How do we transform Fresno Unified schools so that kids can’t wait to go to school every day? How do we turn schools into humanizing and intellectually vital places that ignite a lifelong love of learning, creativity, passion, and confidence? When we build that, achievement will soar.
In January, I wrote an op-ed about building stadiums at the five Fresno Unified high schools that don’t have them. Some might think the idea of building stadiums at every FUSD high school is like suggesting a kitchen remodel for a house that’s on fire. I see their point. Our school district is on fire.
It’s hard to see beyond the chronically low-test scores, the bad ventilation, and the crumbling facilities. An email to FUSD staff from top leadership about the recent Fresno Bee article on the district’s failure to provide safe air to breathe in classrooms started, “We are not fans of the comparison game between our district and neighboring districts.”
The Bee article was in-depth and hard-hitting. It exposed more than just bad air. There is a long-standing culture of systemic apathy and defensiveness from top FUSD leadership when high-stakes actions are needed to protect and nurture students. Indifference at this altitude is deadly. How do we heal it?
Students Require Our Support Today — not in Five Years
One solution is to capitalize on synergy, the combined effects of multiple moves designed to dramatically accelerate student achievement. Our children don’t have time to wait for one-dimensional approaches, taken one at a time, and rolled out over a five-year period. The ocean of FUSD cannot be filled with a garden hose approach. The storm we need will require decisive, simultaneous, and synergistic actions based on sound principles.
A growing body of peer-reviewed research finds a strong relationship between school facility quality and student achievement. There are significant correlations between poor structural, conditional and aesthetic attributes of school buildings (including lighting, temperature and thermal comfort, acoustics, and indoor air quality) and low student learning and achievement.
You might need a trigger alert. The alarming pictures of a Bullard High School locker room are only a snapshot of the longstanding, deplorable conditions that exist today in Fresno Unified schools, despite bond measures consistently passed to improve facilities. Pictures tell the story better than words can, particularly in the private spaces which are unseen by parents and the community. These pictures serve as a call to action for Fresno, whose prosperity is connected to the success of all district students.
I hope parents are appalled enough to demand immediate action. I hope school staff throughout Fresno Unified will shed fears of retaliation and start sharing pictures of the deplorable conditions their students face every day. I hope board trustees will take a closer look at the condition of schools in their regions. Exposure is also an impetus for change.
My Plan to Accelerate Student Achievement
With an annual budget of nearly $1 billion, almost double that of six years ago, abundant reserves in the bank, and more than $684 million of one-time federal and state pandemic funding on the way, FUSD has the funds to make significant investments in student achievement. Improving school facilities is one investment that pays strong returns. In Los Angeles Unified School District, improvements that raised a school facility’s overall environmental compliance rating from “worst” to “best” correlated with a 36-point average increase in a school’s Academic Performance Index, a nearly 6% increase. And that’s just one example.
As a school board candidate in the Bullard region, here’s my plan to accelerate student achievement and a love of learning in Fresno Unified:
- Hold the top administration accountable for results and oversight. Tie a name to every task and make it visible.
- Attract and hire the best and brightest teachers and leaders for our schools. Provide excellent instruction — done right the first time — to build sturdy pathways for vocational careers and college. Supplement academics with extracurricular activities and electives that cultivate passion, curiosity, creativity, and confidence.
- Provide strategic and targeted academic interventions for students who are struggling with reading, written language, and mathematics. The absence of meaningful academic interventions is a glaring deficiency that keeps students trapped in low achievement. After-school tutoring that does not target learning gaps is simply not effective for improving learning loss after COVID-19 shutdowns.
- Build state-of-the-art facilities and maintain beautiful, safe grounds that serve as community hubs.
- Develop partnerships with parents and community leaders to hold the district accountable. Give parents and teachers more say on important curricular decisions. The content of the curriculum should align with the values of the community.
When this election cycle ends, the drama and distractions in the boardroom won’t matter. What matters is what we do as a community to take care of our children, to make sure they receive the best education possible – to create the synergistic mix of essential conditions that makes every kid excited to be at school.
About the Author
Susan Wittrup, a school psychologist for 35 years with Fresno Unified School District, is running for the Bullard High-area seat on the school board.
GV Wire invites Fresno Unified parents, teachers, and trustee candidates to submit op-eds on how to elevate student achievement in California’s third-largest school district. Email submissions to email@example.com.