Fresno Unified School District leaders have long known the district has hundreds of student-improvement initiatives costing millions of dollars. What they haven’t known is which of those initiatives are helping students be academically successful, and which are not.
At a workshop on Wednesday, district officials outlined for the School Board the progress that’s been made in the last few years to determine which programs are doing the most to help students be academically successful, which are not, and what needs to happen to get students reading at grade level.
And part of that effort means doing a better job of reaching out and engaging parents as partners in their children’s education, even by greeting parents at birthing hospitals, officials said.
“I think that the earlier we can get to building relationships and engaging our parents in supporting their students’ achievement is really important,” Board President Veva Islas said. “Developing relationships with our birthing hospitals as children are born, as we have an opportunity to support young parents, (and) ensure that they are oriented to the resources and services that we have in this district, would really behoove us. So I think that’s just in general a line of opportunity of engagement that we should really pursue as a district.”
Evaluation Process Grew Slowly
For decades, the district has lagged the state and big-city school districts nationwide in standardized test scores, and the district’s internal testing shows that the majority of students are reading below grade level — sometimes by several grades.
Superintendent Bob Nelson told GV Wire in 2019 that the district was embarking on efforts to determine which initiatives were working and which needed to be scrapped.
Over the past couple of years, in a process that started before the COVID pandemic, district officials have been gathering data and establishing frameworks that they say will give student data more quickly to principals and superintendents, enabling them to target and address the needs of each student.
In 2020, the district entered into a partnership with the District Management Group, a Boston-based business management consultant, to inventory all of its initiatives, prioritize some for in-depth evaluations that Deputy Superintendent Misty Her called “deep dives,” and then build systems for the district to conduct evaluations.
On Wednesday afternoon, the School Board learned what the district is doing about “academic return on investment,” or making sure that the district’s billion-dollar budget is being spent on programs that are reaching their intended goals and objectives.
As part of its analysis, the district cataloged 345 initiatives, of which 70% had a clear objective. But only 14% could provide results of the initiative meeting its goals because many had not been set up to include evaluating their results.
Some Programs Cut
After evaluating each initiative, district officials recommended which programs should be expanded, kept, revised, or discontinued, Her said.
She did not say which programs had been discontinued, and on Thursday morning district spokeswoman Nikki Henry could provide no additional information on where the cuts were made.
“Being that she (Her) was speaking to a couple of budgets ago, this is not easily available data. However, high level it was initiatives that either did not have any metrics or measurement or were not showing any benefit,” Henry said in an email.
For the 2022-23 budget, all initiatives and programs were required to have goals and ways to measure whether those goals were reached, Her said. When formulating the current year’s budget, district leaders required departments to explain how the programs aligned with the district’s strategic plan and the superintendent’s and board’s priorities to justify their budget request, she said.
Fresno Unified’s initiatives include some that are focused on improving the academic performance of African American students, improving the English language skills of children who speak other languages, and addressing the needs of foster and homeless students.
The district’s biggest initiative was announced last year by Nelson: That every child will be reading at grade level by the first grade.
All Kids Need to Improve Literacy
Trustee Claudia Cazares noted that most of Wednesday’s presentation, which included how poorly the district’s youngest students are reading, seemed to focus most of its attention only on elementary and preschool students.
“I don’t see how we’re investing in literacy or math with our middle school and high school,” she said. “This trustee is tired of graduating kids that don’t know how to read.”
District officials later said that they had targeted younger grades to make the presentation more manageable but noted that the district also is addressing learning deficits in older students.