In addition to drastic budget cuts, Modesto City Schools employees are working under the threat of state sanctions for low student test scores.
The pressure is on: If scores don't improve on this spring's exams, Modesto's high schools face heavy consequences.
Details have not been provided by the State Board of Education, but some fear the worst-case scenario could include state takeover of the district or its high schools.
Since 2007, Modesto high schools have been on a state watch list along with 96 other districts. The district must improve student test scores on the state High School Exit Exam to avoid further scrutiny or penalties.
Superintendent Arturo Flores presented an update on the potential sanctions at Monday's Board of Education meeting, describing the hanging cloud of state monitoring as a matter of urgency.
"It's not commendable to be the eighth-worst district in California," he said, referring to the district high schools' ranking according to student performance on state tests.
He joined the other seven districts at a state Board of Education meeting in January, where he outlined how the district would improve test scores. "Our scores are admirable, but they're not growing fast enough," he said. "If we do not show growth, I can almost guarantee (state officials) will be here."
The district is getting help from the Stanislaus County Office of Education, and Flores is visiting high school campuses to spread the message that this spring's exit exams are vital to the district.
"Testing is important and teachers have the closest relationships with students," said Sue Rich, assistant superintendent of instruction at the county office of education. She works with Modesto City Schools on its improvement plan. "People need to be aware of how the district is scrutinized. It's getting very serious very quickly."
Students take the tests in the next two months, but officials vented that many high-schoolers don't take them to heart. Trustee Nancy Cline urged Student Trustee Sonam Virk to get the word to student leaders about the exams' importance.
And the big question is how administrators and teachers increase student learning and test scores with fewer resources. Many support programs, and teacher training opportunities will be reduced when officials cut spending by 10 percent for the next school year.
"There's going to be no release from any of the expected academic targets established" by the state and district regardless of budget cuts, Rich added.
She estimated that she is using the equivalent of more than two of her staff members year-round on Modesto's monitoring. Turlock and Riverbank Unified and the county office of education are right behind Modesto and could land on the state's watch list next school year.
Modesto's plan includes "consistent and coherent curriculum," which includes making sure teachers in each grade level are teaching the same standards at about the same time. Research shows at-risk students learn better under those conditions, Rich said.
Also, teachers are using more research-based instructional strategies, Rich said, which include telling students what they are learning each day.