Amargosa Valley School Episode 1: Increased Focus and Team Effort JOURNEYS

By Heather Mattson / September 06, 2013

Tough Times for Amargosa Valley School

Over the last decade, remote, rural Amargosa Valley School in Nye County, Nevada, experienced a continual series of administrative changes, declining student achievement, and a dwindling sense that this school was the center of the community. A pre-kindergarten through grade eight school, Amargosa sits near Nye County’s southwestern border; it is about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas and roughly ten miles southwest of the Nevada National Security Site, a nuclear testing range. The school is in the middle of a valley with very little in the surrounding area — a sheriff’s office, community center, and graveyard, and then the desert.

Amargosa Valley School sits isolated in rural southern Nevada, approximately 100 miles away from Las Vegas.

Currently, 205 students attend Amargosa Valley School. The school has the largest migrant student population in Nevada. Reflecting the region’s high unemployment rate, over 90 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches through the federal lunch program (this is 36 percentage points higher than the state average).

The student population is currently 78 percent Hispanic and 18 percent white. The state average of Hispanic students is just 40 percent. Similarly, while the state average for English learners is just 16 percent, Amargosa Valley School has a rate of 53 percent. Similar to state levels, nearly 15 percent of Amargosa students are on an Individualized Education Plan.

"The surrounding area is very spread out. There is no typical main street, making it hard for the community to gather informally downtown."

— Superintendent Dale Norton, Nye County School District

Amargosa students are more likely than their counterparts throughout Nye County to be below grade level, below proficiency targets, and particularly at risk for elementary school failure (see Charts 1 and 2).


Things have been tough at Amargosa for a while. In 2011, the school was nearly closed down. While the budget was the primary factor, low student achievement, inconsistent leadership, and lack of focused attention from the district were also problems. The closure option was presented at a school board meeting and seriously discussed. However, it was ultimately decided that the resulting increase in commute times for displaced students would have been an unacceptable consequence of closing Amargosa. Nevertheless, according to Sue Moulden-Horton, School Improvement Grant Coordinator for the Nevada Department of Education (NDE), the state was still concerned about the level of achievement at Amargosa Valley School.

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A New Role for a Familiar Face

Local Perspective:

"There has been a revolving door of administrative changes at Amargosa over the years for a variety of reasons."

— Dale Norton, Superintendent, Nye County School District
State Perspective:

"At one point serious consideration was given to closing the school; there were budgetary considerations and perceptions that the school had been struggling academically for a long period of time."

— Sue Moulden-Horton, Nevada Department of Education

Superintendent Dale Norton now leads the Nye County School District (NCSD), after taking the position at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. Perhaps fittingly, Norton has been with the district since 1990, when he was hired as principal of Amargosa Valley School. Norton has served in a diverse number of Nye County’s schools, and he was previously appointed the district’s Assistant Superintendent in 2005.

Even as Assistant Superintendent, Norton never lost touch with school-level stakeholders. Twice during his time in that position, he served as an acting principal while still maintaining many of his district leadership duties. Both times, Norton seriously considered remaining a principal, but the district leadership requested that he resume his full duties as Assistant Superintendent.

In addition to understanding the local context, Norton is also involved in broader statewide issues. He is President of the Nevada Association of School Administrators and has a gubernatorial appointment to the Nevada Teachers and Leaders Council. The Council helped guide Nevada’s use of student achievement data in evaluating administrators and teachers.

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Amargosa Gets a Second Chance

In 2011, after the district decided to keep Amargosa Valley School open, the Nye County School Board adopted its Vision for a High-Performing School District that would ultimately guide the development of the district’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) planning. The overall mission, vision, and goals outlined in the planning document helped focus the district on improving outcomes for all students.


Superintendent Dale Norton

Following the development of the district’s new vision, the school board encouraged Superintendent Norton and his staff to focus on Amargosa as the school in the district with the most challenges, the lowest performance, and the opportunity of acquiring SIG funding. Superintendent Norton enthusiastically agreed that focusing time, money, and support on Amargosa was important and began the process.

In 2012, the district applied for SIG funding, but was not selected. Undeterred, the district redoubled its efforts, sought technical assistance from SIG Coordinator Sue Moulden-Horton at the NDE, and crafted a successful application in 2013. Nye County was awarded nearly $1.6 million over a three-year period and will use another estimated $600,000 over that same period from other local and federal funds for improvement efforts at Amargosa. Finally, a bright light would shine on the school.

"The board encouraged me to focus on Amargosa, and I am more than happy to do that."

— Superintendent Norton

District and state stakeholders subsequently decided to take the additional step of collaborating with the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd to make the school part of the Journeys project. NCSD and NDE staff are enthusiastic about the opportunity to both reflect upon and document Amargosa’s process.

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Implementing the Transformation

Based on research, NCSD decided the transformation model best fits the needs of Amargosa Valley School and its community. Among the changes this model requires are a new principal, increased learning time, and evaluation systems for teachers and principals that account for student growth.

"It is amazing to have a superintendent directly involved in the turnaround process. That’s what we as a state have been hoping for."

— Sue Moulden-Horton, NDE

Because NCSD was not yet experienced using the transformation model, Superintendent Norton decided to personally take charge of the work. In thinking about his connection to the community, the importance of the reform effort, his discussions with Moulden-Horton, and Amargosa’s participation in the Journeys project, Norton felt he had to directly oversee this work. This is a large undertaking for a district superintendent, but he felt it necessary to ensure that the school successfully meets its turnaround goals. He will have oversight of the School Governance Committee (SGC), direct the work of district staff supporting the school, and mentor a newly hired principal.


Superintendent Norton (far right) and his team plan the upcoming school year for Amargosa Valley School.

The principal who led Amargosa prior to commencement of the transformation has been given a new assignment. Additionally, in the course of planning for and announcing the changes associated with SIG funding, many teachers left Amargosa – some because of other opportunities or natural turnover and others because of an unwillingness to support the actions necessary to change Amargosa. So, the new principal will need to replace six teachers out of thirteen and hire a counselor and reading specialist funded by SIG.

In the 2012-2013 school year, before the transformation model began, the district conducted an academic audit at the school, assisted with parent involvement activities, provided reading materials, and increased site technology. As a result, NCSD increased the number of days that district instructional support staff spent at Amargosa. District administrators also spent more time at Amargosa, working with both school administrators and teachers. This foundation will continue to be built upon, with a focus on leadership and governance, instructional support, professional learning for teachers and leaders, extended learning time, pre-kindergarten, and monitoring.

Increased Focus and Team Effort 

The district and the board have increased efforts to ensure that all stakeholders are engaged in and support the proposed changes at Amargosa as a long-term improvement strategy. In fact, a large district team attended a state meeting to better understand the SIG process in Nevada. The president of the school board, union members, superintendent, human resources director, coordinator of federal and state programs, and a district teacher on special assignment all attended the meeting. This inclusive approach immediately impressed the NDE. The NCSD board has also requested regular Amargosa updates at every board meeting. NCSD staff have met and reviewed the selected transformation model with all stakeholders — union representatives, parents, community members, and Amargosa staff. Everyone is clear that there is a model for change at Amargosa and supports that vision. Now, there is a collaborative, focused sense of purpose centered on Amargosa.


The SGC, led by the superintendent, will meet formally each month to review data, examine the implementation of the turnaround plan, and provide guidance. This committee will also include parents; the principal; school intervention director (SID); coordinator of federal and state programs; one business stakeholder; and one lower elementary, upper elementary, and middle school teacher (from schools not involved in the process). The committee will review assessment data and other information that the SID provides. This committee will then make recommendations to the SID and principal to improve student academic success. Based on these recommendations, the SID and principal will work with the reading specialist, teacher on special assignment, English learner specialist, and counselor to provide ongoing support for the students, teachers, and community.

Increased Support 

Nye County School District has a multi-pronged approach to provide increased support to Amargosa. NCSD is hiring a SID to work in partnership with the superintendent and Amargosa principal. The SID’s primary duties will be to provide data to the SGC, oversee the development and successful implementation of units of study and common assessments connected to the CCSS, analyze student and teacher data, oversee professional learning, and mentor the principal.

NCSD currently has five district teachers on special assignment (TOSAs) who provide professional development training throughout the district. During the 2012-2013 school year, the district increased the time that Amargosa had a TOSA on site from two to three days a week. Throughout the transformation process, the district will maintain this schedule with a highly qualified TOSA. The TOSA will work directly with the principal to identify and provide individualized and group professional development to the teaching staff. If the need arises, the Amargosa principal will have access to the other district TOSAs.

Results from the NCSD academic audit, test scores, and the large English learner population support the use of sheltered instructional strategies. An English learner specialist is on site four days a week and collaborates with school staff to develop appropriate programs and practices to enable English learners to attain their full potential. The specialist uses formative assessments designed for students with culturally diverse backgrounds to drive intervention strategies. The specialist will continue to coach all the teachers, including special education, on sheltered instructional strategies and provide intervention for the students.

Using SIG funding, NCSD is hiring a reading specialist to support students who are failing or at risk of failing to meet grade-level expectations in reading by third grade. This specialist will focus on teacher instructional strategies and provide embedded professional development at the school. The specialist will also provide direct intervention for struggling students and will be the leader in teaching literacy skills and supporting teachers to think reflectively about improving student learning.

Professional Learning 

Amargosa Valley School will give up its five inservice days to provide additional learning time to the students. In return, NCSD will pay the teachers to work an additional four days before school starts and one day at the conclusion of the school year. These additional days will be used to disaggregate data, create units of study, and create pre- and post-common assessments. Embedded professional development time will replace the inservice training time within the school year.

The NCSD academic audit identified a need for better classroom management strategies, which will be addressed using Time to Teach: Evidence Based Classroom Management for the 21st Century. This program aims to give teachers a system of strategies to manage their classrooms effectively, decrease disruptions, and increase instructional time. This program’s trainer will provide an initial training, with follow-up school visits. The principal will monitor the model’s use through classroom observations and report the results to the teachers, SID, and SGC.

Because Amargosa is a remote, rural school with only one teacher per grade level, the opportunity to work with grade-level peers is limited. NCSD will create a partnership between Amargosa and two district schools to provide a cadre of teachers, with a teacher leader for each grade level, to work together in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). During professional development times, grade-level personnel will develop units of study and common assessments connected to the CCSS. NCSD will provide provide Adobe Connect for interactive, online PLCs, as well as teacher release time to attend a monthly PLC in person.

Weekly, the SID and principal will have a team meeting with the TOSA and English learner, special education, and reading specialists to discuss progress. Data-driven results will lead the SID and principal to identify and provide professional development based on individualized student and teacher needs. Teachers will continue to adjust their teaching methodology to support student learning.

Consultation and coaching will take place at all levels of this transformation process. The superintendent will mentor the SID and the principal. The SID will also advise the principal, who will in turn mentor and coach classroom teachers and the counselor. The teacher leaders will work with grade-level teachers to guide the development of units of study and common assessments based on the CCSS. Time will be provided for the teachers to collaborate with each other to provide peer feedback to one another. Finally, the reading specialist, TOSA, and English learner specialist will support all staff through coaching.

Extended Learning Time 

The 2012-13 Amargosa schedule was an eight-period day with 90-minute blocks for reading and math. The teachers had 45 minutes in the morning for preparation four days per week. In the upcoming school year, the district’s intention is to use the existing school day to maximize time for student academic learning. The new principal and the SID will create a schedule to support the district’s intent.


An Amargosa Valley teacher with her summer school students.

Monthly, the Amargosa community will be invited to participate in a Saturday Camp. While the camp’s major focus is student academic intervention through data-driven instruction, the counselor will arrange for community services, such as vision examinations, dental screenings, vaccinations, GED classes, and other services for families. The counselor will survey families and staff to determine the most critical needs and work with staff to create solutions.

All staff involved in the transformation model will work with the counselor, by assisting and planning services as needed, to support the Saturday Camp activities. The principal and teachers will use student data to determine intervention activities and student placement in those activities.

An additional way in which Amargosa Valley School provides increased learning time is through an expanded summer school program. Students are selected based on their Northwest Evaluation Association’s (NWEA) Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing scores. Student data determine the resources needed for the summer program, and the counselor communicates with families on their students’ needs. The focus of summer school is ELA and math, and results are monitored using another round of MAP testing.


In the 2012-2013 school year, Amargosa Valley School had a morning pre-kindergarten (pre-K) class. In the 2013-2014 school year, additional students will be recruited, and two pre-K classes will be offered. Transportation for the additional class has been added to the budget. The district hopes that enriching more students at an earlier age will promote academic readiness when the students enter kindergarten. The goal is also to promote community by getting more parents to trust the programming and understand the importance of early education.

The pre-K program follows the framework and standards for Nevada pre-K classes. NCSD has contracted with the Nevada pre-K outside evaluator, Pacific Research Associates, to begin the same evaluation process, in the 2013-2014 school year, as the Nevada pre-K model. In conjunction with the evaluation process, current funding has purchased the same resources for the Amargosa pre-K program as those used in the Nevada pre-K model.

Monitoring, Evaluation, and Support 

In addition to the formative common assessments that will be developed and used to guide instruction based on Common Core State Standards, NCSD uses the NWEA MAP system to analyze student data three times per year, plus before and after summer school. NCSD has a TOSA who works specifically with MAP’s testing and provides professional development to school staff to increase their use of data to support student achievement.

The principal and school instructors will develop physical student data walls within the school in a secured room showing student-, class-, and school-level achievement data. The hope is that this physical representation of academic performance will help all staff focus their efforts and know exactly where their students are and where they need to be. The counselor, instructors, and principal will use the information on the data wall to contact parents and develop a school team to support students at risk of not demonstrating growth. The teachers will use the data wall to determine instructional interventions for students and to monitor improvement in achievement. The TOSA will also help the teachers analyze the data in more depth and provide professional development around the use of data to inform decisions.


Amargosa students arrive for summer school classes.

NCSD personnel will conduct an annual audit to provide additional monitoring and guidance to the school. Classroom observations will primarily be the principal’s job; however, the SID, along with the superintendent, will mentor the principal, sharing their understanding of good teaching practices.

Monthly classroom observations will provide a method of measuring teacher performance. The principal will use the Nye County School District’s annual teacher evaluation model, which aligns with the Danielson research-based model. The principal will look for components of an effective lesson and various instructional strategies, approaches, and resources needed to improve student outcomes. Using the NCSD evaluation rubric, the principal will give the teacher immediate feedback and note strengths and weaknesses in the instruction, followed by recommendations.

The principal will also periodically use the rubric to score the teacher on a 1-4 scale. This information can be transferred directly onto the Licensed Employee Appraisal Report’s final record. If an unsatisfactory evaluation occurs, an improvement program will be put into place.

If all transformation goals and requirements are met, the district will provide incentive pay for staff in the form of a gift card for gas (a critical resource given Amargosa’s remote setting). Different levels of incentives will be based on student contact time and responsibilities. There is also an annual incentive for the school community if the school reaches all of its goals. The community will receive $3,000 in supplies to support the homework room or to make an improvement at the school site that is recommended in a survey sent to families and students.


A student mural at Amargosa Valley School

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The Turnaround Journey

"This is something I don’t want to fail. I need to be intimately and closely connected to the project."

— Superintendent Norton

Superintendent Norton has a clear connection to Amargosa. At an Amargosa SIG community meeting, when he asked any parents in the room who were his former students at Amargosa Valley to raise their hands, over one-quarter of them responded. Among other reasons, this helped him make the decision to personally oversee the transformation work at Amargosa. Norton’s direct involvement with the turnaround process, along with increased focus and support from the board and district staff, a comprehensive improvement plan, and partnership with NDE are all interesting factors to watch. Could these pieces of the puzzle be the catalyst needed to spark lasting improvements in student outcomes at Amargosa? Follow the Journey to find out.

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With all the transformation pieces in place, Norton and his team are now focusing on implementing the plan and staffing. The challenges of being a remote rural school are most keenly felt whenever staffing issues arise; in the case of Amargosa School, the superintendent has to face many staffing issues simultaneously. The district must recruit and hire a school intervention director, a new principal, a counselor, a reading specialist, and several new teachers.

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About the author

Heather Mattson

Heather Mattson is a Senior Research Associate at WestEd and a staff member of the Center on School Turnaround. In addition to coordinating the Journeys content team, she is a Journeys school facilitator and a blog contributor.

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