Elaine Wynn: Lessons Lived & Learned

THE “CASINO QUEEN” tag still hangs above the elegant, inspiring figure of The Huffington Post’s 2011 Game Changer (in the Impact and Education category), Elaine Wynn. The offices of the Las Vegas organizations to which she dedicates her energy—Communities In Schools and After-School All-Stars—are located behind Wynn resort in a structure that houses the hotel’s human resources department and sharp-dressed XS nightclub team.

Step into her presence, though, and the thrum of the gaming biz fades. You learn very quickly you’re conversing with someone who thoroughly has studied public education in this country. She knows the dropout problem and its consequences. (Nevada’s graduation rate has risen to 61.9 percent, but still two of every five students do not graduate in four years.)

As national chairwoman of CIS, she seeks to help low-income students get the resources they need to focus on school. As co-chairwoman of ASAS, she strives to encourage programs enabling kids to succeed in school and life.

diamondcake had the privilege of sitting down with Wynn to talk about the need to reintroduce a sense of community in our public schools, the reason for her ceaseless commitment to the challenge of public education and why philanthropy shouldn’t be extracted but should instead stem from a person’s innate values.

What is your educational experience, and does it differ from what today’s kids undergo?

As I was growing up, my family moved around. Some of my best memories as a child center on attending public school in Washington, D.C. Then I went to school in the suburbs of Bethesda, Md., and then in Chicago and then, finally, Miami Beach, Fla., where I went to junior high and high school. So I enjoyed a combination of suburban and urban public-school experiences.

But the years during which I received an education were vastly different compared to now. Computers weren’t on the horizon, so technology wasn’t an issue. Schoolhouses were considered safe; they were honored as great institutions. Teachers were revered. And it was a time when most women in the workforce were teaching and not working in other fields. This meant the quality of teachers was exceptionally high, because the best women in the workforce were teachers. I had the benefit of the Leave It to Beaver days, the ’50s and ’60s, which were wonderful times in America to receive a public education.

So the country was entirely different then?

Well, the social issues were not as pronounced. Not everyone was experiencing prosperity, but it was the age of the Great Middle Class. I benefited from a golden time in education. What helped me the most were leadership opportunities at my high school, extracurricular and co-curricular activities like service clubs, choir, sports, cheerleading. Enrichment programs were helpful, because they made school feel like a community. When I became an adult, I thought of life the same way—that you weren’t confined to one role, that you had opportunities and were encouraged to be multidimensional.

So your educational experience explains why you’re an advocate?

No, what makes me that is, first and foremost, I possess a very maternal nature. When I observe a child walk into my environment, I get gushy. There’s something about seeing little children that warms my heart. I’m sure it’s hormonal! It’s also an issue of conscience on a personal level. I find it difficult to live a life that’s privileged, when I’m aware of so many people who don’t have equal opportunity.

It’s not that they have to be rich, not that they must drive fancy cars or have material things. But every child should have an opportunity to lead a fulfilling life however they define such a life. I’m not defining anyone else’s life for him. It’s almost a civil rights issue for me. More and more, especially in the times we’re living in, a vast chasm is growing between the haves and have-nots. There’s too much of a class system. It bothers me morally. It violates my sense of values.

How did you get involved with Communities In Schools?

My involvement grew out of observations I had while raising my children and being involved in other education-related efforts in town many years ago. Now, in those days, everyone was in denial about the dropout problem. We had terrible data systems. No one could even give you an accurate story on the real graduation rate.

I instinctively knew what was going on in Las Vegas, and I was alarmed. We were starting to receive dire reports on national tests, and I wanted to see if we could address the problem. I started to do research and came across what was then called Cities in Schools (later renamed Communities In Schools). It made sense to me, and so others and I met the organization’s founder and vice chairman Bill Milliken when he came to town. I said to myself, “This is the method. I want to participate.”

Does our country’s dropout problem impact our still-struggling economy?

The dropout rate is part of the economy’s problem, absolutely. First of all, we’re living in a time when post-secondary education is a must, for the jobs of today and of the future. How do you get a post-secondary education, if you don’t graduate from high school?

There are training programs and other options. But they’re fragmented. We’ve always been able to identify the social costs. As a matter of fact, let me cite Thomas Friedman’s The New York Times (Sept. 8, “New Rules”) column from yesterday, because he cites percentages.

