Robertson Road Elementary School in west Modesto and Turlock High School are now considered among the state's lowest performing schools, officials confirmed Saturday, triggering drastic measures to try to improve them.
Rumors swirled Friday that the schools were closing, and that state officials already had come to the Modesto campus to lock the doors. Another rumor was that all teachers were given pink slips for next school year.
None of those assertions is true, district and teachers union officials stressed Saturday, and schools will be in session as usual Monday.
But the state designation as "persistently lowest-achieving schools" forces the districts to implement one of four plans by next school year:
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• Replace the principal and half the school's staff.
• Close the school.
• Turn the campus into a charter school.
• Replace the principal, evaluate employees with student test data, lengthen the school day and start offering financial incentives to attract teachers.
The state Department of Education is preparing a list of the bottom 5 percent of California's public schools. The rankings are based on state test scores in English and math over the past five years.
The full roster of "persistently lowest-achieving schools" will be released Monday morning and more Stanislaus County schools could be singled out. Administrators on Friday began informing staff members at the designated schools on the list, including Robertson Road and Turlock High.
News angers, saddens teachers
The news caught Robertson Road's 25 teachers off-guard Friday morning. Their reactions ranged from anger to tears, said Megan Gowans, the teachers union executive director, who was on campus during the meeting.
"It's devastating," she said, noting that a district counselor was on campus to help staff cope.
Turlock schools officials issued a "robocall" to students' homes Friday night to stop rumors that the school was closing and that the principal had been fired.
"Kids were getting false information at school," trustee Josh Bernard said. "People were getting concerned, and that's why the district decided to make the calls."
No decision has been made, though district officials likely will fight the designation or apply for a waiver.
"We're flabbergasted," Turlock Teachers Association President Julie Shipman said Saturday. "It's ridiculous."
Shipman pointed out that schools posting a 50-point gain in Academic Performance Index scores over the past five years are excluded from the list; Turlock had a 49-point gain.
Trustee Bob Weaver added that Principal Dana Trevethan has done "a great job," so removing her wouldn't do anything to help Turlock High.
Any of the options districts choose to improve the schools has to be negotiated with employee unions, Gowans said.
Modesto City Schools Superintendent Arturo Flores said Saturday that administrators will start brainstorming Monday on how to move forward, and they'll talk with teachers and parents about possibilities.
He added that Robertson Road could get grant funding to help pay for some of the academic changes and teacher training.
Looking for 'a silver lining'
Modesto City Schools Board of Education President Kim Spina said she hopes the district can use the "lowest-achieving" designation to improve learning for all students.
"I'm trying to look for a silver lining," she said Saturday. "I'm hoping we can use Robertson Road as a research and design model and apply that to our other schools.
"It could be a blessing in disguise," Spina said. "It's not pleasant, but I hope we can use it for good."
The designation of Robertson Road comes at a particularly bad time for Modesto City Schools.
The district recently acknowledged that its high schools also are being closely monitored by the state because of a lack of improvement in test scores and exit exams.
Failure to show significant improvement could result in the state forcing more changes on the district.
That leaves city high schools in a precarious position heading into those state tests, which students will take over the next few months. For example, officials need to quadruple the percentage of English learners scoring as proficient on the tests, which is a tall task.
The deadline to improve scores ends a year from now.
Modesto high schools struggle with getting students into proficient categories on state tests. In 2009, 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.
It's a big challenge as district officials consider deep spending cuts that would reduce some support programs for struggling students.
Modesto City Schools must come up with at least $25 million in budget cuts in the face in shrinking state funding and declining enrollment. The district plans to send out pink slips to more than 300 teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians.
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra contributed to this report.