Fresno Unified is getting ready to reopen a high school dedicated to special education students after the holiday break.

To prepare for the students’ return to Florence Rata High School on Jan. 7, teachers and other staff are spending a few days unpacking boxes and organizing their classrooms.

During the 18-month renovation, McLane High School hosted Rata’s teachers and students. Rata school serves students in grades 9-12 and adults up to age 22 with developmental disabilities.

“It is a little bit overwhelming, but I can’t wait until the first day when the students get back in,” said Julia Smith, who teaches in the school’s adult transition program. “I want to see what their expressions are like when they come in to see all of the shiny newness we have.”

Scope of Renovations

Some of that shiny newness includes two new additional classrooms, two fully-equipped nursing stations, a conference room, and spaces for laundry and support.

“It is a little bit overwhelming, but I can’t wait until the first day when the students get back in.” — Julia Smith, adult transition program teacher at Rata High School

The district also remodeled the school’s existing 10 classrooms, two life-skills kitchens, and installed fully accessible restrooms in every classroom on the campus at 1373 W. Mesa Avenue.

To accommodate wheelchairs and other accessibility equipment, Fresno Unified widened and automated all doors to the school, and improved fencing and gates for security.

Additionally, the district extended and widened an outdoor walking track, installed new concrete walls for access to play courts and exercise apparatuses, and modified the bus loading and unloading area.

Special Ed Is Under a Microscope

The district funded the $5.2 million renovations with Measure X funds  — a $225 million school bond measure voters approved in November 2016.

Staff at Rata High School unpack boxes and organize classrooms for the Jan. 7 reopening.

The completion of renovations come at a time when the district is under criticism for not properly funding special education.

Criticism reached its peak at FUSD’s Nov. 14 school board meeting where former trustee Brooke Ashjian and Superintendent Bob Nelson debated on whether a $1 million supplementary spending proposal on special education was sufficient.

The Rata renovations are a big step forward, said board president Claudia Cazares. She voted against the Nov. 14 spending proposal, saying funds should go to hiring more staff.

“I think it is a blessing,” Cazares said of the renovations. “Much needed and long awaited from our special education students and their very patient families.”

Sarah Ogilvie, a teacher, said the renovations were definitely needed. If not for Rata, she said, a lot of her students wouldn’t be able to go to school.

“Some of our kids are so medically fragile that they cannot be on a general education campus,” Ogilvie said.

Teachers Glad To Be Back

During renovations, students, teachers, and other staff members relocated to McLane High.

“It is nice to be back (at Rata) so now we can do more things together.” — Latoya Chatmon, adult transition program teacher at Rata High School

Given that Rata educates students with developmental and physical disabilities, Latoya Chatmon said teaching and learning at McLane presented challenges.

“McLane made it a little bit difficult to do certain activities, but they adjusted really well,” said Chatmon, an ATP teacher. “It is nice to be back (at Rata) so now we can do more things together.”

After seeing the updated campus, Ogilvie said the wait was worth it.

“To have a place to call our own, to call home is really nice,” she said. “We are very grateful.”

To celebrate the school’s reopening, there will be an open house Feb. 8. The open house will include entertainment, food trucks, and tours.

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