The unemployment rate for dropouts is 12 percent. It’s 8.8 percent for high school graduates. The unemployment rate is 6.6 percent for those with two years of college education and 4.1 percent for people with four years of college. Clearly, staying in school affects employment. It also impacts earning power. High school dropouts, over the course of a lifetime, earn considerably less than those who have graduated.

Tax coffers are significantly diminished by unproductive citizens. The more people who work and work at great jobs, the higher the taxes will be that the government collects and can put toward education. We’re losing revenue, if you want to be cold about it, which adds to the increasing cost of caring for those who aren’t fully educated.

We hear about available jobs not being filled, because we don’t have an educated workforce. We’re outsourcing and importing people to fill these jobs, because we’re poorly preparing Americans to take these jobs. That’s an economic look at the dropout problem. Then there’s the broader issue of not having people understand citizenship or how to make enlightened decisions, voting decisions, political decisions. They don’t realize the importance of community involvement, because they don’t have any civic background. All this comes into play.

How does Communities In Schools address this issue?

We’re in a field called integrated student services. These are the “wraparound” services that are brought to schools. These services address many unmet social needs, so that kids will be prepared to receive instruction. We don’t operate in the world of pedagogy or teachers or curriculum. We bring in mentoring, after-school programs, medical assistance, clothing, counseling, job training, scholarship help—all the peripheral things that give children hope. Things students don’t have, so when they do learn and graduate, they’re whole people.

CIS is in 25 states and the District of Columbia, and we just completed a five-year evaluation. Where CIS is applied with fidelity, we improve the graduation rate, we reduce the dropout rate and we improve English and math scores between the fourth and eighth grades. Nobody else can say that.

We’re very involved in policy, so that policymakers understand the critical role these wraparound services perform, and so they encourage and help fund possible organizations that provide similar services. CIS has been operating for 30 years. We have a track record that is evidence-based and broadly supported thanks to credible foundations and public and private funds.

Do the presidential candidates or political parties address the dropout problem?

My favorite U.S. Secretary of Education since I’ve been alive is the current one: Arne Duncan. He deserves an “A” for providing the focus, plans and federal support for real education reform. To the extent that he’s in Obama’s administration, the current administration deserves credit. [Duncan] has been to Nevada many times and understands the toughest school districts. He’s taken on critical issues most people shy away from. I greatly respect this administration for its work on education.

You served on the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education for former Gov. Jim Gibbons?

[It was] a wonderful opportunity. It allowed me to engage with a wide range of stakeholders in the state, as we crafted our Race to the Top federal grant application. We engaged in a plan for reform that was submitted to the last legislative session, and many of the things we recommended were put into effect—for instance, the Teachers and Leaders Council, which develops statewide performance standards for teachers. Using the council’s recommendations, the State Board of Education will adopt statewide performance standards. That’s just one result.

What’s it like having a school, Elaine Wynn Elementary, named after you?

Our public schools represent the very heart of our democracy. To be recognized with a school named after you is an indescribable honor. I remember seeing schools named after people as a kid and thinking, “Who are these amazing people?” A school is supposed to symbolize something about a person that is good and noble, so being honored like that makes you feel good and noble.

You have grandchildren. Do you worry about the world they will inherit?

Not at all. I’m a cockeyed optimist. I have to be. I believe there is a solution for every problem; that people are capable of solving any problem. We’re usually at our best in crisis. I see evidence of too many gifted individuals to be discouraged. There are amazing people in this world, and it only takes one good idea to be transformative. Gifted minds arrive with each successive generation—Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, iconic people who are successful in business and go on to be philanthropic.

Are business leaders responsible for a community? Or should philanthropy come straight from the heart?

It used to be my pet peeve when people would extract philanthropy from others and then pass judgment on whether or not someone is generous. I think people have the right to live their lives the way they want, so long as they’re productive and not hurting anyone.

Usually, if they’re being productive, they’re setting a good example and not being a burden. That’s our highest calling—to set a good example and not be burdensome.

If you go beyond that, and find it in your heart to help your community, that’s the frosting on the cake of your higher calling. These are values you either get from your own life experience or are taught to you by someone you respect and admire. If you have these values, you have a richer, happier life.

Previously published in diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for Communities In Schools and After-School All-Stars.