Next Up Blog

It’s late May, and even though the temperature in the auditorium has crept beyond comfort level, the room is filled with patient parents, grandparents, and extended family members. They are here to watch their students perform in this year’s fourth and final University Night, a collection of art, performance, culture, and history. 120 kindergarten and first grade students line the edge of the room, waiting for their entrance cue. A year ago this school didn’t exist, but tonight Nevada Rise is standing room only.

A year ago, this packed auditorium was a church sanctuary. In fact, it still is every Sunday. That’s one of the struggles in opening a new school of choice in Las Vegas–finding a suitable space. Nevada Rise, a tuition-free public charter school, shares the church with another charter school, Nevada Prep, Monday through Friday. 

The school was designed to serve kids with limited educational options. Justin Brecht, Executive Director of Nevada Rise, struggled to find a suitable facility in a high-need part of town and had to think creatively; the shared church works. It’s situated on a residential street between two gated communities (it’s rumored that Don King lives in one of them), and right around the corner is Section 8 housing. Its location draws a large mix of kids–the school’s student population is  51% Latino, 28% Black, 10% two or more races, 8% White, and 2% Asian/Pacific Islander.

The Nevada Rise team succeeded in finding the student student population it sought.  In its first year, 88 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced-price meals under the federal school lunch program, a measure of household income.  In fact, 76 percent of its students qualified under the “free lunch” requirement, according to official records. Each of these numbers place Nevada Rise as among the schools in all of Nevada serving the highest rates of students in these groups.

Eight years ago, Mr. Brecht was a teacher in CCSD when he had an innovative idea–he asked his principal if he could extend the school day for his class to incorporate more movement, art, and character education. Students opted into the class, called Brick, and made a commitment to attend the extra hours and to work to meet rigorous academic expectations. At the end of the first year, students in Brick were at the top of their school, outperforming all other classes. As Brick’s success grew over the years, Mr. Brecht began to plan to create a school based on its success. 

He did so with the support of Building Excellent Schools, a fellowship designed to prepare school leaders to build and lead high-performing charter schools. He spent his fellowship year planning every aspect of his new school, and receives regular, ongoing support from the program now that his school has opened. The school also receives ongoing support from Opportunity 180, a nonprofit focused on changing educational outcomes for kids in Nevada. The nonprofit highlighted Nevada Rise in its Great Classrooms Video Series.

At Nevada Rise, the bones of Brick are apparent. Academic and behavioral expectations are high. Every student practices visual and performing arts. Yoga is a regular part of the curriculum. And just like at Brick, students at Nevada Rise outperformed their peers: NWEA Map tests from the first year placed most Nevada Rise students in the 99th percentile for growth in reading and math compared to other students across the country. This means that Rise students performed better than 99% of other students in similar schools, in similar neighborhoods, from similar backgrounds. Nevada Rise is poised to make a real difference for its students. 

Families drive from all over the Las Vegas valley to attend Nevada Rise. One family drives an hour each way, twice a day, to bring their daughter to the school. Her father looked at several options closer to home before running across Mr. Brecht at a recruiting event. When he heard Mr. Brecht’s passion for providing a high-quality education to kids in high-need areas, he knew it was the right fit for his daughter. There was nothing near home that he felt could provide Rise’s unique mix of culture, character, and academics. That’s the beauty of school choice: every student can have access to a school that meets their unique needs. 

The unique nature of Nevada Rise has led to some difficulties in staffing. Talented teachers are already hard to come by, and Rise teachers also have to be great with classroom management, comfortable with constant feedback on their work, and committed to working with a high-needs population. “Talent matters,” Mr. Brecht said; one of the hardest lessons he learned in year one came from looking back at hiring decisions. “You can build all the systems and structures for an effective school, but you need the right people to facilitate. Finding those people can be hard.” By the end of year one, he had made changes to his hiring practices. “It’s an ongoing process,” he said. “If the focus isn’t 100% on student growth, the school will fall short of its goals.” 

One of his new hires this year, Desiree Brumfield, went through the revised process. She completed a phone interview, an in-person interview, taught a model lesson to a small group of students, then waited two grueling months to get word. “I moved to Nevada from Kentucky to work with Justin. I believe in the work he’s doing and I see the difference it’s making for kids.” The days are long, she says, and the work is hard, but it’s also rewarding. 

And tonight, in this packed church-sanctuary-turned-auditorium, the reward is clear. Each class performs a song and dance routine, and many eyes fill with tears of pride at the sight. At the end of the night, a lone mylar balloon is left floating high under the ceiling, and Mr. Brecht climbs a chair and uses a broom handle to pull it down. A balloon might be okay in a school auditorium, but it would be out of place come Sunday Morning. It’s 8:30 PM, and he’s been here since 6:00 this morning. The days are long, and the work is hard, but it’s also rewarding. 

Eight years ago Mr. Brecht was a teacher with an innovative idea, and now he’s running the school that grew from that idea. If you’d like to be a part of Nevada Rise, as an enrolled family, an advocate, or a supporter, you can reach the school at 702-336-7060. 

Thank you to this distinguished commission of experts for making time from your busy lives and careers to lead this historic and vitally important undertaking.

As you move this legislatively-directed process forward, I would encourage you to consider two guiding priorities in your work.

