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Student performance figures show gains in Merced County schools

Many schools in Merced County posted gains in state 2010 base Academic Performance Index scores, and in comparisons with similar campuses and their leaders are reporting steady academic growth by their students.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson released base API figures and similar school rankings Thursday. Local educators were encouraged by the figures.

Steve Gomes, Merced County Superintendent of Schools, said 16 of 20 county school districts had higher API scores, and 26 schools raised their rankings in comparison with schools with similar demographics.

"There is still a lot of work ahead of us," Gomes said. "Diminishing resources financially are starting to impact student scores. The county average of 6.15 (on a scale of 1 to 10) in similar school rankings is not too far from the state expectations of being 7 to 10."

McSwain School has the county's highest API score, 870, a jump of 16 points over 2009 figures, and is ranked 7 out of 10 against similar schools. McSwain Superintendent Stan Mollart said staff and students worked "really hard to get there" and is thrilled the hard work paid off.

Atwater and Merced high schools, in the Merced Union High School District, both posted a 10 on the similar school ranking. Livingston got a 9, Buhach Colony a 7 and Golden Valley an 8. Gomes called these rankings "rarefied air."

George Sziraki, the district's assistant superintendent for educational services, said Merced Union continues to improve its high levels of performance on API testing, with gains at each of the five high schools compared with the previous year.

"These outstanding results are a tribute to the students, parents and staff in our district," Sziraki said.

RoseMary Parga Duran, Merced City School District superintendent, said four of the district's 17 schools had API scores of above 800, the most of any district in the county.

"We are progressing; we are improving little by little," Duran said. "I'm pleased we are doing great and am proud of our staff. Student achievement is our No. 1 focus. We are marching one step at a time. Steady growth is what I want."

Merced's Chenoweth and Peterson elementary schools posted scores of 850 and 855, respectively, and had similar school rankings of 7 and 6, the state report shows.

Annie Dossetti, assistant superintendent for educational services, said eight schools rose in similar school rankings, and test results show a growth trend in meeting state expectations.

"Today signifies the beginning of a new reporting cycle of testing and reporting under the API, which gives us one measure of a school's academic performance," Torlakson said. "This is a jumping-off point where, based on last year's testing results, schools are given a number of points by which they must grow in order to satisfy the requirements of our state accountability system."

Melinda Hennes, Atwater Elementary School District superintendent, said API scores of 800 used to be fantastic but that everybody's getting better. Scores in the 700s mean schools are making progress.

Atwater's Shaffer School gained 56 points this year, posting a 779 API score.

"We have an intense focus on quality classroom instruction and enriched learning experiences that encourage students to be thinkers, with a resulting increase in scores over time," Hennes said.

Peggy Heller School gained 25 points on the API index, scoring 837, Hennes said.

Heller and Elmer Wood schools have been the highest-performing schools, neck-and-neck most years.

"One of our greatest challenges and goals is to erase the impact of demographics on student learning," Hennes said. "We wholeheartedly believe that all of our students are capable, and it is our responsibility to mitigate the impacts of poverty and language differences."

Vernon Snodderly, the retiring superintendent-principal of 125-student Plainsburg School, said the school's 863 API score, a jump of 57 points over 2009, shows the school has good students, parents and teachers. "It's as simple as that," Snodderly said. "Our teachers work hard."

At rural Volta School in the Los Banos Unified School District, Principal Jan Whitehurst said the school's 846 API score, a gain of 21 points over 2009, shows that the school teaches to the standards and students do better in a small school environment with more personalized attention. Charleston School, also a rural Los Banos campus, posted an 864 API score. "Our students and teachers work really hard doing what is expected of them at school," Whitehurst said.

Sziraki, with the Merced Union High School District, is positive about the district's future: "If you take a look at the district API growth trend over the past few years, the mid-700 API score reflects the effects and work of our dedicated staff to improve their craft. The state expectation for all schools to reach an API score of 800 is within our sights."

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at

(209) 385-2407 or