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Wickham: Ceres schools continue to lose students in California exodus
• CUSD student enrollment drops by 1,073 students
Joint meeting city CUSD
Members of the Ceres School Board and Ceres City Council sat at one long table Thursday evening to hear updates from city officials and CUSD Supt. Denise Wickham. Pictured here are trustees Cynthia Ruiz, Dave McConnell, Brian de la Porte and Hugo Molina, Mayor Javier Lopez (obscure), councilmembers Daniel Martinez, James Casey and Rosalinda Vierra and City Manager Doug Dunford. - photo by Jeff Benziger

For the fourth consecutive year, the Ceres Unified School District continues to lose students as more families leave California, Supt. Denise Wickham reported during a one-hour joint meeting of her School Board and the Ceres City Council.

The two elected bodies met Thursday evening inside the Argus/Endeavor High School multi-purpose room to exchange information about current issues.

Wickham reported that since the 2019-20 school year, CUSD enrollment numbers have slipped a total of 1,073 students, resulting in less revenue from the state. Wickham noted that 13,567 students were enrolled in Ceres’ 21 schools in 2019-20 and now that number is 12,494.

CUSD forecasts it will lose another 309 students in the coming school year.

Wickham called the continued decline “significant.”

In response to declining student population, the district is “right sizing” personnel numbers by not filling positions as teachers retire or move elsewhere. In some cases, positions are being modified.

“(Students) leave across our 21 schools so being strategic about staffing classes, right now currently we’re moving staff around in order to accommodate where students will be enrolling for next year,” said Dr. Wickham. “I’m not going to lie as it causes a bit of anxiety when we’re making these decisions at a district level but there’s also anxiety at the sites as they’re losing staff members. Staff members are not losing their job, mind you, it’s just it may look different for them next year; they’re being transferred to another site or they’re going to be teaching a different grade level or join a different team doing similar work.” 

Approximately 80 percent of school districts across the state are experiencing similar losses of students, Wickham told the group.

“California is declining in population. Three years ago California schools were serving 6.4 million students. California schools are currently serving 6.1 million students. That’s a loss of 300,000 students because the students are leaving with their families. Birth rates are lower than they have been so the number of children per household is also declining.”

Some districts are experiencing such dire declines that schools are being shuttered.

“That’s not what we want to do,” Wickham said. “We love our community schools so we may be not having this program in order to keep our schools open and thriving.”

She shared some statistics about the makeup of CUSD’s enrollment. Eighty percent of students are Hispanic, 33 percent are English learners and just 11 percent are Caucasian. Eighty percent of Ceres students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

CUSD is the largest employer in Ceres with 2,667 employees, with 930 as certificated staff, namely and administrators; and 1,136 as classified staff such as secretaries, janitors, and support staff. CUSD employs a total of 601 substitute teachers.

Wickham said that approximately 87 percent of CUSD’s budget of $270 million is spent on staffing and reported that the district just settled with its two bargaining units for the 2023-24 school year. 

Wickham paused to give a brief look at academic performance based on assessments. Testing in English Language Arts revealed 66 percent of students failed to meet standards or came close as opposed to 34 percent meeting or exceeding standards. District students made slight gains in math, rising from 17 percent meeting standards in the 2021-22 school year to 19 percent in the 2022-23 year.

Wickham said she is proud of CUSD’s graduation rate of 91.1 percent, up from 86 percent in the 2019-20 school year. That number is high in comparison to other districts, she added.

CUSD has been engaged in a robust attendance promotion campaign to offset “bad habits that were developed during COVID.”

“Students learn best when they attend school. They also then have access to all of our social, emotional, mental health resources.”

Boosting attendance also results in more revenue to the district from the state based on average daily attendance (ADA).

Wickham mentioned a partnership with Modesto Junior College that allows high school students to take classes on their Ceres campuses while earning college credits. In the past three years, approximately 308 students earned college credits while attending high school in Ceres.

Wickham turned to city officials and stated that she looked forward to hearing what possible residential growth may be forthcoming to help with declining enrollment.

City Manager Doug Dunford said the city is planning for the building of more housing. Whitmore Ranch is poised to begin building homes in two phases in east Ceres south of Whitmore Avenue and east of Moore Road. At 20 acres, Phase I will yield 107 single-family homes while a second phase will result in 46 homes.

