What does community think of Modesto schools? Superintendent hears at public meetings

Modesto City Schools Superintendent Sara Noguchi records audience input at a community focus group meeting Monday evening, Oct. 15, 2018 at Downey High School.
Modesto City Schools Superintendent Sara Noguchi records audience input at a community focus group meeting Monday evening, Oct. 15, 2018 at Downey High School.

Turnout was slight for the Modesto City Schools superintendent’s first of four scheduled community focus group meetings.

Nine people responded Monday evening to Sara Noguchi’s invitation to share their thoughts on what’s working and what’s not in the district of roughly 30,000 students. And only about half were there simply as parents.

The audience included the president of the Modesto Stanislaus NAACP, representatives of the We “R” La Raza Parent Union Social Justice Movement and Stanislaus Partners in Education, and at least one teacher.

Participants at the Downey High gathering shared thoughts on topics from campus safety and classroom oversight to communication and the need for more support staff for teachers and students.

The superintendent first asked the attendees to share what the district is doing well and can build upon. She heard praise for the Spartans 101: Middle College Pathway at Davis High, where students earn three college unit credits for each course they complete in the program. Unlike Advance Placement courses, students do not need to pass an AP exam to earn the credits.

Among other things, parents also spoke well of the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, urging that it be expanded to all junior high and high schools. And of the elementary-level Fremont Open Plan, which the district describes as “an alternative approach to education with more emphasis on student responsibility for self, active parent involvement, and acceptance that no two children are alike.”

Turning attention to the “gaps” in the district, as Noguchi put it, parents asked for additional bus transportation for all sports teams and other student groups. They sought improved campus supervision after school hours, when students are participating in extracurricular activities. And they want clearer and quicker communication in the event of lockdowns, threats of violence and other emergencies.

Referring to the Parkland, Florida, campus shooting, a Downey parent who asked The Bee that his name not be used told Noguchi he called the district to ask what was being done to aid and protect students here. It wasn’t until three or four days later, he said, that Modesto City Schools put out a notice on what was being done.

“Definitely when we deal with catastrophic things like that,” he said, it’s important that the district “is somehow getting more information out more quickly, even if it’s just, ‘We’re working on it.’”

A Lakewood Elementary teacher, Melicety Deatherage, added that some classrooms at the school have accordion-style walls, which are not as secure as traditional walls, doors and locks.

NAACP President Gladys Williams, who has two grandchildren at Downey, said too many children are coming to schools emotionally troubled or disconnected. Teachers should be trained to determine whether a child is just “acting out” or has serious troubles, she said, but those teachers then need to focus on teaching. More and better trained support staff is needed to get those students the help they need.

The Downey dad who asked not to be identified said there needs to be more administrative oversight of what’s happening in classrooms, to ensure some uniformity. “Are they teaching the class (well), are they giving the kids an inordinate amount of homework, are they giving them enough?” he said. “And if you’re all teaching these advanced courses, make sure you’re all on same page, because you can’t give them all three or four tests in the same week. It’s insane.”

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Jose Cardenas, a Davis High parent, and Reggie Rucker, a director with Stanislaus Partners in Education, talk with table-mates at a community focus group meeting Monday evening, Oct. 15, 2018 at Downey High School. Deke Farrow

After the forum, a Davis High parent, Jose Cardenas, said he attended because he has family members in a lot of Modesto schools and sees changes that concern him.

He grew up here when Davis, Downey and Beyer were prominent schools, he said. “Then you had a shift when they built Enochs and then Gregori. But there still is no high school in south Modesto, and that should have been a priority.

“Funds were funneled to a different place and you see this exodus of kids moving to the ‘good schools,’ moving to Gregori, moving to Enochs. And parents will say, ‘My kids are gonna go to the good school.’ What does that mean? People say, ‘Demographics are changing?’ What does that mean?”

There should be no good schools vs. bad schools, Cardenas said. He appreciates that the district has tried to level the playing field through things like having the International Baccalaureate program at Modesto High, the Middle College Pathway at Davis and the robotics program at Beyer.

“Those academies are open to all, but there has to be space to accommodate the kids who want to be in them,” he said. “The attempt is there, and we need to foster that.”

Three more focus group meetings are scheduled:

  • Thursday, Oct. 18, 6 to 7:30 p.m., Davis High School little theater, 1200 W. Rumble Road. This session will be led by Associate Superintendent Marla Mack, as Noguchi will be unable to attend.

  • Monday, Oct. 22, 10 to 11:30 a.m., Modesto City Schools Staff Development Rooms 1 and 2, 425 Locust St.
  • Tuesday, Oct. 23, 6 to 7:30 p.m., Hanshaw Middle School cafeteria, 1725 Las Vegas St.

Spanish translation will be available at all meetings.

Those unable to attend a meeting may provide input online on a survey form at the district’s “Looking, Listening & Learning” page, That page also has a link to the PowerPoint presentation Noguchi gives at the focus group meetings.