Bob Nelson begins his third year as superintendent of Fresno Unified radiating his trademark optimism but with eyes wide open and hands gripping a full plate of big challenges.
“This is the single greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” the superintendent says about leading California’s third-largest school district. “And it’s unabashedly the most difficult thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life.”
I sat down with Nelson to discuss the state of Fresno Unified and where the district and its 74.000 students are headed for the 2019-20 school year. His answers have been edited for clarity and continuity.
(Watch the video to see his answers to more questions.)
What do you know now about the superintendent’s job that you didn’t know before?
That the only thing I can control is my own resiliency. With a district this size, you can’t anticipate everything that’s going to go sideways or where things are going to go. So your orientation has to be I’m going to wake up tomorrow, and I’m going to keep plugging away.
You mentioned Fresno Unified’s size. Should it be split into two or three districts?
We’re actually kind of in the middle (among the nation’s large urban districts). New York City is a million kids. Clark County (Nevada) has 320,000. In Florida, generally, your entire county is your district. So, there are bigger models and there are smaller models. There is value in size because the economy of scale provides a lot of benefits. But it also creates a bureaucracy which, as you know, can be ungainly and hard to manage.
I really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about (splitting the district). I want us to be better in the size that we are. That’s really a question better asked of the electorate. People have explored it in times past. If they wanted to go a completely different direction, that would kind of decide it for me. It’s really about communities deciding what they want.
Trustee Terry Slatic says you can graduate from Fresno Unified with a 1.0 GPA. True?
It’s the same question you asked in high school. Can I pass this class with a D? Yes, you can. Can you pass the system with all D’s? Potentially, you could. But that’s not what we want for any kid. We would never hold that up as a bar to get over.
And we’re doing things differently now so that we can really drill down on the specific needs of the kid. If you’re behind grade level, we’re finding out why and matching the instruction to make things better.
What are you doing to improve classroom discipline?
Of all the major urban (districts) statewide, we suspend more kids than anybody else. It’s not an area of success for us. Our implementation of restorative practices was a mess in some spots and, in some other places, it was very good.
You need an atonement portion for the wrong that was committed as well as a restorative portion. It’s about setting up a structure so that (bad behavior) is not going on forever and you understand the impact of what you’ve done. In some cases, we just made the restoration the accountability structure and that’s not sufficient.
At the same time, you’re not likely to punish kids into long-term change. Suspension is not a deterrent if you’re going to go home and play video games. That’s why discipline is really a two-pronged effort.
Will the district try any pilot discipline programs?
There’s some discussion about trying something different. I don’t want to warehouse kids. I don’t see that as productive time. But if they’re placed in an alternative setting and something productive is happening, I’d be supportive of that. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. Gone are the days where we think we have the panacea answer to everything, and we’re going to impose it on people just like hitting the easy button. That doesn’t work.
Many educators are impressed by the turnaround of Miami-Dade in Florida. Is Fresno Unified looking at what works there?
A lot of people talk about Miami-Dade, and we’ve been talking to them on the phone. So we’re going to find out what they’re doing there. Where Miami-Dade has really driven its stake into the ground is how they support their principals. We’re not talking just to Miami-Dade but also other (successful districts).
How do rate Fresno Unified’s progress?
You have to tell the message that Fresno Unified lags behind. If you don’t tell that, you’re not telling the truth. But you also have to tell the narrative that Fresno Unified is moving forward in every subgroup (of students). And we did it again this year — in language arts, math, and the graduation rate. … I make no apologies about what we’ve done so far. The trajectory is in the right direction.
I agree that test scores don’t tell the whole story, but I also have to tell my @fresnounified family members- double digit growth as a system, over 5 years, in both ELA and Math, and across all grades? That’s rock star quality growth!#ThankYou #ItAintBraggingIfItsTrue pic.twitter.com/aF8yq1tcAe
— Bob Nelson (@BobNelson_FUSD) August 6, 2019
There is more on the trustees’ Measure X projects list than the bond can fund. Will there be a new bond?
We’re thankful that our community has supported us on previous bond measures. My intent would be not to raise the tax rate on people who are already struggling to make ends meet. We are not a super robust economic community — yet. Extending the tax rate, I think, would be good. So then you have to figure out what could you do if you extended the tax rate without raising it.
We will pay the money to have polling conducted to figure out what the electorate really feels. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time or effort. We’re also going to explore whether 2020 would be viable and to do that we have to look at what else might be on the ballot. I don’t want to get caught up in the parks vs. public safety (debate).
Fresno Unified is relying on dozens of initiatives to help students. How many are effective? Why stick with them if they don’t work?
Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson-Rosas has been insistent that we analyze our initiatives, and rightfully so. When you’re trying to eliminate poverty, every dollar takes on that much more responsibility.
It’s a little hard to come up with a unifying structure to do a return-on-investment analysis for everything. So, we need an outside person to help us with that. We want to find out the value of extending the school day. What are you doing with the money you’re putting into restorative practices? How are you leveraging the dollars you put into social-emotional learning? What are the dividends from all the trainings we send people to?
You have my commitment that we’re going to bring in somebody to analyze all of our existing initiatives. We have to make sure what we’re doing has meaning and value.
Improving special education is a big district goal. Were you surprised by the pushback against some of last year’s proposals?
We now have the unique responsibility of implementing the $13.6 million (in new funding). That’s a substantive portion of our budget and a significant amount to do a lot of positive things.
One of the overarching messages (I’ve learned) is not appearing tone-deaf to the community. And do we hear the totality of what people are telling us to do? I think we’ve (since) made some hiring decisions that have surprised people and maybe changed the dynamic by bringing somebody in from the outside (Sean Virnig as special ed executive director). If you never change the mentality and you never expand the talent pool, it’s hard to think differently.
But the key thing is, we just have to create a situation where we’re responsive to people. That they trust we’re listening to them.
The wounds of the blackface and n-word social media posts involving two Bullard High students haven’t healed. What’s next?
The blackface issue triggered a lot of deep-seated pain. There’s a lot that has gone on for a lot of time in the Fresno community about race and it triggers a lot of angst.
I have a skill set as a leader that I can remain in an uncomfortable conversation about as long as anyone can. The level of conversation that’s going to be required in this situation is going to involve a lot of time and pain. But to make it better and to really change what are disproportionate outcomes in our system, we have to stay present with that conversation.
What are the challenges of educating students in a city with a digital divide?
When I was in fifth grade and doing a state report on Arkansas, I had to elbow my way to the encyclopedia rack to make sure I beat out the kid doing Alaska and the kid doing Alabama. There was just one set of encyclopedias.
Every kid can research — assuming they have access to the (technological) tools. So, how do we support them in terms of holding them accountable and giving them opportunities to learn? Generally speaking, kids and families have smartphones, but that doesn’t mean they have access to first-line technology. That is why we did the tablet distribution.
Honestly, even our state assessment system is all done on the basis of technology. So, we’re asking, how we can get Wi-Fi a little more broadly distributed across the city? You can debate whether that’s our core work … but we are about educating everybody.
You occupy Fresno’s hottest seat. How do you handle the pressure?
We call it Any Given Wednesday. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about being (fired). On some given Wednesday, in all likelihood, I will be blown out at some point. In the meantime, I want to do everything I can to move the ball as far as I possibly can. Superintendent (Michael) Hanson, before me, put the structure in place. My job is to build the culture, and the person behind me can knock it out of the park.
So, when I’ve overstayed my welcome on whatever Wednesday it will be, I can look in the mirror and say you’ve put in a good effort on the behalf of the city.