One year ago, Fresno Unified teachers threatened to go out on strike over stalled contract negotiations with the district. Among the issues contributing to the impasse: a demand by teachers that the district make a commitment to reducing class sizes to help address deficiencies in student achievement.

On Wednesday, the district and teachers union joined together to announce the progress they’ve made on bridging the divide.

“Since August of this year, we eliminated combination classes in our elementary schools and we reduced class sizes in our secondary schools in language classes,” said Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson.

“It has not been an easy journey, we are still working on our development of creating a joint relationship of mutual trust, but we are committed in working forward together.” — Bob Nelson, superintendent of Fresno Unified

In situations where student numbers were high and extra classroom space was unavailable, Nelson said a second teacher or paraprofessional educator was added.

“It is important to note that these efforts all took place outside of the formal bargaining process, which is markedly different from anything that we have done before,” Nelson said. “We are trying to operate differently.”

New Attitude in the District

The changes came following joint labor-management committee meetings that were created as a condition of a new contract between the district and the Fresno Teachers Association. The agreement was reached in January, just before teachers were scheduled to walk out for the first time in 40 years.

Leaders say there is a new attitude at work.

“When we move from a place of chaos and conflict to collaboration and cooperation, the 74,000 students of Fresno Unified transform, our city transforms, and this Valley transforms,” said FTA President Michael Bonilla.

Nelson echoed the sentiment.

“It has not been an easy journey,” Nelson said. “We are still working on our development of creating a joint relationship of mutual trust, but we are committed in working forward together,” Nelson said.

School Board Member Claudia Cazares, who represents Fresno Unified Hoover area region, commended both Bonilla and Nelson for the “remarkable accomplishments we’ve had as partners in this community.”

“It is not about the adults and it is not about how well we can get along, it is about our children and making sure they advance and that the city advances,” Cazares said.

Focusing on Special Ed Improvements

Creating a plan to better serve students with special needs is another issue the district is working on addressing, Nelson said.

In response to feedback from the Council of the Great City Schools regarding how well Fresno Unified is doing in providing for students with special needs, Nelson said the district has developed a plan, which he will present to the school board in the near future.

“When we move from a place of chaos and conflict to collaboration and cooperation, the 74,000 students of Fresno Unified transform, our city transforms, and this Valley transforms.” — Manuel Bonilla, president of the Fresno Teachers Association

The plan consists of providing direct support to students in classrooms in the form of additional material, equipment, and technological tools supporting both communication for special needs youth and mobility.

More Work To Do

Even with the progress the district has made, Nelson said there’s “absolutely further work to do.”

Some of that work includes focusing on the area of literacy and early learning.

“We acknowledge that early learning is key in order to make sure that our students enter kindergarten with a foundation, which is solid for future learning and growth,” Nelson said.

School Board Member Valerie Davis said she is really proud that both Fresno Unified and the FTA can get the credit for getting so much done for students.

“I am moved beyond words that this is a new beginning and I look forward to more work with our teacher unions and our superintendent together,” Davis said.

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