Valley schools struggle overall in API rankings

Central San Joaquin Valley schools continue to struggle academically overall, according to the latest statewide rankings from the California Department of Education.

However, a number of schools have improved when compared to other California schools with similar demographics.

Data made public Thursday show the majority of Valley schools ranked in the bottom half of schools statewide. But some lower-performing schools are inching upward. The rankings are based on Academic Performance Index scores last year that are calculated using annual state assessment exams.

Overall, about 82% of Fresno Unified schools ranked in the bottom half statewide, about the same as last year. Meanwhile, Clovis Unified School District maintained its academic superiority among Valley schools with about 98% ranking in the top half statewide -- the same as the prior year.

Schools are ranked in two categories every spring. One shows how each school compares statewide, and the other compares schools with similar demographics, such as poverty and number of English learners. The bottom 10% get a rank of 1 and the top 10% a rank of 10.

Madera Unified saw improvement. Although 74% of its schools fell in the bottom half statewide, 83% were in the bottom half the year before.

The key is incremental growth over time, said Madera Unified spokesman Jake Bragonier. "We do know there is room for improvement, but you can't deny the fact that Madera Unified is continuing to improve," he said.

Even though many Fresno Unified schools are ranked in the lower half statewide, superintendent Michael Hanson said he was pleased that more lower-performing schools are improving. "Seventy-nine percent of my schools grew last year," he said.

It has been a steady climb. Over the past four years, the number of Fresno Unified schools in the top half of similar school rankings more than doubled, from 15% to 31%.

Hanson also pointed out that the number of schools ranking lowest statewide and against similar schools has dropped: There were 23 a few years ago, 14 last year and eight schools this year.

One school that saw significant improvement was Jefferson Elementary in downtown Fresno, where all students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. The school climbed to 8 in similar-school ranking, up from 4 the prior year.

Jefferson principal Edward Gomes, who came to the school last year, said the staff has worked hard revamping curriculum and providing after-school help to students.

Fresno Unified also had three schools earning 10 in both statewide and similar-school rankings: Edison Computech Middle School, Manchester GATE and Design Science Early College High. Last year, two schools in the district ranked 10 in both categories.

Six schools in Clovis Unified earned 10 in both categories -- up from five the year before. However, several of the districts schools, including Pinedale Elementary and Clark and Reyburn intermediates, earned 3 or 4 in at least one ranking.

Clovis Unified superintendent David Cash said he was pleased with the district's results. But, Cash said, "we know that we still have work to do in improving the academic achievement for all students."

In Central Unified, 81% of schools ranked in the bottom half statewide compared to 76% last year. "Five schools increased in performance, five maintained and six declined," said Michael Berg, Central's superintendent.

"The key to the data is, are we making gains, and we are," he said. Berg said the district is "retooling" the way it instructs students.

Visalia also did worse in this year's API rankings, with about 69% of schools falling in the bottom half compared to schools statewide -- compared with 57% the prior year. It also had more schools in the bottom half of similar school rankings -- 23, compared to 19 the prior year. The only school to earn a 10 was Valley Oak Middle School.

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