There can be no more excuses or pleadings for more time from Fresno Unified about its terrible academic performance.

Never has the district had more tools to accelerate student learning.

Listen to this article:

Portrait of GV Wire News Director Bill McEwen

Bill McEwen


Labor Peace, Big Budget, Stable Leadership

The district enjoys unprecedented labor peace — the result of a three-year contract agreed to last summer.

The board of trustees rewarded superintendent Bob Nelson with a four-year contract last October. Since 2005, Fresno Unified has had just two superintendents. No one can argue that instability at the top hinders academic progress.

Under Gov. Jerry Brown, the state began directing more funding to school districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged students.

As a result, Fresno Unified’s 2019-20 budget is $1.475 billion, half of which is in its unrestricted general fund.

Voters Pass $1 Billion in Construction Bonds

If Measure M continues above the 55% threshold, district voters will have approved four construction bond measures since 2001 totaling more than $1 billion. The state has kicked in hundreds of millions more in matching funds for school construction projects.

Fresno Unified taxpayers have been more than loyal to the cause of helping students learn. But, at this point, patience isn’t a virtue. Instead, it’s another barrier for students who are poor, English learners, special needs, or homeless.

Those who regularly attend Fresno Unified board meetings know that trustees and officials spend a lot of time celebrating success. That’s commendable.

But when only 12.1% of students started this school year at grade level or above in math, and just 18.9% were at grade level or above in reading, school board meetings should focus almost entirely on student achievement.

Saddest of all, few people apparently care. Results that should outrage the community are ignored or met with a shrug.

Fifteen Years After ‘Choosing Our Future,’ Little Has Changed

In 2005, the stat de jour was, more than half of Fresno Unified schools ranked in the bottom 10% of California schools for academic achievement. Community leaders reacted by studying the district from top to bottom and issuing the Choosing Our Future report.

From this day forward, Fresno Unified must drop its Too Big to Fail attitude and prove that it’s Not Too Big to Succeed.

“If we are to turn around the social and economic prospects of our region, the process must begin with turning our schools around,” the report said.

Fifteen years later, 96% of McLane High School’s 1,800 students started this school year below grade level in math. Nearly 81% were below grade level in reading. Other high schools have only slightly better numbers.

The families of McLane students should storm every district board meeting, but they don’t. And, absent widespread demand for accountability, the state’s third largest school district carries on, business as usual.

Our city can’t afford business as usual.

As former Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Larry Powell wrote in a 2018 op-ed about Fresno Unified’s shortcomings:

“We know that 80% of new jobs will require some form of post-secondary training. It’s critical that students who graduate (from) high school are prepared to choose college or trade school. It has been reported that 65%  of students entering school today will have jobs that do not yet exist.

“By 2030, over 400 million workers may be displaced by automation, meaning even more students will need higher skills to compete in a global economy. Also, California will be short 1.1 million college graduates to fill new and existing jobs that require a higher education.”

Photo of young students raising their hands in a classroom

An entire generation of students has matriculated through Fresno Unified since the 2005 “Choosing Our Future” report. But the district continues to struggle despite strong financial support from local and state taxpayers. (Shutterstock)

Social Promotion Inflates Graduation Rate

Meanwhile, Fresno Unified cranks out high school graduates with D averages. They are promoted from one grade to the next even if they read at a third-grade level and can’t do simple math.

Meanwhile, Fresno Unified cranks out high school graduates with D averages. They are promoted from one grade to the next even if they read at a third-grade level and can’t do simple math. That doesn’t help students or their families. But it does enable Fresno Unified to brag about its 87.6% graduation rate.

That doesn’t help students or their families. But it does enable Fresno Unified to brag about its 87.6% graduation rate.

When the district and the Fresno Teachers Association announced their three-year contract, trustee Keisha Thomas said, “This is the start of a new era.”

When does the new era begin?

An entire generation of students has matriculated through Fresno Unified since Choosing Our Future.

How many more generations must come and go before a majority of students graduate well-prepared for a job or college?

Show Real Progress or Break up the District

Nelson’s contract ends in 2023. If Fresno Unified isn’t showing significant progress by then, the district should be divided into smaller, more nimble districts. Districts that put student learning first and preserving the bureaucracy last, and can effectively engage with students and families.

