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Principal's War on Poverty Helping School Test Scores | News

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Principal's War on Poverty Helping School Test Scores
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LAS VEGAS -- More than half of the students in the Clark County School District now live at or below poverty level. That's up from 30-percent five years ago.

Long before the recession hit, the principal of Whitney Elementary started waging a war against poverty and the toll it was taking on student achievement at her east Las Vegas school. And now rising test scores are only one of the many ways you can measure this school's growing success.

Nearly nine out of 10 children at Whitney qualify for the free or reduced lunch program and are considered homeless by the school district's standards.

"Most of our families live up and down Boulder Highway in hotels and motels or in the Section 8 projects," said Principal Sherrie Gahn.

When Gahn arrived seven years ago, she decided children living in poverty needed a voice. "Just by telling their stories, this is what's happened," she said.

Gahn and her school staff have since built a network of about 400 yearly donors to the school -- individuals and community groups committed to meeting the needs of all 600 incoming students in the low-to-no-income neighborhood.

"Believe it or not, this whole room would be empty within the first month of school. It goes out as fast as it comes in," she said.

Every Whitney student starts the year off with a week's worth of new school clothes -- underwear, socks and shoes -- as well as a backpack full of school supplies and toiletries.

The network of social services also includes dental and vision care for students during the school year, as well as rental, utility and job placement services for parents who volunteer at the school.

Gahn admits she has an ulterior motive. "If they're here, we can teach them. But if they leave because they don't have a job or a place to live, then I can't teach them and I can't sustain their learning. I can only do that if I keep them here," she said.

And Gahn says it's working. Test scores at Whitney are rising each year and the school just achieved Adequate Yearly Progress in reading for the first time.

Tears of pride, passion, and gratitude spill over as the principal talks about those who make all of this possible.

"It really does take a village to do this. I couldn't do it without them," she said.

What's even more impressive is that this entire network of social services is volunteer-driven. The principal says parental involvement is up and the school's transience rate, or student turnover, is down.

Fifty-four unemployed parents at the school have been put back to work since December. And the donations, thankfully, keep coming in.

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