To get out of the state's hot seat, Modesto's high schools need to turn in better test scores among students, especially children with disabilities and those learning English.
Within the past several months, officials learned the district was considered eighth worst among 1,039 high school districts in the state, based on scores on state standards tests and the High School Exit Exam.
That leaves city high schools in a precarious position heading into those state tests, which students will take in the next few months. For example, officials need to quadruple the percentage of English learners scoring as proficient on state tests, which is a tall task.
If student scores continue to rank among the lowest in California, the state Board of Education could levy more consequences on the district. Those could include requiring a new staff at some high schools, turning some sites into charter schools and taking over the operation of campuses.
"All are options. It's serious any time a district comes onto the state Board of Education's radar," said Fred Balcom, director of the district and school improvement division at the Department of Education. "They've failed (federal benchmarks) for a number of years. It's important to note that they failed and why they failed."
Joining Modesto in California's bottom 10 are districts in Monterey, Kings, Kern, San Joaquin and Santa Cruz counties. Many have similar student demographics.
Of those, eight districts had to make presentations to the state board in January and four were asked to come back in a few months, when the board could impose sanctions.
Modesto was not one of those four, which is a good sign for the district, Balcom said.
But Modesto could be next; its deadline to improve scores ends a year from now.
Modesto high schools struggle with getting students into proficient categories on state tests. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that all students in public schools reach proficiency on English and math tests by the 2013-14 school year.
Toward that goal, the state expects an increasing percentage of students to hit the proficient mark each year. Last year, it was about 44 percent; it jumps to about 55 percent this spring.
Only 14.5 percent to 31.8 percent of Modesto high school English learners and special education students scored as proficient or advanced on any of the English or math exams.
That means, for example, the district needs to double or quadruple the percentage of English learners and special education students scoring at proficient on upcoming state tests.
It's a big challenge as district officials consider deep spending cuts that would reduce some support programs for struggling students.
Modesto City Schools Superintendent Arturo Flores said the staff is analyzing programs to see which ones help students the most.
"We'll be affected (by budget cuts) but to what degree I don't know yet," he said Tuesday. "It's also a chance for us to see to what degree our support classes are working."
Part of the current sanctions include revising an academic plan to show how it proposes to tackle low scores. Officials also must work with an outside assistance team, in this instance the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
Modesto's plan includes offering additional English classes to augment its regular core ones while limiting those extra classes to 30 students per teacher.
Officials also are using an intensive reading program, Read 180, for students reading below their grade or age level, with greater focus on English learners and special education students.
Other steps include more staff training in areas such as algebra, and using newer textbooks.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2339.
Read Hatfield's education blog at http://thehive.modbee.com/ExtraCredit.