Unlike past calls for the district’s dissolution from north Fresno stakeholders, the charge should be led by families with children in the dozens and dozens of failing schools in south and central Fresno.

From this day forward, Fresno Unified must drop its Too Big to Fail attitude and prove that it’s Not Too Big to Succeed.

Shame on us if nothing changes. A community with less than high expectations for its schools can hardly complain about second-rate results.

16 Responses

  1. prudence hutton

    Let’s choose a real future for those 81% of students READING BELOW GRADE LEVEL. Thank you for continuing to bring lack of academic improvement to the community’s attention for 15 years. It’s Wake Up Time to improve academics for all the students left behind now that 3 Bond Issues have been passed. Time to teach those 81% children to READ at grade level or to the best of their cognitive abilities.

  2. David McKinley

    The schools are not failing. Parents are failing their children. Fresno has awful parenting. Many parents don’t hold their kids accountable either because they don’t know how because of lack of education or they don’t care. Many children in these so called failing schools come from households where they were never read to or talked to before school started. They enter school not knowing the simple things that should have been taught at home or many times start school not speaking English. They start out behind and never get caught up. Many parents don’t parent. A lot of them are never involved other that when they are summoned because of discipline reasons. The children don’t get a quiet place to do homework. They don’t get someone at home checking to make sure they are getting their work done because many times there is no one at home that is educated enough to help them. Social promotion is a huge problem. The kids know that they don’t have consequences for failing until they get slapped in the face with it in high school. Even then, with grade inflation, few that deserve to fail actually fail. There is also an awful discipline problem in all of Fresno Unified. There are hundreds of students that ruin classrooms on a daily basis and nothing can be done with them.
    If you have a cure for apathy and bad parenting you will have fixed everything wrong with the students and parents in Fresno. The schools are not failing.

    • Scott Troescher

      If you are a teacher, as I presume, Mr. McKinley, what are you doing to help your students catch up? Extra time with kids at lunch?? Before school help? Or have you just given up and punch out at 3:15 like MANY FUSD professionals do. These schools DO have problems. Top to bottom. Those issues CAN be addressed in-house. Your not going to get parents interested or excited unless the product is better and the engagement between staff and parents is encouraged and nurtured. Th’aint no Parent Police gonna make house calls !!

      • David

        Your blanket statement is false. Where did you get your information from that many teachers don’t care.

    • Karl Diaz

      Some kids don’t have Ozzie and Harriet at home. Hence, teachers are asked to fill this gap. I agree with you that someone needs to take responsibility that is the point of this article, that we as a community must step up and ask for true accountability or break the monolith into something more manageable. With $1.6 Billion FUSD should lower the student teacher ratio especially since teachers are often asked to be both educator and parent.

  3. Susan Wittrup

    Our fractured school board has left students stranded in mediocracy.

  4. Andyfab

    Keisha Thomas must be one of the most disrespectful board trustees since Tony Vang was president. She interrupts people who are speaking at the podium or is shows disrespect by not listening and instead converses with Islas causing more disruption. She’s isn’t a very good example of how black people would want to be depicted. She acts like the girl in class who, rather than listening to the teacher would rather be disruptive by talking to her neighbor in class. Too bad. Makes one wish for the return of Cal Johnson. At least he just sat there quietly and slept while being ineffective.

  5. Monadnock Man

    Get rid of the unions, reduce draconian policies. Returning to tried and true academic instruction, which means get back to teaching history, civics, and stop adapting to foolish dribble from university professors who write nonsensical papers to make a buck with liberalist dribble from DC and Sacramento (the worst violator). Advance degrees, without question, do not create a successful school system! Leadership is the major problem as few to none have ever worked in private industry. Thus leadership is the failing component! It seems that the elitist at the district is isolated from reality while enjoying their massive paychecks and lifetime benefits with limited oversight!

  6. Jenos

    Another attempt to rationalize Northern schools taking their ball and going home, leaving the “nimble” smaller districts to the south to fend for themselves.

