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How to Turn Fresno Unified Around? Get More Parents Involved in Kids’ Schooling



Merlin Dimas, seen here with neighbor Kayla Martinez, 11, and daughter Noemi Dimas, 12, takes a more hands-on approach with her younger children, including asking about grades and homework. (GV Wire/Albert Baker)
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What if the key to unlocking Fresno Unified’s academic potential has been hiding in plain sight?

  • Studies show that academic achievement gets a big boost when parents are involved.
  • Advocates say despite significant resources aimed at connecting with parents, Fresno Unified doesn’t do a good enough job with communication.
  • A lack of data and transparency also keeps parents from knowing how their children are performing, according to critics.

The district has spent millions of dollars on tutoring, mentoring, and literacy acceleration, but some believe that encouraging and increasing parents’ involvement and engagement in their children’s schooling will make a big difference.

Numerous studies show that academic achievement gets a big boost when parents are involved. A Harvard professor opines that increasing parental involvement by just 10% is a better investment than increasing school budgets by 10%.

So what’s keeping Fresno Unified parents from being more involved? What is the district doing to try to engage them? And why aren’t more parents outraged by the district’s longtime poor academic performance, which leaves it ranked near the bottom of other big city school districts nationwide and in California?

Parents and advocates say that despite the numerous resources provided by the district to connect with parents and families, the district still doesn’t do a good enough job with communications. They say emails continue to come only in English instead of the family’s native language, materials aren’t always translated in real time, or the materials are so laden in jargon as to be incomprehensible.

, GO Public Schools Fresno

Joanna Kendrick

“The district, they communicate a lot and some of the communication gets lost in translation or it’s not parent-friendly,” says Joanna Kendrick, executive director of GO Public Schools Fresno, an education advocacy nonprofit. “I know as an educator it’s easy to speak in educator jargon and that’s your day to day, but that’s not accessible to families.”

District officials point to the vast number of outreach efforts, while acknowledging that those efforts have been only somewhat successful in reaching parents.

This year, for example, the district gave away free tickets to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo and provided child care and free food to encourage attendance at neighborhood meetings seeking public input to help craft next year’s budget.

The district created Parent University more than a decade ago to assist with family learning, leadership, and engagement. Building from some of the lessons learned when schools were shut down during the pandemic, Fresno Unified is taking a new tack by shifting Parent University staff to spend more time at schools, where they have more contact with parents and school staff.

“We need to engage our parents in understanding what they want, what they need, not coming with a standard package of what we offer and what we think they need,” says Nikki Henry, the district’s chief spokesperson who oversees Parent University. “So I think post-COVID you have a much more flexible Parent University, you have a Parent University that’s going to move forward learning more from our parents than just trying to teach our parents.”

Parents Face Challenges

, Fresno Unified School Board

Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas

Board President Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas and Trustee Terry Slatic agree that many parents want to be involved in their children’s schooling, but the circumstances of their lives can get in the way.

“We live in a community that … is in poverty,” says Jonasson Rosas, who represents the Roosevelt region. “And asking for them to do one more thing when they’re struggling to put food on the table or to think about all kinds of other things, matters of life and death, especially now with the pandemic. It’s just one more thing that they just can’t focus on right now.”

“My perspective is they’re too busy keeping their heads above water. … Your average household income for 70% of Fresno Unified is $20,000 or less,” says Slatic, the Bullard region trustee. “And there’s language barriers as well.”

Even though the district provides a vast array of resources for parents to keep on top of their children’s academic progress, some are still unaware that their children struggle with their schoolwork, falling further and further behind. When they graduate from high school, they’re still reading at elementary grade levels, limiting their job prospects.

For years, Sheriff Margaret Mims has given literacy tests to inmates who read on average at the fourth-grade level, Slatic says.

“Where are they (the inmates) coming from? Us,” he says.

Communication Gaps

How can parents not know that their children aren’t ready for their next grade level but are being promoted anyway?

It comes back to that lack of communication and the failure to make sure parents fully understand what’s going on, parents and advocates say.

“They don’t have the information,” says Carmen Zamora, a Fresno Unified parent who is senior manager of community leadership for GO Public Schools Fresno. “They don’t know. Because if they knew … And that’s why an organization like GO also facilitates and presents data in a way that parents will understand it, so that they can see that data does tell the story.”

“I don’t know that a lot of the parents understand what those (standardized) scores mean. To them, all they see is their kid is progressing,” says parent Marcelino Valdez Jr., who is president of the Bullard High Parent Teacher Student Association. “It’s just a progression through this school system. If I’m a parent, I’m thinking, ‘OK, my kid’s doing pretty good. He went from first, second, third. He did that progression through 12th. And guess what? He graduated. My kid’s smart. My kid’s going places.’ ”

Parents can track their children’s grades and assignment completion through the ATLAS Parent Portal, an online platform provided by the district that requires internet access and digital skills.

