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Smart Cities: Viva Las Vegas

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"Education is the bedrock on which a truly great city is built," according to Tony Hsieh and his Downtown Project. The CEO of shopping giant Zappos is leading efforts to reimagine the old city center north of the Vegas Strip. It's one of several promising efforts to reverse the economic freefall that started in 2008 and create a vibrant dense urban core and "the most community-focused large city in the world."

I spent last week in Las Vegas at the invitation of The Public Education Foundation, a nonprofit that brings together business and community leaders who support smart, bold initiatives to improve public schools. While the challenges are great (and somewhat unique), there are several positive vectors that allow optimists and outsiders to imagine something great.

It was Edward L. Glaeser's Triumph of the City that convinced Hsieh to transform downtown Las Vegas into a dynamic urban center. The Glaeser formula calls for "at least 100 people per acre combined with ground-level gathering places such as cafes, interesting small businesses, and public spaces."

Zappos will be moving into the old city hall building with a model that's more NYU than Google--where you don't quite know where the headquarters ends and the community begins.

An explosion of activity encompassing art, culture, business formation, and new school development are now part of a $350 million five year project. Without visiting, "it's hard to really grok what's happening there -- the scope of the project is so grand and its aims are pretty ambitious," said TechCrunch.

Downtown Project encourages learning and creativity by hosting First Friday, a monthly arts festival--imagine Coachella, Burning Man, and TED in streets of Las Vegas. There is also a tech week, a fashion week, and Catalyst Week--an exploration of strategic partnerships in philanthropy, wellness, music, fashion, education, and technology. The Downtown Speaker Series brings several thought-provoking TED style speakers to town every week. They talk in a packed double-wide but will soon light up Inspire Theater.

The Downtown Project includes a $50 million small business investment fund. Criteria

include passion, contribution to the community, ability to execute, self sustainable, and a

unique story. There is also a $50 million education budget. Former Wall Street trader Connie Yeh leads the education efforts including the development of a new school.

Laying the Foundation. The Public Education Foundation develops great school leaders. They host several leadership summits each year focused on strategic thinking, solution driven innovation, and performance-based decision making.

Their Executive Leadership Academy is a 15 month intensive development opportunity for experienced education and business leaders committed to transforming public education. Last week, the Getting Smart team facilitated a two-day blended school design workshop where participants prepared two mini-lessons on blended components and created plans for a new or conversion K-8 school and a high school. (Every community should run a design session like this for school leaders given emerging blended learning opportunities).

The foundation also runs college scholarship, teacher support, reading, and volunteer programs.

Cool Schools. Started in 2009, the Las Vegas Math Initiative is a community partnership to help teachers elevate student math achievement with a target impact of 15,000 students in 27 schools. The six year initiative of MIND Research Institute provides schools with K-5 visual based math program ST Math, training and support for teachers and administrators.

I visited Jeffers Elementary to see a tablet deployment of ST Math. Over 120 of the 150 new kindergarteners spoke no English on the first day of school, with a similar percentage of students living in or near poverty. While the school is close to 1:1 access, it's a hodge podge of old desktops, laptops, and tablets (making it a challenge to administer an online writing assessment, for example). Teachers like Daniel Cano (a Rookie Teacher of the Year last year) align ST Math games with Investigations , their core curriculum, and make the most of mixed forms of access with a classroom rotation model that gives him time to work with small groups of struggling students.

Across the street is Von Tobel Middle School, one of five middle schools in the county piloting 1:1 iPads as part of the Engage, Empower, Explore Project (E3). Principal Roger Gonzalez is participating in the Executive Leadership Academy.

"To see the structural change over the year has been amazing," said district CTO Jhone Ebert about an e3 classroom visit last week. "Within 20 seconds the students were on their iPads taking a quiz in Edmodo. They then broke up into groups to work on a caste system presentation. Students were allowed to work in the hallway on their projects. As I walked around and spoke to all of the students they could not imagine going back to a learning environment without this tool.

The Clark County School District (CCSD) has a well developed network of magnet schools. I had the opportunity to learn from and with two of the principals last week from:

  • Walter Bracken STEAM Academy --a 51 year old elementary facility rejuvenated by murals, raised beds, trees, a turtle park and mini-amphitheater--is led by award winning principal Katie Decker, an energetic and insightful educator. Grade level teams make use of a wide range of digital tools. (Watch for an upcoming feature on Bracken from Alison Anderson.)
  • Southwest Career and Technical Academy is a high school, led by Felicia Nemcek, with eleven areas of study that include "rigorous coursework, hands-on projects, job-shadowing, and internships." It makes me smile to see a high school principal with a PBL sticker (from BIE.org) on her Air. Southwest is high tech--recognized as an Apple Distinguished School two years in a row--and, Ebert noted, "The entire student body understands what it means to be a community." For example, "The fashion design students not only sew clothes for students in need but they teach low income parents this skill as well."

Nevada has 13 state approved district online programs--the largest being CCSD Virtual High School--and seven online charter schools includingNevada Connections Academy and Nevada Virtual Academy.

Clark County scored a middle-of-the-pack C- on the Brookings Choice Index reflecting a well developed magnet program but lack of charters.

CCSD has a number of schools that benefited from federal School Improvement Grants.

Hancock Elementary is a turnaround school that fulfilled grant expectations (see Sun story). "Technology is used to personalize instruction and meet the needs of ALL students," said Ebert. And, "Leadership matters!"

Former superintendent Dwight Jones said Ebert "has been nothing short of amazing in her efforts," to get 100,000 students online or in a blended environment. "She finds ways to work with staff, lead in training and manage short funding to make our goal a reality for thousands of students."

Transitions. Mr. Jones resigned as superintendent a few months ago and the board appointed Pat Skorkowsky interim. He's a good guy but it suggests the district will be in limbo for months. Some insiders would like to see Skorkowsky made permanent with board supported effort to build a strong management team.

One positive sign of continued progress on the blended front is that CCSD announced last week that it was joining other large districts in an initiative based on five Reach Extension Principles and supported by Public Impact. "Out of the 18,000 teachers in our district, we know we have so many who could have a greater impact on student achievement," says Staci Vesneske, chief human resources officer. "We just need to create opportunities for them to do so."

In an unusual relationship, the district runs the PBS station. The spectacular Vegas PBS campus also houses Educational Media Services (EMS), Vegas Virtual Online Education and CCSD's Virtual High School.

Wynning Orgs. I asked Elaine Wynn what was making a difference in the valley and she said, "Teach for America and Communities In Schools." TFA Vegas, led by Victor Wakefield, has 170 crew members this year. Wynn and Hsieh are big TFA supporters.

CIS works with schools to create a web of support for students and families. By incorporating CIS' evidence-based work into the overall school improvement strategy, teachers are freed up to create powerful learning experiences and students show up ready to learn. (CIS will be featured in SSIR's What Works in Education this week.) Wynn chairs the national CIS board and is a CIS Nevada board member.

Conclusions. Clark County schools serve a large and very challenging population with relatively low levels of funding. The school district is a member of the Portfolio School District Network but it doesn't appear to have fully embraced strong accountability, school autonomy, and multiple providers.

Nevada gets a D on the Digital Learning Now! Report Card. CER criticizes a "restrictive charter law," but notes that, "Parents do enjoy access to user-friendly data and access to digital learning opportunities is growing."

Last week I noted how universities drive innovation in Pittsburgh--there's not much evidence of that in Vegas where there is innovation infrastructure for tourism but not technology or learning--the Downtown Project is an encouraging project that could help create a new innovation infrastructure.

Last week, Las Vegas Weekly suggested that given the level of challenge Clark County could be a great place to innovate--I agree. This Smart Cities series has begun to outline the path forward. Vegas leaders need to:

  1. Study how Mind Trust Developed The Smart Cities Formula,
  2. Work with CRPE to better implement the 7 components of a portfolio strategy,
  3. Build autonomous networks around successful magnets like Bracken and Southwest,
  4. Create a blended learning funder and assistance provider like Silicon Schools to accelerate and improve Ebert's goal of 100 blended schools in three years,
  5. Add a Tech Center, like Baltimore's Digital Harbor Foundation, to the plans of the Downtown Project,
  6. Import a couple great blended networks like Summit, Rocketship, and Carpe Diem,
  7. Build a great innovation incubator like 4.0 Schools in NOLA,
  8. Join the League of Innovative Schools to leverage smart demand,
  9. Expand human capital efforts of Public Education Foundation (PEF) and TFA,
  10. Wrap schools in a web of support with CIS,
  11. Boost access to postsecondary with innovative dual enrollment options, and
  12. PEF should join the CEE-Trust network to explore ways to accelerate all of the above.


The Downtown Project is the most interesting and eclectic urban development project I've encountered. Connecting it to the districts blended learning plans and supercharging it with an innovation infrastructure could change the course of Clark County.

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