Those were our marching orders” from the Doral committee to Howell.
CLASSROOMS AND CASINOS
Some of Academica’s Vegas schools are leased from third-party owners. Others are owned outright by real-estate companies belonging to Academica founders Fernando and Ignacio Zulueta. A Dec. 14, 2011, exposé by The Miami Herald valued the Zuluetas’ South Florida holdings at $115 million, “all exempt from property taxes as public schools.” Nine of those schools were paying the Zuluetas rent that comprised in excess of 20 percent of annual school revenue. (As indicated above, Doral Nevada gets a much lower rate.)
The Herald story detailed a series of too-close-for-comfort dealings between the Zuluetas’ educational and real estate businesses. It also recounted a scene that could easily have transpired in Sin City: A Herald reporter infiltrated a Somerset/Doral/Academica retreat to Atlantis casino-resort in the Bahamas. There, educators were spotted imbibing before noon at what was advertised as an “’adults-only ultra-pool with an outdoor gaming pavilion’ … members of the group sang and danced on the way to the waterslides.”
Academica-affiliated educators may know how to party, but the company’s involvement with the Vegas community is what impressed Williams and her committee. “It was the best [educational management organization] available in Nevada,” she says. “When I started going to charter-school meetings, Academica was always there” and helpful. Arts-integration support will be coming from the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C.
When working with the Kennedy Center as CCSD Partnership Program director, Phillips thought — long before Doral was more than a gleam in Williams’ eye — “That would be my dream: To open an arts-integration school.”
And what has she learned? “Be careful what you wish for!”