More than half of Fresno Unified’s 73,000 students have at least one parent who has registered for the ATLAS Parent Portal, Henry says.

The parents that have signed on to ATLAS are fairly evenly distributed throughout the district. The McLane region has the most with 6,077 and the Edison region the least with 4,493, Henry says.

Fresno Unified ATLAS Parent Portal signups

Valdez says he logs into ATLAS pretty much daily to keep an eye on his children’s academic progress.

Merlin Dimas

But for Merlin Dimas, a Roosevelt region parent, ATLAS is still somewhat of a mystery. She was hoping to attend an ATLAS workshop class through Parent University, but in the meantime she has her two youngest daughters log in through their ATLAS student accounts and show her their grades.

“They not embarrassed to share even though it’s bad grades,” Dimas, a native of Guatemala City, says in English. “But I tell them, ‘You can do better. Come on, you can do it. That B can be an A. You don’t want a little minus in there? You want a plus in there?’ I try to push them to do a little better.”

Dimas said she thinks there needs to be more one-on-one pairings of parents like herself with younger moms who may not understand the importance of taking an active role in their children’s schoolwork or may be hesitant to try to help them.

“I have parents, they only speak Spanish, but I tell them anyway, if you flip cards or you do math or something, you don’t need to speak. You just flip the cards and help the kids. But they don’t have no interest,” Dimas says.

Parents Need to Be Involved

Numerous studies have shown that students whose parents take an interest in their school work are more successful academically — regardless of family income or background. According to “Building Successful Partnerships: A Guide for Developing Parent and Family Involvement Programs” published by the National PTA in 2000, the most accurate predicator of student success is directly connected to whether their home environment encourages learning, whether their parents encourage them and set high expectations that are reasonable for the child to meet, and whether the parents are involved in their education.

But many parents face challenges and barriers in helping their kids.

Valdez, who works as a financial adviser, says he grew up as an English language learner. His family didn’t have books at home  — he recalls his excitement when one of his friends got a set of encyclopedias that came with an extra book, and he asked if he could have it.

“I don’t know what letter it was. This is like one letter, and I’m reading everything about it, because I wanted to learn,” he says.

His parents helped when they could, but they had only gone as far as the sixth grade back home in Mexico. When he took advanced classes, he turned to his older sisters to help with his studies. And that, he says, robbed them of time they could have been spending on their own studies. It’s fairly common among Fresno Unified families that teenagers either have to take a job to help support the family or have to be responsible for younger siblings because their parents are working, Valdez says.

“It comes at the expense of doing their own (school) work, so they fall behind,” he says.

Marcelino and Yuliya Valdez go over schoolwork with their two sons, ages 6 and 8. (GV Wire/Albert Baker)

English Learner Parents Struggle

Students also can fall behind if they lack sufficient English fluency to keep up with their schoolwork. The district provides extra services for students learning English.

Parent Francisca Albas, who lives in the Sunnyside region, says she knows how important it is for students to be “reclassified” as English speakers by the sixth grade. Any later than that and they will struggle with the A-G high school courses that are required for admission to the University of California and California State University or with advanced placement (AP) classes, and they may be ineligible for elective classes.

, parent and GO Public Schools Fresno member

Francisca Albas

Albas, a native of southern Mexico and the mother of two Fresno Unified graduates and two Fresno Unified high schoolers, says one of her daughters had to miss out on taking folklorico dance, which she loves, in the seventh grade because her school thought she was still an English language learner. After talking to her daughter’s teacher and counselor, they checked her records and discovered she had in fact been reclassified.

Not only did she miss out on folklorico, she was kept out of more rigorous classes because the school felt she wouldn’t be able to handle them, Albas says in Spanish. She, like Dimas, is a member of GO Public Schools Fresno.

Parents Need to Partner with Teachers

The pandemic thrust parents into the role of teacher-principal while their children attended virtual classes. Did that experience make them realize that as parents, they also had a role to play in their children’s schooling, that it was important for them to be in partnership with teachers?

Possibly. But now that students are back in school, parents aren’t altogether certain of what their roles are, says Kendrick of GO Public Schools Fresno, which advocates for parent-driven academic improvements such as reclassifying English language learners and increasing the number of dual enrollment classes.

These days parents are not only tired — the pandemic added significantly to their workload — but they also are confused, Kendrick says.

“All of the yo-yo-ing has caused some parents to shut down. And we really feel like relationships need to be rebuilt and reestablished between parents and schools because of that burnout,” she says.

The pandemic has made it difficult to know exactly where students stand, and how much of a learning loss has occurred. The lack of data or data transparency also keeps parents from knowing where students are, Kendrick says.

Why aren’t more parents outraged by the district’s generally low academic performance?

“We see them (parents) get upset and they get ready to take action when they know,” she says. “But so many parents don’t know their child’s two or three years behind. It’s not being shared in a way that is really transparent and then urgent, right? Like, this is something we need to take care of right now.”

