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Former NFL Player Returns Home to Open ‘Disneyland of Schools’ in Fresno



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Robert Golden knows what it’s like to be an inner-city kid in Fresno who lives only an hour or two from mountains and ocean but has never seen Yosemite Falls or swum in the Pacific. Like many of them, Golden dreamed as a child of playing professional sports when he grew up.

He made it — Golden played six years in the NFL — but he was the exception.

“I always tell people I want to create the Disneyland of schools, where every child will want to be and succeed.”Robert Golden, president and CEO of Golden Charter Academy

Not every kid can grow up to be a pro athlete or pop music star, and Golden says they need to know that they can have other dreams. First, they need to broaden their horizons.

The Fresno native, who has returned to his hometown after playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs, wants to build a new charter school that would expose students to different occupations and ways of learning in a different kind of classroom — Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

“I always tell people I want to create the Disneyland of schools, where every child will want to be and succeed,” said Golden, the school’s president and CEO. “If they’re engaging at school and they’re loving what they’re doing, when they’re enjoying themselves while they’re at school, then the sky’s the limit for them to be willing to learn and also take those risks and be the first one in their family to make it to college.”

Golden said the charter petition for Golden Charter Academy was presented Friday to Fresno Unified School District. He hopes the School Board may schedule a public hearing on the petition at the Nov. 18 board meeting and then vote on it at the Dec. 9 meeting.

District spokeswoman Vanessa Ramirez said Friday that the public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 9 and the vote for Jan. 13.

Barring any unforeseen delays, Golden said, the K-8 charter school will open next August with students in kindergarten through third grade.  Son Robert Jr., now 4, will be one of the kindergartners.

Headshot of Scott Barton

“From a very early age, we get them to love education and learning, using animals as a foundation for that.”Fresno Chaffee Zoo CEO Scott Barton

Zoo Was Looking for School Partner

Fresno Chaffee Zoo has long been looking for opportunities to expand its role in education, and Golden’s charter school proposal looks to be an “ideal partnership,” said Scott Barton, the zoo’s CEO.

The zoo already works with local school districts to bring students for zoo field trips and also hosts Fresno State research projects, including analyzing water quality.

Experiential learning is important for students of ages, but especially for younger students in the K-8 range who can develop a love for learning when they are inspired by their surroundings, Barton said.

They’ll learn science, such as biology, chemistry, and the environment, but also will have the opportunity for art, writing stories, internet research, nutrition, geography, and a host of other academic disciplines, he said.

“There are so many ways we can use the natural interest that children have in animals,” he said. “From a very early age, we get them to love education and learning, using animals as a foundation for that.”

And Fresno Chaffee Zoo can widen children’s horizons with its international links, which have included video conferences with partner biologists studying elephants in Tanzania and tapirs in Brazil, Barton said.

Showing Kids They Have Options

Widening horizons is one of Robert Golden’s goals for his namesake school.

Golden said he went on occasional field trips to Fresno Chaffee Zoo while he was attending Lincoln Elementary and Carver Middle School. But for his family, as it is for many families in southwest Fresno, regular zoo trips weren’t in the budget.

As a standout football player at Edison High School who was being recruited by a number of colleges and universities, Golden started traveling and getting exposure to different people, places, and cultures.

“I was able to see what life was like outside of my rough neighborhood that I grew up in,” he said. “It kind of just inspired me to want more in life. And that’s kind of why I wanted to put this school together, to be able to give our children that same exposure to life that is outside of their neighborhood.”

He enrolled at the University of Arizona, played cornerback and safety on the football team, earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies with an emphasis on social and human behavior, and then played for the Steelers from 2012 to 2017.

Golden’s Plan B: Start A Charter School

Golden Charter Academy’s website includes photos of what classes at Fresno Chaffee Zoo could look like. (Golden Charter Academy)

He wrapped up his NFL career after a few months with the Kansas City Chiefs and was already eyeing his next goal — starting a charter school to provide new academic opportunities for children from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Golden said the school’s environmental curriculum is being shaped in part by Rosanna Ruiz, a Fresno State College of Health and Human Services lecturer, with a focus on STEM coursework — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Parent engagement will be mandatory.

The charter is being guided by local educators with broad experience as Fresno-area education consultants, including project manager Brad Huff and senior adviser Ed Gonzalez.

Huff was the founding head of school for University High School and project director of the Valley Arts and Science Academy, a K-8 charter in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood just north of downtown Fresno. Gonzalez is a former Madera Unified superintendent who previously worked as a Fresno Unified associate superintendent.

The charter board’s vice president is Keshia Thomas, president of the Fresno Unified School Board and Golden’s mother-in-law.

