Modesto-area state schools rankings show good, bad

From the best of the best to the worst of the worse, California released its statewide ranking of public schools Thursday.

The results are bound to bring pride to some Northern San Joaquin Valley campuses and shame to others.

They also likely will trigger objections from educators who don't think it's fair to compare the performance of valley students with that of students from ritzy high-income communities.

Among the valley's high schools, Waterford High ranked highest on the Academic Performance Index. Waterford students last year outscored students from wealthier cities like Oakdale and Ripon on a standardized array of academic tests.

All three of those small-town high schools — Waterford, Oakdale and Ripon — ranked 8 on California's scale of 1 to 10.

Waterford's academic program strives for "rigor and relevance," Principal Timothy Swartz said. He describe his 450-student campus as committed to ensuring every youngster understands one instructional concept before moving on to the next.

"We provide a balance of what students need to succeed in today's world economy," Swartz said. "We don't look for recognition, we just want to give our kids the best we can provide."

Two Modesto elementary schools and a charter high school in Tuolumne County earned the region's highest rank: A perfect 10.

That means students at Lakewood Elementary in Modesto City Schools and Aspire University Charter in the Sylvan district, as well as Connections Visual and Performing Arts in Tuolumne County, scored in the highest 10 percent statewide on academic tests.

Beyond strong academics, Connections is known for its arts programs, including music and theater productions, said John Keiter, superintendent of the Summerville Union High School District.

"Those kids are busy from dawn to dusk," Keiter said, noting that transfer students from other districts outnumber local students 3-to-1 at Connections, which opened in 2002.

Another of the region's charter schools, however, received the worst high school API score. The Denair Charter Academy was ranked 1, which means its test scores were among the lowest 10 percent in the state.

But Denair Charter's students have made significant progress, boosting their average test score from 499 in 2008 to 573 in 2009. Schools earn scores from 200 to 1,000 and strive for the target of 800.

Principal Karla Paul is proud of that growth, particularly since most of her students were not on track to graduate high school when they entered her program.

"We're working with an at-risk population ... of students who were failing classes and struggling to be successful in school," Paul explained. Most of the charter schools' students transferred there from outside Denair, and they meet once a week with teachers for independent study.

Plenty of the valley's regular high schools can be found near the bottom ranks, too.

Riverbank, Delhi and Lathrop high schools, for instance, all ranked 3.

Among Modesto's public high schools, Beyer and Enochs ranked 7; Modesto, Davis and Johansen ranked 5; and Downey ranked 4.

Lakewood and Aspire University Charter led the Modesto elementary schools, but five others scored on the bottom of California's rankings. Receiving ranks of 1 were Bret Harte, Kirschen, Orville Wright, Robertson Road and Shackelford elementaries, along with six other valley campuses.

"How a school is faring in comparison to all schools in the state or to those similar in nature is of vital importance to parents, teachers, education advocates, and the business community who are all interested in student performance," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said Thursday.

Besides showing how schools ranked among all California campuses, the Academic Performance Index also ranks schools compared with demographically similar campuses.

Each is compared with 100 campuses with similar student and teacher characteristics. Many educators believe that ranking is more fair because it doesn't compare schools filled with low- income students, such as those in west and south Modesto, to those dominated by rich kids, such as Beverly Hills.

Those "similar school" rankings reveal which campuses excel at educating lower-income students.

Ceres schools doing well

Six Ceres schools received the top rating among their comparative campuses: Ceres High, Central Valley High and Summit Charter Academy, and Don Pedro, Adkison and Westport elementaries. All of Ceres' other regular schools also received above-average ranks of 7 or higher, when compared with similar campuses.

"I'm really pleased," said Ceres Unified School District Superintendent Walt Hanline, who will retire next month after nine years leading the district. He said that comparisons with similar schools show that in Ceres "the quality of our teaching maximizes what kids learn."

"I think (these high ranks) are absolutely important because they are a representation of our students' academic performance," said Hanline, who is convinced the Ceres community recognizes how well its schools are doing.

"Parents symbolically are sending a message with their feet by finding ways to stay in our schools," Hanline said. "We have not had declining enrollment (like other Stanislaus County districts)."

Five Modesto-area campuses — Rose Avenue, Sonoma, Orchard and Stroud elementaries and Glick Middle School — also were ranked 10 when compared with similar schools.

Conversely, some schools that did well on the statewide ranking didn't fare as well when stacked up against similar schools.

High schools in four of the region's highest-income cities — Oakdale, Ripon, Escalon and Sonora — did not do well when compared with similar schools.

Both Oakdale and Ripon ranked 8 on the statewide list, but when matched with similar schools their rank sank to 4. Escalon and Sonora ranked 6 statewide, but their similar school rank was just 2 for Escalon and a lowest-possible 1 for Sonora.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at or 578-2196.