Even before Bob Nelson took over as Fresno Unified superintendent, he had to know that the district’s efforts to educate students with disabilities were coming up short.

The many lawsuits against the district filed by families of special education students and the voices expressing frustration at board meetings were ample evidence of district dysfunction.

So, after his appointment as district leader, he requested a top-to-bottom review of Fresno Unified’s special education program by a respected group — Council of the Great City Schools.

Portrait of GV Wire News Director/Columnist Bill McEwen


Bill McEwen

The council’s report documented in black-and-white the district’s shortcomings in special education.

Students not only lagged many of their peers in California and across the nation, but they were performing worse on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than Fresno Unified students years before.

Teacher-to-student ratios were high. There was a shortage of psychologists and paraeducators. The district’s organization of special education was a mish-mash.

The district also was pigeon-holing too many special needs students into separate classrooms and schools instead of instructing them in classes serving all students. The data has shown for a long time that “mainstreaming” leads to better outcomes, but the district wasn’t doing it.

Bottom line: With about 11 percent of the district’s 75,000 students having disabilities, the district was failing many kids and their families.

Nelson’s Response to the Report

Nelson doesn’t sugarcoat the realities.

“We have not been good educators of our special ed kids,” he said in an interview last week.

The council’s report points to the No. 1 reason: The district wasn’t giving the education of students with disabilities enough attention. Special ed was pushed off to the side, with teachers, psychologists, parents, and others left largely to fend for themselves. While the district was preaching “equity and access,” it wasn’t delivering for its most vulnerable students.

In some cases, instead of educating students close to their homes, the district was shipping them to a campus across town solely because that’s where it had space. In other words, the district did what was best for it. Not what was best for students.

By the way, the report didn’t point fingers at those working with students. In fact, it cited the district’s 96% special education teacher retention rate as a positive. I do, too. That tells me these teachers are answering a calling and are heavily invested in their students.

Portrait of Bob Nelson

“We have not been good educators of our special ed kids.” — Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson 

Instead, the report attributed many of the district’s shortcomings to serious organizational flaws and cumbersome hiring procedures. Vacancies made Fresno Unified’s workload levels so high that effective student support and instruction were difficult.

But the report also says that “FUSD clearly has the leadership, talent, and commitment to continue to do much better for its students with disabilities. The Council hopes that this report will help the district create an integrated set of services for its students that will be the envy of other urban school systems across the nation.”

What’s Different This Year

Nelson says that changes have been made over the summer, and there will be a noticeable difference when the schools open Monday.

In a nutshell, the district is seeking to improve parent support and engagement, upgrade the quality of instruction and promote inclusion.

That effort started with the district adding $5 million to the special education budget. This is for 16 more teachers, 24 paraeducators, five psychologists, 4.5 speech pathology positions and 10 credentialed nurses.

In addition, if parents or guardians of special ed students have a question, they will receive a response in either 24 or 48 hours, depending on the complexity of the question. Not necessarily a definitive answer, but an acknowledgment of the request. In the past, the district has taken a week or even longer to respond.

The district, Nelson says, also will make a concerted effort to engage more special education families through its Parent University program. Up to now, Parent University has focused mostly on the families of English-language learners.

And the district is phasing in a support program for all students at 18 campuses, primarily elementary schools, spread throughout the district. Fresno Unified’s plan calls for multi-tiered support aimed at improving discipline, student achievement and dropout rates, to be in place at all 106 schools by the 2021-22 school year.

Council of the Great City Schools logo

“FUSD clearly has the leadership, talent, and commitment to continue to do much better for its students with disabilities. The Council hopes that this report will help the district create an integrated set of services for its students that will be the envy of other urban school systems across the nation.” — Council of the Great City Schools report on Fresno Unified’s special education program 

District trustees might want to ask: Why wait four school years? Can’t we accelerate this?

Will District Stick to the Report or Go Its Own Way?

I will watch how closely how the district uses the report’s recommendations. If the district veers widely off the suggested path, it better be able to demonstrate why. Not with words. But with hard data indicating that Fresno Unified must proceed a different way.