Learning Will Be Personalized

Students will learn through place-based education and “universal design for learning,” an educational framework that personalizes education for each child. For example, Golden said, students would have options besides writing a five-page book report about a book they’ve read.

“They would now have the ability to demonstrate what they have learned from that book in different ways, whether that’s doing a speech, a PowerPoint or a drawing,” he said. “Whatever their strengths are for learning, they will be able to demonstrate that. And I believe that is the access that we’re going to be creating for children to have a successful future, by not setting them up for failure at school.”

The plan is to open with students in kindergarten through third grade and then add a grade level each subsequent year until the school has grades kindergarten through eight, topping off with an enrollment of about 400 students, Golden said. Each grade level will have two classes of no more than 22 students with a teacher and assistant or mentor overseeing each class, he said.

When it opens the school will be in leased facilities near the zoo, but Golden’s goal is to build a state-of-the-art, high tech building across the street from the zoo so students can walk there every day. Once the charter is approved, he said, the school can start looking for its first principal, hiring staff, and seeking grants to help underwrite the new school.

As a public charter, Golden Charter Academy would be open to all students, but Golden wants to make sure that students from southwest Fresno and neighborhoods around the zoo have priority for enrollment.

“When I talk about the school, I talk about the matrix,” he said. “A matrix is an environment in which something is developed. And if you’re talking about children that come from underserved communities that are living in poverty and their families grew up in these underserved communities and in poverty, how can we expect those children to have hope for their future when all they know is all they see?”

Not The First Zoo School

But we think that when they’re engaged with their interests, they’re going to be more motivated students. And we’ve seen that many times, where they might struggle at another school, but when they come here, they do very well.” — James Blake, Lincoln, Neb. Zoo School principal

Golden Charter Academy is not the first charter with a zoo connection in California, according to Ana Tintocalis, director of media relations and research for the California Charter Schools Association. The Los Angeles Zoo had a charter school on site some years ago, but it has since closed, she said.

North Hollywood High School is the host school for a Zoo Magnet Center that’s located in an overflow parking lot of the Los Angeles Zoo and is one of hundreds of Los Angeles Unified School District specialty programs, center coordinator Brie-anna Molina said.

The program, which has been operating there since 1981, is open to all Los Angeles Unified high school students, some of whom travel by bus two hours each day to reach the campus, said Molina, a graduate of the magnet program who returned seven years ago as a science teacher.

The Zoo Magnet is popular — about 300 apply each year for one of the first-year student spaces that can range from 65 to 95 students, with a few older students joining upper classes when there is room. The program’s total enrollment this year is 315 students, Molina said.

Because they are already interested in science, they connect more readily with their teachers and classwork, which can include assistant zookeeper internships when they are seniors, she said. The majority of Zoo Magnet graduates head off to a University of California or California State University campus and major in science, she said.

Other Zoo Schools

Elsewhere in the U.S., Asheboro High School in North Carolina has a Zoo School for about 130 students who take some classes on the high school campus and others at the North Carolina Zoo. It was modeled on the Lincoln, Neb. Public Schools Science Focus Program, otherwise known as Zoo School, at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

James Blake, director of Strategic Initiatives and Focus Programs for Lincoln Public Schools and principal of the Science Focus Program, said the school system decided 23 years ago to provide more choices to students by creating focus programs that have smaller classes, focused curriculum, and strong connections between students and their teachers over the four years of high school.

View of Lincoln Children’s Zoo from science classroom in “Zoo School” in Lincoln, Neb. (Science Focus Program/James Blake)

Lincoln’s high schoolers start their day at their home schools and then take a bus to the zoo grounds and their new state-of-the-art classroom building, which opened two years ago. Right now there are 93 students but there are plans to expand the enrollment to 125, Blake said.

There are no academic requirements to enroll, but the program does tend to attract more gifted students — 40% — compared to the district’s average of about 11%, Blake said. About 90% of the program’s graduates head off to college, compared to the district’s average of about 60%, he said.

“We have students of various abilities here, so their grades may not be the best, or their attendance may not be the best. But we think that when they’re engaged with their interests, they’re going to be more motivated students,” Blake said. “And we’ve seen that many times, where they might struggle at another school, but when they come here, they do very well.”

Golden said he expects the same thing will happen with Golden Charter Academy’s students.

“With us being an environmental school, we’re going to be able to teach them what is out there in life and also how to make our world a better place and give them that exposure to the mountains, to the San Joaquin River, to the Yosemite National Park, to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo and every other conservation entity that is around our Valley, just to let kids know what’s out there and what’s out there for them to dream of.”

Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email