  7. Joe Barron

    I do so enjoy the painting with a wide brush that Mr. McEwen has been so adept at. No mention that schools set their targets, especially the high schools, and they are heavily scrutinized by the District Leadership, the Board of Education, the County office of Education, the State Department of Education and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. However, he would expect the public to be outraged at the notion that the district controls the practice of social promotion or graduating students with a “D” average is ridiculous. The statutory requirements to grant a student credits for a grade of “D” and social promotion are beyond a district’s control, and he knows that. Finally, Mr. McEwen talks of failing schools in South and Central Fresno. I notice he has judiciously avoided that Bullard High missed its accreditation targets in 2018, was put on Probation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges[which I have the letter and report for] , and may be at risk of losing their accreditation as public high school to issue diplomas? Yet we hear no word of that or comment from the albino kai-ju trustee for area 7. Only fluff pieces from gvwire on how he has perfect attendance at Board meetings.

  8. Bill Thacker

    You have outside agendas ripping away and stirring the pot. They distract and hijack about good education for a “social justice” message like the controversial mandate to teach tolerance and acceptable life style of LGBTQ -transgender etc., then the political social justice agenda of known troublemakers like Stacy W. humorously labeling herself ‘Community Organizer” trying to recall Slatic and stir the pot as she tried at City Hall on numerous issues.
    Stacy has no children in Fresno Unified and doesnt appear on property tax rolls …she has no skin in the game except to take up valuable time and resources. Her agenda is political disruptive behaviors promoting the same and has no teaching credential or college degree besudes some classes at Fresno City College. . Lets leave politics and PC at home and get back to teaching children STEM or STEAM . Parents are not the same as they were 25 years ago. They no longer teach accountability or being responsible. Its now about blaming others …the best school cand students are those where the parents are active 100% .
    For Christ sakes they dont get up and even cook their child breakfast or lunch why bother? Good ole taxpayers will pay for it. Start them young learning that government socialist handout programs are the best and give excuses and reasons for being failures and weak.
    Education empowers you to greatness. the socialists want to blame society for their failures …or political party, skin color or religion…even zip code. Public education is free in the USA subsidized off of our property taxes. Children don’t even have to be American citizens to take advantage of this. Let educators teach and lets stop distracting with PC and other political agendas.
    If anything we should have more parenting resource classes.
    Stop giving media attention to Stacy W. This all she craves is attention. her numerous protests and the selfies are indictive of her lack of education and self-esteem. Why would anyone be surprised she fully supported CAIRs speaking engagement with controversial Linda Sarsour who is so radical even the women March movement kicked her out. If there us an anti-police, anti-American or anti- Fresno protest you will always find Stacy W. And her big blabbermouth in the middle stirring the pot of anger, hatred and blaming

  9. Jack Jarvis

    This is long overdue. The district puts pressure on principals to cut down on teachers giving too many “D’s and F”s. They refuse to crack down on students who disrupt classrooms in middle school and high school, leading to similar behaviors to trickle down into the elementary schools. The elementary math program the district spent millions on is misused because teachers were never trained to use the tech tools and video lessons which would engage students in their own learning. In addition, students can “recover” credits to graduate by going to school on Saturdays. Who is teaching these programs and what are they doing?
    And yes, parents share some blame, but it is not the parent’s job to teach. The district needs to stop celebrating and get to work reflecting on their practices, Academics need to come FIRST.

  10. Phil

    This is a multi-tiered problem with no silver bullet. There is a lack of accountability with all parties involved, administrations, teachers, parents, students, and yes, the district. I agree that the district should be broken up into smaller more nimble districts. I also believe that charter schools, such as Dailey Elementary, Valley Prep, University High, etc. are setting an example as being student focused centers of education with high accountability on all sides. These are the schools in Fresno that seem to be doing it right. Unfortunately, with a district so large, introducing accountability into the system at this point would be near impossible with the power that the union has.

    • Joe Barron

      They get to have their pick of the litter. Also, you might note that the schools you have cited as your examples have virtually non-existent sped populations[so their support mechanisms are more individualized] . Ever wonder why that is? have you ever seen a Special Day Class at any of those schools? Keep in mind, that placement doesn’t exclude you from graduation track or core curriculum.

  11. Alicia

    Fresno Unified has the highest student poverty rate in California…some things cant be fixed in 180 days with 6 hours of instruction


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

We've got issues, and we're willing to share
(but only if you want them in your inbox).