Julie Wright Halbert, legislative counsel for Great City Schools, says that the group’s “strategic recommendations are intended to provide guidance but are not expected to be followed precisely. They are developed from urban school peers who have faced similar urban challenges.”

I asked Halbert what people should look for in measuring the district’s efforts.

Her answer: “Stakeholders should look to see that special education is well integrated within the operational system of FUSD. Students with disabilities shall be included and supported in the proper educational setting. The district shall inform stakeholders how they are considering the reports recommendations, data analysis, and they may want to ask FUSD to set out a strategic plan for short- and long-term implementation.”

That’s the right yardstick.

3 Responses

  1. Susan Wittrup

    This article starts off strong but fails to cover the deep level solutions outlined by the report from The Council of Great City Schools which, if implemented, could lead to a more dynamic department that will address the needs of our kids and parents. I applaud the board and Supt. Bob Nelson for understanding the need and recruiting this team to identify the problems and creating a pathway forward.

    Here’s a link to the full report:

  2. Prudence Hutton JD

    Mr. McEwen,

    BULLS EYE…. You not only hit the target, but dead center suggesting board trustees ask why it’s necessary to have a four year wait for “multi-tiered support” or MTSS.

    Yes, I read the “report,” which had a lot of focus on these letters – MTSS. I needed to learn more about this “edspeak” and found the Ca Dept. of Education has lots of information.

    It looks like MTSS has been around for a while and seen lots of action in the last several years in California with Orange & Butte Counties taking the lead. Makes me wonder why we need to wait & have pilot programs.

    MTSS seems like very important four letters to anyone concerned about education. I would like to know more about the status of MTSS in General Education at FUSD and if MTSS has been available to Special Education at all. Equal Access is important. I hear experts say that there might not be such a need for Special Education if effective and strong MTSS is in place. I hope that all stakeholders and the new crop of interested school board candidates can learn more. I look forward to the upcoming discussion by the School Board.

    The “report” addressed READING GAPS. I’ve long said that if a student can’t read, then something should be done. These are called “interventions.” Hopefully, there will be a good public discussion about the reading suggestions made by the Council of Great City Schools. You can’t have Career & College Ready graduates without strong reading skills. Online learning is becoming a default and certainly requires the ability to read. Employers and colleges should not be expected to remediate reading and math skills.

    I hope that GV Wire will keep up these discussions flowing and asking the questions that have been ignored. The time is NOW to aim high for all students.

  3. Rikki Cha

    Yes I am applauding this article, but being I am still new to the whole Special Ed laws & rules. From what I understand or what it seems is my child’s needs, safety, health, and education is basically at risk & on hold because certain elementaries have contracts & in order to for fill them my child needs to travel ACROSS town because “Figarden” is the only school with the “INCLUSION” program. Yes INCLUSION can be amazing but they are foreseeing the child’s needs and determined to basically meet their number, and to them that is what REALLY matters… some empathy towards the students as well as their parents. We trust you with our children throughout the days…..I wish I could tell the FUSD how I really feel about them. Having a child with Special Needs is a bit stressful….but Fresno district really puts the stress on…..I have NO reliable transportation, I live walking distance to our homeschool. Having a 1st grader with Autism I would love to volunteer in class, as I did with my other children. But it’s a 20 minute drive that bares me. Please if I’m being too selfish please feel free to respond, but before you do also consider, how would you feel or need I say, put yourself in my shoes…..Last semester I received a call from Figarden, at this time my child was Kinder, but tell me how do you go about trusting a school that calls a parent and says, “YOU NEED TO COME PICK UP YOUR CHILD! HE’S HAVING DIFFICULTIES BREATHING”!……@&$-“;’;#+ &*#*$(($#@- <<< that's the nice, appreciate way of me commenting, still wondering, not able to trust but common sense, SHOULDN'T THEY HAVE CALLED 911!!!????? Bottom line my child needs to be a fair distance from home, just in case they feel the need to call me instead of getting him medical attention! My name is Rikki Cha Rodriguez find me on FB……


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