MODESTO — In the spring of 2006, Davis High School was bulging at the seams with more than 3,000 students. Its test scores were among the highest among Modesto City's seven comprehensive high schools.
Seven years later, its enrollment is less than half that. Its principal has been fired. Test scores are down. Staff morale is low and Davis students say they are tired of hearing it called "the ghetto school." Davis lost attendance as Enochs and Gregori high schools opened, and many families within the Davis boundary are opting for different schools instead, pushing the numbers even lower.
Lower enrollment means fewer activities for the students who remain. "It is a worry for clubs and teams. This year, we did not have an Academic Decathlon team," said Principal Lynn Lysko.
Davis also did not have a full complement of sports teams this year. The school newspaper folded and attendance is way down in the yearbook class for next year, said Modesto Teachers Association Executive Director Megan Gowans.
"At some point, we're concerned about Davis not looking like a full and comprehensive high school," she said.
Davis' enrollment shrank as Enochs and Gregori high schools opened in the past decade. School boundaries were redrawn in 2005, but failed to allow for the recession's impact on family housing, Superintendent Pam Able said.
"Based on the information we had at the time, the boundary changes would have resulted in Davis at approximately 1,800 students in 2012-13," Able said, adding the district "absolutely planned for balance" among high school attendance areas.
Instead, Enochs has swollen to nearly 2,500 students, while Davis is projected to drop to 1,250 next year. Johansen, with 1,778 students, is the next-smallest Modesto campus.
Neighborhoods with students attending Davis and Johansen had high rates of foreclosures and vacancies, with many families moving away during the recession. The number of 10- to 14-year-olds living close to Davis fell steeply between the 2000 and 2010 census counts, the age group that now would be in high school.
"Ironically, this didn't occur in the Modesto High attendance area (the most crowded campus). We believe some families moved to the southwest and more affordable housing," Able said.
Administrator Mike Coats, former principal at Enochs, said parents also chose the new schools at higher numbers than expected, adding to the imbalance.
The glamorous, airy architecture at Enochs and Gregori outshines Davis' lumpy concrete walls and compact rectangles. In 1961, when Davis was built, the tilt-up concrete technique that was used was all the rage. Walls were poured over softball-size river rocks in hopes of discouraging graffiti, said Associate Principal Mike Rich. With an upsurge in spray paint, however, "it just makes it harder to clean," he said with a chuckle.
But inside those melted-marshmallow walls, students and staff feel the sharp pain of having far fewer people. As senior Amberlee Paradise put it: "Sophomore year, the halls were packed. Now, not so much."
Modesto City Schools board member Sue Zwahlen said each high school's opening meant transition for others. "I remember when Davis High opened, people were concerned Downey would never be the same. Beyer opened the year after I graduated and there was concern Davis would never be the same. It goes on and on," she said.
Zwahlen and husband Lynn, her high school sweetheart, are Davis alums, Class of 1972. Five of their six children also sported the green and gold. "It has a long, rich history," she said.
For now, Davis' lower profile creates some staffing issues. "Many sports teams have walk-on coaches because the teachers we have left are teaching six classes instead of five to try to maintain programs," said Lysko, the principal.
Fewer electives and classes of core subjects are needed. Fewer stipends can be earned for extra teaching or club advising. Some teachers may have to cover more topics or split their days between campuses next year.
Last month, the teachers union met with the district over "unresolved concerns" about Davis, Gowans said, adding, "No grievance has been filed at this point."
Language Institute teacher Lindsey Bird was one of those given a notice she would teach half day at a junior high campus next year. However, MTA President Doug Burton said her position was renegotiated to support the language program and Bird will return there full time for next year.
But the larger problem of portioning out fewer assignments remains. "They don't have the numbers," Burton said.
Situation seen as temporary
The district sees the downturn as temporary, noting that Downey's numbers were decimated when Johansen High opened in 1990. "(Downey) had a loss of enrollment, loss of programs all that negative connotation, but it has been a marvel to me how it has reinvented itself," said Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson.
