These Merced County schools are among the lowest performing in the state. What’s being done?

Six schools in Merced County have been identified as part of the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools when it comes to low student performance or graduation rates, according to the state educators.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, federal education legislation signed by President Barack Obama that replaced “No Child Left Behind,” mandated states to identify and report their lowest performing schools — and create plans to improve those schools’ performance.

This was the state’s first time putting out the list of schools.

Three of those Merced County schools are elementary level: Dos Palos Elementary and Bernhard Marks Elementary in Dos Palos, and El Capitan Elementary in Delhi.

The Dos Palos-Oro Loma Joint Unified School District ranked last in state test scores compared to fellow districts in Merced County, according to the latest state test scores.

The two elementary schools also have chronic absenteeism rates above the state and county averages, according to data from the last school year. Dos Palos Elementary’s rate is nearly double the statewide rate.

Superintendent Justin Miller said his staff was identifying those challenges to the district’s elementary schools during his past seven months as superintendent.

Tackling those chronic absenteeism rates, along with higher suspension rates, by focusing on improving students’ behavioral health is something Miller said was key to turning around both schools.

“If students are acting up, then they’re not learning at school,” Miller said. “That’s a huge piece of it.”

The district is putting in motion the “Second Step,” program, which aims to improve life skills by teaching students how to reduce aggressive behavior while increasing social competence.

Miller said the district also plans to hire family therapists for the next schools year, and programs working around the county such as the “Imagine Learning” program used by Lorena Falasco Elementary in Los Banos.

In Delhi, Superintendent Adolfo Melara said he wasn’t surprised by the designation.

El Capitan Elementary received the negative orange and red indicators in the state’s school dashboard rating system on several key indicators, including test scores, suspension rates and chronic absenteeism.

“It validated things we already knew internally,” Melara said, adding the school has actually improved through a new common core curriculum.

The school is in process of forming a plan to get off the list and improve student achievement, Melara said. And that includes finding ways to get parents more involved in their children’s education.

“We’re taking the necessary steps,” Melara said. “But we also have to ask, are we implementing (our plan) to the best level possible?”

The three other Merced County schools on the list are either continuation or alternative education schools.

Crossroads Alternative Education Center in Los Banos was listed for its students’ low performance, while Valley Merced and Yosemite High in Merced were flagged for their low graduation rates.

Students at Crossroads often arrive with significant gaps in education, mostly in the area of math, according to Superintendent Mark Marshall.

The school offers independent studies for elementary and junior high-aged students and virtual education for students in grades nine through 12 centered around each student, Marshall said.

Students are often faced with mental and physical health issues along with challenges at home, including medical needs of parents and the need to become caretakers for younger siblings. Those factors are barriers to student achievement.

Marshall said school staff is focused on disciplinary issues, math literacy and engaging in a constant review of what techniques are working.

“It’s almost by nature these schools are going to be identified,” said Steve Tietjen, the Merced County superintendent of schools.

Most continuation high schools and alternative schools in the state have similar challenges, Tietjen said.

Students who come in may thrive in the continuing education programs, but it may take more time, leading to the low graduation rates, Tietjen said about Yosemite High and Merced Valley Community School, which was no longer in operation this year because of a lack of enrolled students.

“Our focus with these students in alternative schools is we have to make up units,” Tietjen said. “So we use lots of different means to do that. But we also have to have some rigor so a high school diploma means something.”

Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.