As it turns out, the graduation rate improved by more than predicted in Clark County high schools in 2011-12, jumping from 59 percent to 66 percent.
All grades improved their pass rate on the state’s standardized tests in both math and reading, according to the Nevada Department of Education, which just released its school-by-school report card. Students in grades three through eight take the tests.

“Where we were the fastest-growing district in the country, we may be the fastest-improving,” said Ken Turner, assistant to the superintendent, touting the Clark County School District’s successes in a discussion about Phase 2 of the superintendent’s reform plan, released late last week.

Superintendent Dwight Jones, entering his second full school year at the helm, also emphasized the growth but noted that “tremendous challenges lay ahead,” as pointed out in his plan “Phase II: Progress Made and the Next Mile.”

“I don’t feel like we’re making enough progress,” Jones said on Monday, noting that student performance is improving overall, but gaps between ethnic groups aren’t closing.

Though more students passed state tests, only half of middle school and two-thirds of elementary school students passed the reading test.

And schools are still playing catch-up. About half of the 21,000 seniors started last year behind in credits or still needing to pass one of the sophomore tests required to graduate. Again, half of seniors lag behind this year.

Though the district’s graduation rate jumped halfway to Jones’ goal of 75 percent last year, it took a lot of extra work with seniors to get there. In its Graduation Initiative, the district spent $1.53 million on a pilot program for about 300 struggling high school students last year.

The program, Ombudsman, plucks students off their campuses for individual instruction. Another $1 million in federal grants was spent for last-ditch tutoring during the summer for the district’s first autumn graduation. Staff and volunteers even knocked on doors of dropout students on Saturdays. Jones also had each principal make an individual recovery plan for all 10,000 struggling seniors. Lastly, the district pushed retaking courses online instead of the classroom, receiving record Virtual High School enrollment.

The Graduation Initiative is only going to “continue and expand” this school year, Jones wrote in Phase 2.

Can this pace be held? Not if the district’s budget continues to dwindle, Jones warned. Nearly $600 million has been cut in the past four years.

“We’re trying to do more with less, but we’re approaching a real fine line where less will just be less,” he said.