The next home-building boom is expected to take place in the West Landing area – annexed to Ceres in 2012 – with the need for a sewer lift station being “the only hold-up” for development, Dunford reported.

The city is in talks with G3 Enterprises to help the city build the required infrastructure in order for them to construct a million-square-foot warehouse that will bring in new jobs. Five housing developers are interested in building in southwest Ceres and if they build will be contributing to the costs of the sewer lift station.

“Once we get that built, we’re looking at probably only within two years of houses built out there,” said Dunford.

Also being processed is a request to annex 534 acres in the Copper Trails master plan area near Central Valley High School. The Environmental Impact Report is expected to be finished in June with the annexation going before LAFCO in November. The 293-acre project could bring a housing mix of 1,310 multi-family units and 2,325 single-family houses starting as early as June 2025.

Dunford gave a brief update on the Service/Mitchell/Highway 99 interchange project, saying construction could start in mid-2026 or 2027. The city is currently buying additional rights-of-way needed for the project. Since the new overpass at Service Road is being designed for six lanes, the city plans to widen Service Road from the freeway to Ustick Road.

The ACE train platform in downtown Ceres may be place by December 2026, he said.

Dunford said Ceres is positioned for growth while scrambling to fill positions to “move projects forward.”

“Currently we have 25 personnel positions in the city,” reported Dunford. “We’re experiencing a revolving door syndrome due to personnel chasing the almighty dollar but our businesses are expanding outstanding.”

CUSD is nearing completion of the Central Valley High School pool and has finished the halos for the high school baseball diamonds and the Ric Campero Performing Arts Center at CVHS. Ceres High is receiving an all-weather track and turf. CUSD also plans a football stadium at CVHS and new scoreboards at both high schools.

Also, Sam Vaughn Elementary School is getting a new classroom wing. 

Wickham praised the Ceres Police Department for its partnership with the district participating in weekend active shooter training under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security.

The district is planning to place a school bond measure on the November ballot.

“I know it seems like we just built all our new schools and in 2005 we opened many new schools but many of our schools are also 30, 35, 40, 45 years old. Many portables at our schools were not meant to be permanent buildings.”

Dunford reported that the city has started negotiations with its bargaining units as the city has realized a “slight uptick” in property and sales taxes.

Modesto Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Darin Jesberg spoke to the group since his agency now is the contract fire service provider in Ceres. He reported that Modesto Fire just took over the fire academy program from Modesto Junior College. Jesberg said his department plans to extend its annual popular clown program teaching safety to students to Ceres and Turlock children.

Newly appointed Police Chief Chris Perry addressed traffic safety concerns at the school campuses, reporting that license plate readers will be installed near Ceres and Central Valley high schools. Recording license plates will help solve crimes and cases, he said.

“So far we’ve had huge success with all of the license plate readers in the city,” said Chief Perry. “We currently have every entrance and exit in the city covered by license plate readers and I do believe it will be very beneficial to have them also near the schools.”

The city also purchased two additional speed trailers which, while not the complete answer to the problem of speeders, do help reduce speed when the city is short on traffic enforcement officers, said Perry.

Ceres Police is also beefing up traffic enforcement with two ancillary motorcycle officers for special details as schedule allows.  

Ceres Unified pays the salaries of four School Resource Officers to be on campus. They are Gloria Blakeslee, Kevin Sakasegawa, Kao Saechao and Kiashira Ortiz who replaced Lorenzo Beltran. Ceres Police Sgt. Dirk Nieuwenhuis is in charge of the School Resource Officer program.

Wickham speaks 2024
Ceres Unified School District Supt. Denise Wickham gives leaders information about the district. - photo by Jeff Benziger
Doug Dunford and Chris Perry
Ceres City Manager Doug Dunford and Ceres Police Chief Chris Perry were among city staffers who offered information during Thursday's joint meeting of the City Council and Ceres School Board. - photo by Jeff Benziger
Brian de la Porte and Hugo Molina
Brian de la Porte and Hugo Molina, two members of the Ceres Unified School District Board of Trustees, listen to Supt. Denise Wickham. - photo by Jeff Benziger