First, that equitable educational opportunity for all of Nevada’s learners serve as a guiding principle for your recommendations. Families, and households, fortunate to have choices of schools to meet their learners’ educational needs, do so for diverse reasons — so the diversity of high-quality schools serving our elementary and secondary students reflects these different priorities. In Nevada , we have schools of right – traditional district-run schools with defined geographic attendance zones, and schools of choice, where students apply to attend and lotteries generally determine placement when demand exceeds number of available seats. These learners are all Nevadans, and deserve equitable educational opportunities, and equitable school funding.

Second, that your school funding recommendations include weighted funding for student risk factors that pay for the increased, real costs associated with risk factors. Currently, Nevada law recognizes only one of a learner’s status as an English Leaner, a child with identified special needs, a gifted and talented learner, or an at-risk learner, defined as a one who is eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program, meaning their household income is up to 185% of federal poverty levels. But the law grants flexibility to modify this definition.

I look forward to providing this Commission with up-to-date research about the specific factors other states utilize for their at-risk learner funding designations. Today these include designating different weights for free lunch eligibility versus reduced-price lunch eligibility, status as a homeless or foster youth, over-age and under-accredited high-school learners, pattern of unsatisfactory performance on state standardized assessments, and eligibility for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program programs.

Evidence shows consistently that it costs schools more to serve these groups of students with equity and fidelity, and I hope that Nevada’s school funding model will address this disparity.

Thank you for your admirable service.

This briefing was prepared by Nevada Action for School Options following the 2019 session of the Nevada Legislature.  This version is designed for general audiences: we have different versions applicable to private, public charter, and traditional district-operated public schools.

The focus of these briefings is to provide the information school leaders specifically need to plan on as a result of changes made to Nevada education laws during the 2019 session.  If you would like to arrange a briefing with your school’s leadership, board, or PTO/PTA, please let us know at info [at] and we would be happy to come out and speak with your group.

Legislative Brief General Aug 2019


The latest installment of Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report had a good story to tell about Nevada schools. And we can sure use it – the first month of school has been one tough news cycle after another for Nevada education generally, as news coverage goes.

In one year, according to the weekly education policy publication of record, Nevada’s overall rating’s for rate of growth blew past the annual scores for California and the District of Columbia – big news for Nevadans who fear negative influences coming from their mighty neighbor to the West. Good news indeed.

This new analysis is based on trends through the 2017 administration of the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), the test known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” Nevada’s eighth graders improved their proficiency rates in math by 7.3 percent and their reading proficiency by 7.5 percent between 2003 and 2018, the analysis notes. Put in perspective, this means that at least one in four eighth grade students in Nevada demonstrated scores at grade level in both reading and math – a healthy step below the state average nationally, but progress nonetheless.

Good news is good news, and the hardworking educators making Nevada education happen everyday can always use more of it.

When viewed through the prism of equity of educational opportunity for all children, however, the bright, splashy headlines begin to fade and the picture becomes informative for policymakers seeking directions to build on the improvements.

At the other, lower, end of the student achievement spectrum on NAEP lies the “Below Basic” category of student skills. Students demonstrating below basic skills in reading in math show that they lack “partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at a given grade.” In reading, for students entering high school, this means that they are unprepared to find information in a document or make connections between simple concepts in two different texts.

Half of all Nevada eighth graders eligible for the National School Lunch Program scored at Below Basic levels in math in 2017. In reading, that number was one in three.

When viewed through a prism of race, this picture also remains discouraging. In Math, one in five white eight grade students scored below basic in math, while two in five of their Hispanic classmates, and three of five black classmates, scored below basic.

In reading, one in three Hispanic eighth graders scored at below basic, while 44 percent of their black classmates did (white students performed about the same as in math).

For eighth grade students below the level of basic skills in reading and math, it matters little whether preparation for college or career is their schools’ stated goal – our system of education has placed them at extreme risk of dropping out without having acquired the skills our education experts believe necessary for them to succeed.

Surely, Nevada’s education and political leaders deserve their moment, courtesy of the Education Week editorial staff, to celebrate their long-in-coming victory over California.

And then it’s time for us to all get back to work, with the goal of providing meaningful educational opportunities for all Nevada learners.

Nevadans, and particularly parents of school-aged children, when asked about the schools in their own neighborhood, are decidedly more positive about schools of choice than about their traditional school-district-operated neighborhood public schools of right.  The same parents are much more likely to feel that the state’s K-12 education is on the wrong track than headed in the right direction.

In a scientific poll across Nevada conducted earlier this year, we asked current parents of school-aged children what letter grade they would give their local schools.

11 percent of respondents gave their local public district school an “A”. 34 percent gave their local traditional district school an “A” or a “B”.

22 percent gave their local public charter school an “A”.  63 percent gave their local charter school an “A” or a “B”.

30 percent gave their local private school an “A”. 73 percent gave their local private school an “A” or a “B”.

These positive grades for schools varied slightly when only Clark County parents of school-aged children were considered:

32 percent gave their local school district school an “A” or a “B”.

48 percent gave their local public charter school an “A” or a “B”.

75 percent gave their local private school an “A” or a “B”.

Interestingly, when the same parents of school-aged children were asked if they think K-12 education in Nevada has gotten off on the wrong track, or is headed in the right direction, 62 percent chose “Wrong Track” and 37 percent chose “Right Direction.”

As Nevadans, together with the state’s education leaders and elected officials, continue to work to improve educational opportunities for all learners, it will be important to remain mindful that when considering their own, local schooling options, schools of choice remain a popular favorite across the Silver State.

For the complete poll findings, along with links to survey data and question scripts, read here.