Trustee Terry Slatic

One way to help parents become aware that their children are struggling would be to end social promotion and require students to show they are at grade level in reading and math before promoting them to the next grade level, Slatic says.

He’s convinced that the district engages in some “corrupt” grade changes that enable the district to move students to the next grade level.

His solution? Fresno Unified should make sure that all students are performing at grade level before advancing. If that means attending a grade for a second year and/or mandatory summer school, the district should do whatever it takes to make sure students actually have a high school education when they pick up their diploma, Slatic says.

District officials haven’t been in favor of holding kids back. But they do acknowledge Fresno Unified can do a better job of communicating with parents.

For example, translating jargon into plain, easy-to-understand language is something that Parent University strives for, Henry says. With current and former Fresno Unified parents on staff, the website and other materials are reviewed for comprehensibility, she says.

“We have some of that expertise on our staff to really be conscious about the level of language that we’re putting out there, how much jargon that we’re using, how many acronyms we’re using.”

Translations Need Work

It’s not just the jargon that’s confusing parents. Although the district has done a better job in recent years in making sure that materials on the district website and with Parent University are provided in English, Spanish, and Hmong, communications break down when parents get emails that aren’t in their native language.

Parents who are farm laborers and work long hours already face many challenges, and the last thing they need is to try to decipher a message in English if they only speak Spanish, Albas says.

“Something that I have always asked personally is that the text messages, the emails should be sent in Spanish,” she says. “So that they can understand the information that is being given to them. Because I have had experiences personally where I have asked, and they don’t do it. They sent me emails in English, but I look for a way to know what they are informing me of, but like I said these parents can’t do this because they get home tired from work, and they open their emails or their text messages, but they don’t know what it says. I think it’s one of the most important tools for these parents.”

A proposal to require all notices, reports, statements, or records sent to parents or guardians be translated into the family’s primary language if 15% or more of students in an individual school or in an entire county speak a language other than English was introduced in the California Assembly this year. But AB 1838, authored by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-Orinda, was pulled from this year’s legislative lineup to provide time to collect more data, says Jordan Curley, Bauer-Kahan’s chief of staff.

Improving translation is key to better communications, given the large numbers of parents and students who come to Fresno Unified speaking Spanish, Hmong, Punjabi, or any of more than 59 languages.

A new translation service proposed for the 2022-23 school year and authorized by the School Board will improve the translation of materials as well as providing additional real-time translation services, Henry says.

Increasing parent involvement and engagement continues to be an ongoing challenge for the district. But Henry says she and others are hopeful that the new translation service and a strategy shift for Parent University could draw in more parents.

Parent University is one of the district’s more visible outreach efforts, connecting over the past decade with nearly 67,000 families through its Parent Resource Center just north of downtown or through its partner agencies.

The center on North Blackstone Avenue was ground zero for the district after schools were closed during the pandemic. That’s where employees manned phone banks to answer questions from parents about how to obtain laptops, tablets and internet hotspots, how to connect their children to their virtual classrooms, and how to meet other needs.

Pandemic Shed Light on Outreach Needs

Over the many months of taking phone calls and listening, officials came to the conclusion that outreach on a district level is not as effective as outreach at the school level, Henry says.

The district now is sending Parent University staffers to individual schools to work with school staff and parents, she says.

In addition, the School Board on Wednesday approved a $41,250 contract with the firm FM3 to randomly survey 600 parents in English, Spanish, and Hmong. The goal is to learn from parents what are the most effective means to communicate with them, and for parents to communicate with the district.

, Fresno Unified Parent University

Nikki Henry

To aid in its outreach, Parent University works with “partner” community-based organizations, some under contract such as The Fresno Center, Success Together, and Street Saints, and others like GO Fresno.

The shift in Parent University’s strategy, combined with the district’s decision to increase staffing by employing a home-school liaison and counselor at every school, are among the changes moving forward that could boost parental involvement, Henry says.

Fewer than half of the parents who are counted as “engaged” have worked with Parent University, she says. The district estimates that of the nearly 67,000 families assisted since Parent University was founded in 2009, 36,000 have been served by the community-based organizations.

Parent University’s $3.5 million annual budget includes $950,000 that goes to the contracted nonprofits, Henry says.

, GO Public Schools Fresno

Carmen Zamora

GO Public Schools Fresno partners with the district but is not on contract, maintaining its independence as a parent advocacy organization.

But its very existence is a continued sign that some parents aren’t happy with Fresno Unified and had to turn to an outside organization to hear their concerns and to help them accomplish goals, whether it’s to make sure more English learners gain sufficient fluency to be prepared for high school and college-level courses, or providing more dual enrollment courses, where high school students can take college-level courses for credit.

“We understand the challenges that our district is facing, the diversity that exists in our district, and we really feel … that parents’ voices needs to be elevated,” Zamora says. “We understand that when parents have knowledge, something shifts in their minds. They feel empowered and then they’re not afraid anymore, and then they start asking the right questions.”

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