Fresno Unified is widely known as the fourth-largest school district in the state, but many may not know that its students come from the poorest families in California.

In fact, Fresno Unified is not only the most impoverished, large, urban school district in California, it is second overall in the United States in terms of concentrated poverty in an urban area, Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson said Monday.

Nelson spokes about the district’s challenges and successes at the annual State of Education Luncheon at the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Fresno.

“Is everything perfect with our academic standards? Heavens no. But are things moving in the direction that we want to see? Absolutely.” — Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson

Nelson noted that the federal government just increased the district’s Title 1 Allocation, which indicates the extreme poverty that Fresno Unified wrestles with.

“We are getting poorer faster than any other urban school district in California,” Nelson said.

Just under 90 percent of students in Fresno Unified meet the federal qualifications for free-and-reduced lunches, and 45 percent of families are below the federal poverty level of making $25,000 a year for a family of four, Nelson said.

“Please understand, I don’t mention these statistics by way of an excuse or some kind of downdraft of expectations, but to acknowledge that when you are fighting to survive every day, performing well in school may well not be the priority realization of your life,” Nelson said.

Fresno Unified also lags behind state and county averages on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, Nelson said.

Positive Results the Past Three Years

Nevertheless, Nelson said he is “militantly positive” about the future of Fresno Unified and its students.

“In our most recent assessment, students scored proficient in nearly every subgroup as well as students in nearly every grade made progress,” Nelson said. “This is an incredibly healthy growth trend for the system, particularly over a three-year span.”

The district’s Design Science Middle College High School is a shining star of what’s possible. Last year, the specialty school had a 100 percent graduation rate, and 100 percent of its graduating students were accepted into four-year institutions.

Also, the district’s Tenaya and Yosemite middle schools saw double-digit growth in English Language Arts last year.

The district’s Design Science Middle College High School is a shining star of what’s possible. Last year, the school had a 100 percent graduation rate, and 100 percent of its graduating students were accepted into four-year institutions.

There are other global indicators of health in Fresno Unified, Nelson said.

The district’s rate for English Learner students to English proficiency is as strong as it has ever been in recent memory, Nelson said.

Nelson said the district is forging ahead on several academic initiatives and student engagement initiatives to close its achievement gap.

Last summer, the district’s African American Acceleration Office launched a summer literacy program at Baird Middle School for students K-8. Nelson said the reading scores of students grew significantly.

“Also, the footprint of our office of African American Academic Acceleration has increased over the past year, which gives our executive director and her team the opportunity to launch additional initiatives to move forward with the work of African American students,” Nelson said.

New Additions To Fresno Unified

In addition to completing a shop at Duncan Poly to train students to be certified as diesel mechanics, Nelson said the district wants to convert the old juvenile hall on Ventura and 10th Street into a state-of-the-art education center.

The Fresno Unified School Board will vote at its next meeting on a purchase agreement for the building.

“The vision for this new location is to bring our students together in a space that will allow them the freedom to explore educational opportunities that may not have been considered traditional,” Nelson said.

Overall, Nelson said he is happy with the direction the district is moving and excited about its future.

“Is everything perfect with our academic standards? Heavens no. But are things moving in the direction that we want to see? Absolutely,” Nelson said.

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