To help start Davis on its path, Modesto City Schools shifted boundaries earlier this year despite vocal opposition by Enochs and Beyer families being moved. Able said the shift "will, over time, bring Davis enrollment closer to its as-built capacity of 1,800 students."
Working against raising those numbers:
Families paying extra taxes to build Enochs and Gregori by law get first choice to go to those schools.
Open enrollment each fall allows families to choose other campuses.
Other schools offer unique programs, such as robotics at Beyer or veterinary science at Enochs.
Federal sanctions demand that students be allowed to transfer to a higher-scoring campus if their home campus has missed No Child Left Behind targets for two years or more.
Davis has missed targets for three years, dropping this year to the lowest among Modesto high schools. It's average state score is 712, a stinging 112 points below Enochs, and a slim 18 points above Denair High, lowest in the county.
Part of the lower scores is simple math. The Language Institute, in its third year at Davis, garners high marks for helping its students. But English-only testing of those 140 non-English speakers drags down the school average.
For example, results released last week show 90 percent of Davis sophomores outside the Language Institute passed the high school exit exam given in March. But add in those new arrivals and the number drops to 71 percent in English, 75 percent in math.
Some of the slide could be from low morale alone, according to research cited by veteran administrator Walt Hanline. Hanline, now serving as Denair Unified interim superintendent, said a lesser facility will lower scores 4 percent. "Your working environment makes a difference. Facilities matter, for kids and adults," he said.
Investment in fixes
The district has invested in fixes and refurbishing at the campus this year, including a makeover for the Little Theater, and the campus enjoys staunch alumni support.
Parent Susan Narducci, responding to a Bee Facebook query, said her five children have all gone to Davis. "I hear a lot of negative stuff about Davis gangs, is dangerous, is ghetto. I do a lot of volunteering at Davis and all of those comments are not true. People's perceptions of Davis are very wrong," she posted. "Come and take a tour. You will see a wonderful school that is trying to survive and shine against all odds."
That's the type of testimonial Zwahlen said Davis needs right now. "We need to market what they have that is so strong and so positive," she said.
Johnson said the district will "overstaff" Davis to a certain extent next year to offer a better range of classes, and pledged better communication to help parents see what the school offers.
One key staff member will not be back. Lysko is one of four principals notified in December she would lose her job. With a doctorate in education but no California teaching credential, Lysko said she is seeking employment elsewhere.
A familiar face will take her place. Rich, the associate principal, got the appointment in March after being selected as a finalist by an interview panel that included Davis teachers and staff.
He walks to school each morning from his home in the neighborhood and said he loves the family feel of the campus.
"It's a perception battle," he said. "Word of mouth needs to change we have a great school."
Davis High has had a tough year, but as the Modesto school marks its 50th commencement this month, it also has some things to celebrate. Among them:
STURDY BLEACHERS: The replacements for the ones that collapsed during a 2011 basketball game hang ready to expand around a gleaming new gym floor. Accessible restrooms and Wi-Fi came with the upgrade. The record board has returned, daring students to beat T. Kearns' 1966 record of 103 sit-ups.
ADVANCED PLACEMENT: The school will have a full complement of AP classes this fall.
LOTS OF DRAMA: The Little Theater has been refurbished inside and out. The drama club bought new lights. High-energy dance classes pirouette and strut on new flooring. Dancers pull off the occasional flash mobs during lunch and perform at the Gallo Center for the Arts. The Davis band participates in outside events.
COOL PRESCHOOL: Davis child-development students get hands-on training three days a week. Twenty little charges stop in for two hours each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday while classes of high schoolers rotate through to play, sing and teach.
REAL RESPONDERS: Davis Public Safety Academy students train with the pros and have their own fire engine and police car. Health Career Academy students can spend a stint working in a hospital.
AQUATICS CLASS: The pool is put to nonteam use during seventh period, offering exercise and swim lessons.
LOOKING AHEAD: Coming next year, incoming Principal Mike Rich says, is a single lunch period, allowing kids to eat with friends, teachers to collaborate and simplifying school scheduling. The year will start with a neighborhood picnic. The track will be fixed and the pool will sparkle with a new filter. A sports medicine class will be added to the school's health career offerings.
Source: Modesto City Schools administrators