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District Hopes Its Struggling High Schoolers Will Sign Up for New Winter Break Session

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Fresno Unified high schoolers who need extra time to pull their grades up from Ds and Fs will have the option of a few extra weeks of schooling over the Christmas holiday break.

Winter session will be offered districtwide for the first time starting Dec. 21, said Jeremy Ward, executive officer of the district’s office of college and career readiness.

Unlike intercessions at the collegiate level, which are new courses offered between regular semesters, Fresno Unified’s winter session will target seniors who are at risk of not graduating because of failing grades and other high schoolers struggling to make the grade, Ward said.

Having a failing grade doesn’t just put a dent in a student’s grade-point average — it can also keep them from enrolling in elective programs, such as visual and performing arts or career technical education, that often give high schoolers a firsthand look at career options.

Students who have to make up failed classes can be shut out of those options, Ward said.

Staying On Track to Graduate

Of the district’s 19,271 high schoolers, more than 1,300 have already been identified after having failed at least one semester in a graduation-required course and will be encouraged by their teachers or other school staff to enroll in winter session to make up credits, he said.

And, Ward said, “in light of the challenging nature of distance learning” district officials are anticipating that a few hundred more may have failing grades this semester, which ends in a little over a week.

Although Fresno Unified is launching winter session this year just for high schoolers, it may be expanded in future years to include other grade levels, he said.

The district is using the Edgenuity online curriculum that allows students to learn at their own pace and teachers to individualize instruction for each student, Ward said.

He said he hopes that students will be able to get teachers from their own high schools, but some mingling of students from different schools might be necessary to balance online classes.

Fresno Unified is shifting $500,000 to $600,000 that it had budgeted for Saturday Academy, an attendance-recovery program that is not being held during school closures, to cover the potential cost of winter session classes, he said.

Closing Learning Gaps

In the past, anywhere from 30% to 40% of freshmen would fail algebra, English language arts, or a science class, a statistic that isn’t unique to Fresno Unified, Ward said.

Distance learning has only increased challenges for students and forced educators to look at different approaches to help students close their learning gaps, he said.

“We knew that there needed to be some different supports and systems in place to support the increased number of students that are struggling academically,” Ward said. “And that was another reason behind the winter session.”

Some might argue that students shouldn’t get an extra opportunity, but school isn’t just about learning material in a set amount of time, especially during distance learning, Ward said.

“It comes down to this age-old question of what is most important,” he said. “Is it most important that the students actually learn and demonstrate that they’ve learned it, or is it most important that they’ve learned it in the time that we’ve given them to learn it? And where we are as a system, we’re always going to lean into is that it’s most important that a student is able to demonstrate that they’ve learned. Some need more time.”

More Changes Coming

Winter session is just one of the changes that Fresno Unified has in store, which includes expanding the summer school program to provide credit recovery as well as enrichment during the long summer break, Ward said.

He noted that the school calendar in the U.S. is based on the old agrarian calendar that made students available to help with family farms over the summer, but other developed nations have adopted schedules with shorter breaks during the school year that helps students stay on track.

Winter session will include some time off for students and their teachers — they will get Christmas and New Year’s Day off, plus Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Winter session will start on Dec. 21 and end on Jan. 7.

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