Situated a mile from the and ostentatious display of extravagant wealth that characterizes the Strip, Dean Petersen Elementary School is the Las Vegas that tourists never see. Surrounding apartment buildings provide transient housing to nearly 900 K-5 students and their families, on a day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month basis. Couch surfing is common and families move fluidly between addresses, riding the highs and lows of their financial situation. By Clark County’s definition, not having a permanent address defines homelessness. However, this doesn’t account for hundreds of families and kids living in transient housing.
Until ASAS came to Paterson two years ago, these young students had nowhere to go after school. There is a Boys and Girls Club across the street, but these financially strapped families often can’t scrape together rent, let alone any “extras.” Even low cost extras. There’s a park nearby, dotted with homeless encampments and drug pushers. It’s no place for a child to play.
For many students, there are unique cultural as well as financial challenges. Over half the kids in the school’s afterschool program are refugees. Notably, a Swahili translator was brought in to help connect with parents, but between language barriers and the ever-changing addresses and phone numbers, communicating pick-up times, field trips and program objectives with parents is an uphill battle. It’s not uncommon for staff to be waiting for one or two students to be picked up two hours after the program closed.
From day one at Peterson Elementary School, there was a waitlist. 200 students immediately filled all openings. Teachers were hired to fill 100% of our program staffing roles, and from the counselor to administrative staff, the school community took a hands-on partnership role. Shortly after opening, the requests to expand started pouring in. In January 2018, we doubled our program to serve a total of 430 students. There is still a waitlist.
Clark County School District is the 5th largest district in the country. Despite some high performing outliers and stellar educators (including Teacher of the Year recipients), CCSD often finds itself at the top of negative rating lists and the bottom of every positive rating list. Peterson, until recently, let students out at 3pm. Nearby Orr Middle School got out at 2pm, and would head over to Peterson, ostensibly to pick up younger siblings, but oftentimes, causing trouble while they waited around.
Despite circumstances that feel Herculean, we see positive impact, at Peterson, at ASAS program sites throughout the city, and in the district at large. Peterson and Orr recently aligned their school hours to mitigate the trouble that the bored middle schoolers were causing. To provide continuity and stability for students for whom instability is the norm, we opened a program at Orr in January 2018 to provide a safe and constructive environment for those students as well. The current superintendent is making progress. The district’s graduation rate rise to nearly 70% and has opened new magnet schools open to all Clark County students.
Most importantly, students, inspired by the opportunities they are exposed to through the program, have a vision for their future.
One student can’t wiat to represent his ASAS robotics program at a national competition in Kentucy later this year. Two students, plan to be astrophysicists when they grow up. They are literally reaching for the stars.