Teacher shortage, enrollment spike leave beleaguered Las Vegas schools reeling

Las Vegas' embattled public schools have rolled snake eyes this year, with a teacher shortage and an influx of new students converging to create crowded and confused classrooms.

With more than 300,000 students and 18,000 teachers, the Clark County School District in southern Nevada is the nation's fifth-largest. But a spike in enrollment this year, which some believe is at least in part driven by this summer's illegal immigration surge at the Mexican border, has the district 18 percent over capacity, according to district officials. They say the district needs more than 600 more teachers and up to 30 more schools to address the overcrowding issue.

"Our district is experiencing record-high enrollment," said Clark County Schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky. "If I had the money to build 23 new elementary schools, I could open them tomorrow and they would all be full -- that's how full some of our elementary schools are at this time.

Students are feeling the strain,as green and even uncertified substitute teachers are manning classes in a district consistently labeled one of the nation's poorest performing.


"It's awful,” said high school sophomore Sarah Matus, an A student who says this year, she feels she's getting lost in the system. “The first day of school I was in my history class and we had a substitute teacher that, he didn't know what he was doing. And then the second day we had a new sub and I guess they couldn't figure out what was going on with the teacher we were supposed to have and so he was subbing for a little bit and then we found out that he was just going to become our permanent teacher because they didn't have any other staff."

The teacher shortage is the worst at the elementary level. The district is down 435 teachers throughout its 217 elementary schools—an average of two teachers per school. On top of the teacher shortage, schools are overcrowded, averaging upwards of 25 students per classroom. 

At Gwendolyn Woolley Elementary, Principal Darryl Wyatt said the school picked up an additional 175 students in just four years.

"The lower the ratios the more the opportunities the teachers have to interact with the students, the better outcomes are going to be,” Wyatt said. 

Caryne Shea, who has two elementary-age children in the district, said the system is so bad that teachers are constantly leaving for other states, a claim echoed by the teachers union.

"There's not really a way you can help your child to be comfortable there when you're not,” Shea said. 

Matus told she challenges herself to get good grades, but thinks other students aren’t as motivated and are being negatively impacted by the district’s problems.

"There are students who can go really, really far but they're not getting the attention that they deserve, the attention that they need,” Matus said. “And so I feel like students just decide to give up." 

Several parents and officials interviewed by said the state has not done enough to fund and promote education. Some suspect that legislators have instead always focused on tourism and the Vegas strip.

State Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, a democrat and chair of the state education committee, said the annual $1.5 billion state education budget is not enough.

"We just haven't funded education at the level it should be,” Woodhouse said. 

One of the district's biggest challenges is the growing number of Latino students who don't speak English. Hispanic students now make up 44.4 percent of the district with a total of 139,700 students, up 6,000 from just two years ago. Woodhouse said those that don't speak English require extra time and resources to get to the same level as other students.

Woodhouse has proposed a bill that would increase funding by 50 percent for each non-English speaking student. And, it will double funding for each special education student-- which Woodhouse said is critical. 

But even with a teacher shortage, Woodhouse and Wyatt both agreed that teachers who aren't performing well must go. 

"Over time I've seen teachers that were better served someplace else and we have a process in place to make that happen and as an administrator that's my responsibility to make sure they're not doing harm to children,” Wyatt said. 

That attitude is good news for the mother of two who founded a parent organization to get the attention of the state. 

"Every state has its issues; Nevada’s can be changed,” Shea said. 

Matus hopes the change comes soon. An aspiring chef, she fears that coming from the troubled district could stigmatize her despite here good grades.But she worries that going to school in Nevada might typecast her as an unprepared student.

"If somebody asks where I’m from-- just saying Nevada is one of the worst schools-- it's just not fair for me,” Matus said.

Matt Finn is a Fox News correspondent based in the Chicago bureau. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFinnFNC