Nye County Schools Superintendent Dale Norton oversees the operations of one of the nation’s largest school districts when measured by geographic size. The district’s largest cities, Pahrump and Tonopah, are separated by 166 miles of two-lane driving through much of rural Western Nevada. I sat down yesterday, with Norton, an advocate for collaborative teaching under strong building principals. I began the conversation by asking Norton to discuss the challenges facing Nevada’s rural school districts.
Norton: Our number one issue is finding, employing and retaining licensed teachers, particularly in the remote areas. If they’re unmarried our chances of keeping them there are pretty low. The likelihood of retention is pretty good if they’re homegrown they’ve got some attachments to a family and community.
How do you incentivize educators to teach in rural Nevada?
Norton: With the collective bargaining contract we have right now we don’t have any incentives for educators in remote rural schools. It’s something we’re looking at. In two of our remote communities (Gabbs and Round Mountain) we have some district-owned housing. They’re fairly new doublewide modules with three bedrooms, each at a very reasonable cost. Gabbs is around $350 a month. Round Mountain is probably about the same.
What other challenges do you face in rural communities?
Norton: The availability of specialized services in those areas. If we have a high-level, special-needs student in one of those communities that would need occupational therapy, speech therapy, any service that can’t be delivered online, the administrative costs for that are phenomenally high due to the challenges of finding somebody to provide it. If we don’t have the service in the district we have to contract for it, most likely from Reno or Las Vegas.
If we get a high-level medical needs student in those areas we would have to figure out how to provide some sort of nursing services, an example is if we had a child requiring a feeding-tube in one of those communities we’d have to hire no less than a LPN or RN to provide those services every day.
The cost to educate a student in Gabbs is different than to educate a student in Pahrump because the ratios are different — it’s a matter of equality vs equity.
Paint a picture of the families who send students to your schools.
Norton: We’re one of the highest free- and reduced-districts in the state. We have a lot of grandparents or other family members raising children due to a multitude of issues — parents in jail, parents who drop the children off with their aunts and uncles and just leave. But I also want to say we have a lot of aunts and uncles raising children who are doing a really good job for the circumstances that they’re in.
It’s in my DNA to build relationships with kids, with staff, with community. Building relationships and having respect for people will carry you a long way in any business or job that you do. What I’m looking at, education, yes, buildings skills for kids to be good citizens in society that’s what I’m really lasered-in on.
If the state could give you one thing to make your job easier what would it be?
Norton: It’s difficult for me to answer that because I’m working on a lot of things in the district. It’s hard because none of them take priority over the other. Such as, our collaboration time for our teachers, which in the long run will impact the education level for students, which will impact where the district’s at educationally within the state.
You hired Jim Fossett, an educator who’s led schools in Los Angeles and Wyoming to serve as the principal at Tonopah High School. You speak highly of his collaborative, classroom-centered approach to the work.
Norton: He’s organized the principals’ group in the north of the district and empowered the principals in the rurals, and they’re looking at how they can take that family of educators and bring them together; so we’re talking the same language. If you’re in Gabbs and you’re an elementary teacher you’re a K-6 teacher, I’m guessing she has 13, 14 students. Then, you’ve got Beatty Elementary and you have a pre-K 1 a 2-3 and 4-5 teacher for those grades. Then in Tonopah you have one teacher for each grade. You’ve got a dynamic in the remote rural that’s totally different. So now you have those teachers start talking to each other about how you make that work in a 2-3 vs K-6 vs. solo second-grade teacher.