Like all the high schools in Fresno Unified School District, Bullard High School is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
But unlike all the others, which have six-year accreditations, Bullard’s is for two years and is probationary. Its return to full accreditation will depend on an action plan being implemented by school and district officials and a follow-up review by WASC next May.
Listen to this article:
Trustee Terry Slatic, who represents the Bullard area, said he’s concerned that the school’s and district’s efforts may be too little, too late. He said that “easily a dozen” veteran Bullard teachers have told him they fear the school could lose its accreditation altogether, putting students at risk of graduating from an unaccredited high school.
But Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson told GV Wire this week that there’s “zero chance” of that happening. Nelson said he’s confident that Bullard will be able to show progress to WASC reviewers as a result of the work now taking place at the high school.
Report Points to Improvement Needs
WASC gave the northwest Fresno high school a probationary accreditation in 2018 after a site visit and report by the reviewing committee revealed a number of shortcomings, some self-identified by Bullard and others identified by the visiting committee.
The high school identified in its self-study four critical areas needing improvement:
- Provide more support for students in meeting college entrance (A-G) requirements and career technical education programs;
- Improve teacher professional development to focus on high quality instruction, school culture, alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, and “social emotional competencies”;
- Develop a stronger sense of community among students, staff, parents, and other stakeholders to boost students’ sense of belonging;
- Develop a technology plan that will help teachers meet the educational needs of students and help students meet their educational goals.
The visiting committee made several recommendations, including improving communications schoolwide, focusing on attendance, and monitoring entrances and exits to reduce truancy and improve student safety. The committee also recommended that school leaders be committed to supporting working groups of teachers, schoolwide training, and keeping tabs on students’ academic needs.
Bullard has created and is implementing a WASC-approved action plan with growth targets to improve student academic performance and attendance, reduce suspensions, and provide students with more access to technology, district spokeswoman Vanessa Ramirez said.
The point man for implementing the plan is Bullard’s new principal, Johnny Alvarado, who started this summer. He replaced Carlos Castillo, now the district’s superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and professional learning.
When asked if Castillo’s new assignment was connected to the WASC report and Bullard’s probationary accreditation, Ramirez said it was not. Castillo had sought a district leadership role, and “based on his leadership skills and focus on improving student achievement,” he was promoted to instructional superintendent, she said.
Where’s the Accountability?
But Slatic questions why Castillo isn’t being held accountable for the probationary accreditation and for what Slatic says was a lack of follow-up to the report’s criticisms and concerns.
According to Slatic, Castillo failed to take action during his final year as Bullard’s principal. Responsibility for the action plan and follow-up with WASC was “dumped on Alvarado’s desk … ,” Slatic said. “He (Castillo) did absolutely nothing to set up his successor.”
Slatic said Alvarado is getting support from people outside Bullard who are familiar with WASC practices.
Nelson said it’s true that the district is identifying other staffers who have experience with WASC reports and action plans to assist Alvarado.
Alvarado also is in regular contact with a WASC-assigned adviser who is providing guidance and feedback, Ramirez said.
But Brian Wall, Fresno Unified’s instructional superintendent for secondary schools, said Slatic is incorrect when he says Castillo failed to act on the WASC report.
“Carlos Castillo had started work on every aspect of this and rolling it forward,” Wall said. “There’s still a lot to keep doing and get better at. But he started the whole process, communicating with his staff, but also setting up the aligned professional learning for teachers, to work with the … professional learning teams.”
The Buck Stops Here
If anyone should be held accountable for Bullard’s probationary accreditation, said Nelson and Wall, it’s themselves.
Nelson said that in hindsight he should have immediately appealed the WASC decision because he doesn’t believe Bullard deserves it. While he agrees with some of the report’s findings and knows there is room for improvement at Bullard, as there is at Fresno Unified’s other schools, Nelson says he thinks a different review team would have reached a different conclusion.
“Quite honestly, there are stellar schools that have a six-year (accreditation) and there’s schools that have really horrific academic outcomes that also have a six-year,” Nelson said. “And the difference is, are you kind of playing the game right? Are you filling out the form in the right way?
“It’s like becoming a California Distinguished School. Almost any school can do it if you can write the application in a way that resonates with people.”
Bullard is one of Fresno Unified’s higher-performing high schools, Wall said, which makes the probationary accreditation all the more baffling.
“I would say that Bullard is toward the top on all other academic indicators, state test scores, and things like that,” he said. “So it wasn’t that Bullard was on fire there.”
In its self-study, Bullard recognized those areas needing improvement, which was picked up by the WASC reviewers, Wall said.
And, Nelson added, “their narrative is that we’re not writing the plan in a way that they find palatable with regard to what their expectations are.”
Reviews Can Vary Widely
Nelson said he has firsthand knowledge that WASC reviews can be baffling — and inconsistent. When he was superintendent of Chawanakee Unified School District in Madera County, Minarets High School and Minarets Charter High School underwent WASC reviews. The two schools have the same campus, the same teachers, he said.
The charter high school got a three-year accreditation, the maximum allowed for a new school. But the high school was slapped with a one-year probationary accreditation, even though in most respects the two programs were identical, Nelson said.
“We’re like, ‘What the hell? You just evaluated the exact same program and you gave one of them a multi-year and you gave one of them a one-year?’ ” he said. “So we filed an appeal, and lo and behold, after the appeal we got a six-year.”
But no appeal was filed in Bullard’s probationary accreditation, which Nelson said was a mistake. He regrets not insisting on it.
“To some degree you want sites to be in charge of their own reality. And there’s value to that,” he said. “But when it goes south, the district needs immediately to step in and help. And we did not do that in this case.”
Bullard Community Still Struggling
Nelson said he understands the value of having an outside, independent agency do a thorough evaluation of schools on a regular basis. Accreditation is assurance for parents and taxpayers that standards are being upheld.
But the findings of the WASC visiting committee may also be a reflection of the political turmoil that continues to embroil Bullard, in part because of changing demographics that have made the student body more diverse.
A movement almost a decade ago to remove Bullard from Fresno Unified was followed by a proposal from teachers, concerned about student discipline and safety policies, to make Bullard a charter school. Neither proposal gained traction, but the concerns and unhappiness that sparked them have not dissipated.
“You hear that from people that have been detractors and really feel like Bullard would be better served to be out of the district,” Nelson said. “So I think there are folks that would use any kind of negative WASC process in order to tell a narrative that Bullard would be better served if they were not subsumed in this bigger bureaucracy which is Fresno Unified. Those dynamics have not changed at all.”