Superintendent taking new direction

It's time to take a new look at old practices.

That was the message from some Modesto City Schools board members and their new superintendent as they spent most of Saturday pondering life after James Enochs, who served as superintendent for the past two decades.

Superintendent Arturo Flores told the board that raising academic achievement among Latino, black and English- learning students is an urgent priority.

Those groups chronically lag behind their white and English-speaking peers in Modesto, he said.

"It's pretty astonishing," Flores said. "The gap has widened for some groups."

At Monday night's board meeting, district staff will release a report showing 2007 state test scores, divided by ethnic group, and make recommendations on how to close the achievement gap.

The Board of Education held the first of four workshops Saturday to talk about making a plan to improve student achievement and about the transition to a new superintendent.

Among the biggest concerns raised was the nine elementary and junior high schools that have hit the last stop of a federal "improvement" list of underperforming schools. At that stage, schools are at risk of being restructured, closed or taken over by the state.

Board member Odessa Johnson said many of those underperforming schools also are burdened with overcrowding, forcing the students onto the less-than-ideal, multiple-track, year-round schedule. Many feel that system makes it difficult for administrators and teachers to provide a cohesive and coordinated education for their students. But the possibility of moving away from multiple-track could mean a loss of some state funding.

"Why are we allowing this to happen on the west side with our minority kids who are already behind the eight ball with their learning?" Johnson said during the session. "Why are we holding our kids hostage to a so-called funding mechanism that needs to be adjusted?"

Flores said his greatest hope is that Modesto schools will be "the beacon" for the Central Valley. In the coming months, Flores said, he will explore bringing charter schools to Modesto and reforming the district's high schools, including its alternative school, Elliott Alternative Education Center.

Officials in the Sacramento City Unified School District, where Flores last served as associate superintendent, said Flores' legacy was the district's high school reform effort, called Education 2100. The reforms broke down the district's largest high schools into learning communities of roughly 350 students based on subjects such as international studies and business.

Flores said he plans to create a "small schools task force" of Modesto teachers, students, parents and administrators to study the issue.

"Teachers are excited about it," Flores said. "Let's rethink what we're doing at the high schools."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.