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Helping Students Find Their Why

Anyone who knows Ryan Cordia knows Ted Lasso. Or is it the other way around? Their personalities and teaching methods are so close, it’s tough to tell which came first. An educator for more than two decades, Cordia is the Principal at Northeast Career and Technical Academy (NECTA). NECTA opened its doors to the East Las Vegas community in September 2023. In a short time, it has become the solution to a rising problem - empty high school classrooms struggling with chronic student absenteeism. 

Cordia is one of 160 educators actively working with the Portrait of a Nevada Learner, a collaborative and community-based project powered by the Nevada Department of Education’s Future of Learning Network. We sat down with Cordia to talk about how the Portrait of Nevada Learner is allowing his team to develop a learning environment that is inclusive and flexible, to help keep students in school and put them on a path to success. 

Q&A with Ryan Cordia, Principal at Northeast Career and Technical Academy (NECTA)

Can you tell us about the journey of opening NECTA, the first Career and Technical Academy in East Las Vegas? 

Cordia: This is a long overdue project for the City of North Las Vegas, that has been in the works for around 15 years and finally came to fruition in the 2023-24 school year. We are a full free and reduced lunch school, and our students represent the community here in North Las Vegas. 

So we've got just about half Hispanic, 20% caucasian, 20% African-American, and 10% pacific islander and mixed race students. They all apply to one of 10 Career and Technical education programs, so everyone here gets four years of career technical training in a program they've selected. This community has a very diverse economic outline. It's not necessarily driven by mining and hospitality like most of the state. This corner of town has a ton of diversity in how we generate revenue in our city. So I think that those high-skill, high-demand industries really need a workforce pipeline that we can provide. I look forward to developing good two-way partnerships between our school and those employers so that we can get some great high skill, high wage opportunities for our students and provide phenomenal high skill trained employees to those emerging markets in our community.


How are you seeing chronic absenteeism affecting our classrooms? 

Cordia: After the pandemic student absenteeism has become a worldwide concern. We would typically hover around 3-4% in chronic absenteeism rates in Clark County, now most schools compared to ours are seeing around 12-14%. During the pandemic we saw that when students weren't around each other, there was a spike in social emotional concerns and an increase in anxiety and suicide ideation and just a lot of negativity around mental health came along with the lack of interaction and the lack of adult support and peer support. I also believe that teachers cause deep learning and if you’re not in front of a professional educator, it's very difficult to learn complex topics. Teachers are magical and can make something complex understandable to everybody by leaning in at the right time. So when students are here, they get that access to learn things that are complicated.

Through the Portrait of a Learner work, how are you creating learning spaces that students want to be a part of? 

Cordia: I think it's a waste of an opportunity if we don't try something different in education, and the Portrait is allowing us to do just that. Most educators and parents will all agree that every kid isn't the same and every kid doesn't learn at the exact same pace and rate. Our program at NECTA is student-centered from the beginning. Every student selects their career and technical program, and they also select their first job - they can tell you what they're going to school for. They have a why for attending this school. We call this "having a leaf on the career tree," and how they get that leaf is based on how efficiently they get through their core content. 

How does the Portrait framework affect the approach in the classroom? 

Cordia: We have opened up the curriculum for the students to progress at their own pace. So if they need a lot of support and intervention, we let them take more than 180 days to finish. And if they don't need much support, we get out of their way and let them do it in less than 180 days. When they finish all their core content, then they get access to whatever leaf they've decided is theirs based on their passion and their ability. So to combat chronic absenteeism, to make school a place students want to go, we have asked the students to determine why they go to the school and how long it'll take to reach their why.

What are some key learnings or emerging trends you’re seeing as a result of the work you’re doing with the Portrait? 

Cordia: Within our model, because the students are in charge of their learning self-paced, attendance isn't a detriment if they miss a day or two. So our emerging data is that we're keeping up with the schools like ours in the valley for about the same percent of students who were chronically absent. The difference here is that if our students miss more than 10 days, they can still get all their credits and they can still work through all their coursework without the fear of missing a deadline of the end of quarter one or a semester break. If they need one or two more weeks to finish a semester of algebra, they get that opportunity. So instead of failing and repeating an entire semester, they just keep working until they get finished. Flexibility is key. It makes it challenging for our systems and our adults on campus, but it is very beneficial to the kids, so we're keeping that end in mind. The flexibility is vital for our student success and we're finding ways as adults who've been doing this for a while to become flexible ourselves. 

How are you sharing this emerging work with others in the education community? 

Cordia: We've been using the Carnegie unit for 120 plus years. A fairly standard method where you go to school for 180 days per year, six hours per day, and that equals a credit. It works pretty well for about 80% of the population. If you have a secure home life, minimal trauma, no learning disabilities, you can get through school pretty well. But if your learning environment does not compare, then things change. I presented at the Carnegie Summit in San Diego recently, about the new approach we’ve developed through the Portrait and to demonstrate that change in education is possible. There’s innovation happening within our buildings. It doesn't have to be the same as it was 120 years ago. We can look at our work differently, so we showed how our model could be used in other places around the country. 


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