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NV: Retirees provide rich resource to district


Volunteers, many of whom are retirees, have helped Nye County schools expand the amount of individualized time and attention students receive.

Summary: How do you meet the needs of 30,000 students who represent eighty percent of the district's population and live in the geographically largest school district in the United States? You invite retirees into your schools to work one-on-one with students. Although student achievement is on the rise, it is difficult to precisely measure the volunteers' effect on that. But as the coordinator of the program Cathy Girard says, "Achievement is measured in several ways, from looks on kids’ faces when they have a problem in algebra to work with the volunteer and finally getting it." 

In this windswept southwest corner of Nevada, next to a nuclear test site and not far from Death Valley, the little boomtown of Pahrump often capitalizes on its unusual name, bringing a grin from visitors. At Christmastime, festivities are headlined, “Pa rum pum pum pum.” A local radio station features news about “things that go Pahrump in the night.”

Nye County is a sun-drenched land of wild mustangs, burros, mining, old Pony Express routes, and rattlesnakes. In the town of Amargosa, citizens “asked us to fence a playground to keep the sidewinders and coyotes out,” says school board vice-president Tracie Ward.

At the Pahrump Valley High School stadium, the usual billboards circle the end zone advertising restaurants, motels, and then, a local horseshoeing outfit. Although you’ll find plenty of ranchers and other reminders of Pahrump’s rural roots, hundreds of other people work at the nearby nuclear test site or commute to Vegas each day.

Only 30,000 people live in Pahrump, but Pahrump's students represent 80 percent of Nye County’s student population. At 18,400 square miles, the county is geographically the largest school district in the United States. As more newcomers flock to Pahrump to take advantage of lower housing costs, it has become a town with an eclectic mix. And 42 percent of that mix is retirees. After 18 years of working as a computer programmer for the Internal Revenue Service, Chuck Lieman was happy to leave Washington, D.C.’s congested traffic and continual stress for a quiet retirement in this corner of Nevada. Lieman marveled that his new hometown had black night skies “so full of stars like you never could see in a big city.”

District characteristics
Name: Nye County
State: NV
Type: Rural
Grades: K–12
Enrollment: n.a.
Students per teacher: n.a.

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 44.7%
English language learners: 4.7%
Students with disabilities: 19.3%
White: 77.7%
Black: 2.5%
Hispanic: 15.4%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.9%
American Indian/Alaska Native:2.6 %
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters

But Lieman found something else in Pahrump—time on his hands. “I figured Nye County, like any school district, needed all the help it could get.” He talked with volunteer coordinator Cathy Girard, passed the required background check, and in the first week of the school year, found himself directing traffic at an elementary school—“getting parents out the right door and kids on the right bus.” Three times a week after school now, he tutors Pahrump Valley High School students in math. “I would have preferred history or political science, but a lot of kids seem abysmal in math.”

As the number of students who need extra help keeps growing, Nye County School District counts on its cadre of dedicated volunteers. The district has mobilized dozens of them, benefiting from the fact that so many residents—like Lieman—are retirees with time and skills.

Says school board member Ward, “The biggest benefit [of volunteers] is that kids get one-on-one time, which we just can’t provide otherwise. Also kids get a perspective on what senior citizens are like, especially since their own grandparents are scattered.”

Coordinating the volunteers is energetic Girard, who counts among her volunteers an artist, an electrical engineer, a small business retired executive, parents of current students—123 helpers in all. Those 55 and above in the RSVP (retired senior volunteer program) get a special benefit: The cost of their mandatory background check is paid for by Catholic Charities, and they get liability coverage and mileage costs to and from their volunteer assignments.

Retiree Alysmae Schultz tutors every Tuesday morning. She’s a steady presence. “One student has been with me two years, mainly in math, from 6th grade until now,” says Schultz. “[Students] need to learn math to live their life. I feel good I have chance to help out.”

Roberta Rook, a registered nurse for 36 years, now works in the library at Pahrump’s Mount Charleston Elementary School two or three days a week. “I help the librarian check in the kids and help children find their books.”

Over the past few years, Nye’s student achievement has increased (80 percent of schools made Adequate Yearly Progress last year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act), though it is difficult to precisely measure volunteers’ effect on that. “Achievement is measured in several ways, from looks on kids’ faces when they have a problem in algebra to work with the volunteer and finally getting it,” says coordinator Girard.

Nye County’s volunteer effort got started through the efforts of a retired military woman, Jewell Burton-Avery, who was “well attached to the Senior Center, and had a lot of knowledge to give,” says superintendent Rob Roberts. Roberts—himself a retired Army lieutenant colonel, combat helicopter pilot, and later, professor—often recruits volunteers when he goes visiting at the VFW and American Legion.

Though volunteers have given Nye County schools a boost, challenges remain for this remote district. Since much of the county is dry high desert and scrub land, a perennial School Board topic is buying water rights. Without water rights, new schools can't be built to serve new residents. On the teaching end, finding certified teachers in courses like biology and recruiting certified substitute teachers remains a challenge. “In some of the smaller towns, it’s hard to find people with a two-year degree [for substitute teaching]. In rural areas it’s almost impossible,” says Ward.

Capitalizing on the resources at hand, though, the district encourages Pahrump high school students to take advanced classes at the community college for dual credit. County commissioners put $50,000 into the Dollars for Scholars program, and kids fundraise to supplement that. “We have poverty-level kids who couldn’t take those college courses without financing,” says Roberts.

The superintendent and school board members link together the seven communities in the district through widespread travels, town hall meetings, and technology, including interactive web sites and video-conferencing for school board meetings. The district broadcasts classes from some schools to others; foreign language and upper level math seem to work especially well, says Roberts.

Nye County’s students are so far flung that district school buses chalk up more than a million miles a year. But superintendent Roberts might just have an idea to help with that, too. Using biodegradable fuels—something other than diesel—“might save us money down the road. I’m looking into it,” he says.

Lessons learned
  • Principals, who are close to the needs in each school, generate the need for volunteer recruitment for certain tasks, says coordinator Girard. “Make sure the communication lines are strong to principals.” 
  • Girard has written a “continuity book” outlining what the volunteer coordinator does, how to prepare for the next school year, and how to recruit and process volunteers. Getting the steps and expectations down clearly in writing helps the operation run smoothly for everyone.
  • Recognize volunteers for their efforts. Nye County has an annual luncheon, including raffles for prizes, to honor and thank its volunteers.
  • To deal with the vast distances between towns and people, Nye County’s school board video-conferences its formal board meetings over TV. But it also holds town hall meetings throughout the district, because, as board member Ward says, “We still think the most effective way is to go see people face to face.”
  • Community involvement takes many forms. Pahrump businesses and the Rotary Club raise money for college texts for high school students who take courses for joint credit at the nearby community college. Making advanced courses available helps keep the expectations high for students.
  • Always keep looking for new ideas and smart ways to use resources. Superintendent Roberts says that given Nye County’s 300-plus days of sunlight per year and a constantly blowing wind, he’s interested in solar power and in using wind power to generate electricity (and perhaps even to sell it!).


Jerry C. Hill
Coordinator of Secondary Curriculum and Instruction
(775) 727-7743, ext. 228

Deborah Wescoatt
President,Board of Trustees
(702) 376-7630

This story was written by by Elaine Furlow. Furlow is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.

Posted: November 7, 2006

©2006 Center for Public Education

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