When it comes to closing the achievement gap in Fresno schools and community colleges, trustee candidates and incumbents shared their ideas on the best practices at the 2018 African-American Issues and Education Candidates Forum this week.
Each of the 13 participants offered their prescriptions to boost student achievement to a crowd of about 50 people at the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce on Monday night.
Kina McFadden, the founder and CEO of Eye Connect Dots in Fresno, moderated the nearly four-hour forum.
State Center Community College District
In the State Center Community College District race, District 4 incumbent Ronald Nishinaka and District 5 candidate Daren Miller took turns sharing their views on what they believe will help close the achievement gap that has plagued Fresno area schools for years.
Although high school graduation rates are increasing, Miller said many students aren’t ready for the rigors of college.
“There is a huge gap,” said Miller, who is running against three other candidates in his bid to replace Miguel Arias, who is running for a seat on the Fresno City Council.
Miller said high school teachers could benefit from the academic freedom professors get at the college level. He said continuing to expand dual enrollment programs will also help student success rates, especially when transitioning from high school to college.
“We need to have more collaboration with college professors working with high school teachers because there is a different expectation when you get to the college level,” Miller said.
Nishinaka said the district needs to focus more on equity than equality to ensure students have an equal chance of success in college.
“Equality is when you give all students all programs, equity is when you review certain criteria for certain areas that need more funding so students all start out at the same point,” Nishinaka said. “Equity is what we need to continue working on to close the achievement gap.”
Magdalena Gomez, who is running against Nishinaka, believes transportation is affecting student success, especially for youth in rural areas.
Gomez also believes more career technical education programs are needed.
“I have the background, the foresight and also the leadership skills to be a champion for Reedley College,” said Gomez, who is an educational consultant with the Fresno Teachers Association.
Fresno County Board of Education
Of the five candidates running to represent District 1 on the Fresno County Board of Education, only Kimberly Tapscott-Munson attended.
Tapscott-Munson, a retired school librarian, said the biggest obstacles to students performing at the highest level are poverty and not getting enough to eat throughout the day.
“We are the number one food basket in the world, but our kids are hungry,” Tapscott-Munson said. “We have to do better for our kids.”
Fresno Unified School District
In Fresno Unified, Nasreen Johnson, a candidate for District 7 (Bullard High area), said that if schools are going to help students reach their full potential, they need to start thinking outside the box.
She cited providing laundry services on campus as an example.
“Some reasons kids don’t go to school is because they lack clean clothes,” Johnson said.
Terri Edwards, also a District 7 candidate, said fixing the district’s problems starts with the people running it.
“If we are still dealing with issues that continue to happen then we have to look internally into what we are doing,” Edwards said. “It has got to start at the top, it has to start with us.”
Veva Islas, who is running against incumbent Christopher De La Cerda in District 4 (McLane High area) said schools must offer more support to families who don’t speak English.
“We need to have diverse individuals in school settings that can assist families with language interpretation,” Islas said.
In addition to expanding dual language immersion programs, Robert Fuentes said that school safety is critical to improving student and teacher performance.
“We need to address problems early to prevent students not wanting to go to school by expanding social and emotional support, expanding the number of social workers on campus as well as school psychologists and counselors,” said Fuentes, who is running for the District 1 seat (Edison High area).
Improving programs for students, especially African American and English Language Learners, is paramount, said Keshia Thomas, who is running against Fuentes. Ensuring parents have the resources they need to help their kids is also important, she said.
“We need to make sure teachers are trained to help parents and lead them in the right direction and show them what different programs there are,” Thomas said.
One of the barriers Valerie Davis sees is the delay in reclassifying English Learner students as English Fluent Proficient.
“The greatest challenge is redesignating them when they have met the criteria to be in regular classes,” said Davis, the incumbent in District 3 (Sunnyside High area).
Reducing class sizes and increasing the number of paraeducators in classrooms are priorities for District 3 challenger Karl Diaz in closing the achievement gap.
“We need to spend money equitably if we are going to lift these kids up,” said Diaz.
Washington Unified School District
In Washington Unified School District, Melvin Sanders, who is running to unseat Incumbent Darrell Carter in Area 5, said hiring more teachers that look like the students they are teaching can go a long way in improving student academic success.
“When you have someone kids can relate to, you can alleviate a lot of the problems that you have in the district in terms of learning and behavior,” Sanders said. “Eighty percent of the student population in Washington are kids of color, yet 80 percent of the people who are calling the shots and in the classroom don’t look like them so we are going to have to make that adjustment so that we make it more equitable and get a greater benefit from our dollars that we spend.”