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Fresno’s Literacy Instruction ‘Anemic;’ Changing That Would Boost Fresno, State and Nation



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Fresno Unified School District needs to move past its longtime “anemic” reading instruction so students can be successful in education, School Board President Susan Wittrup said Monday night at Fresno High.

Wittrup was speaking to a small audience of administrators, teachers, and community members who had gathered at the high school’s Royce Hall auditorium to watch the documentary, “The Right to Read.”

The documentary, which profiles educators and civil rights advocates in Oakland and parents in Virginia and Tennessee, frames the importance of literacy as a civil right that must be accessible to all students. It focuses on the importance of parental involvement, not only in working at home with children from birth on up, but in ensuring that their children get good instruction. And, the film’s producers, and many education leaders, now say that teachers should be trained in the science of reading.

Fresno Unified has a long history of students struggling to achieve proficiency in reading and math on standardized testing.

District’s Literacy Initiative Launched in 2023

A year ago, Superintendent Bob Nelson announced the district’s new Literacy Initiative, with an ambitious goal of every child being able to read at grade level by the end of the first grade.

Monday night’s documentary screening shed some light on how other communities and parents have made children’s literacy a priority, and what they’ve done to reach their goals.

Dr. Natasha Baker, Fresno Unified’s chief academic officer, said the district’s movement to literacy could boost California and the nation. (Jahz Tello/GV Wire)

If Fresno Unified can reach its literacy goals, it will have a huge impact not just on the city, but also on California and the nation, Dr. Natasha Baker, the district’s chief academic officer, told Monday’s audience.

“As the third largest district in the state of California, when we actually go to the next level academically, it will tilt the achievement in the entire state of California,” Baker said. “That’s important because California has the fifth-largest economy on the planet. So when we move Fresno, we move the state and the nation. And I think that’s important because I truly believe that through our literacy initiative, we can become the next high-performing urban in the state and in the nation.”

Fresno Unified’s initiative has been built from the bottom up, in an attempt to get more buy-in from teachers, counselors, principals, and other site-based employees, officials say. Plans were individualized and adopted for the seven high school regions, although the goals of student proficiency are the same across the board.

In the Edison and Roosevelt regions, teachers have access to a professional development program provided by Lexia, a Massachusetts-based company with clients all over the nation, including Mississippi. Lexia co-hosted Monday’s documentary screening with the Foundation for Fresno Unified Schools.

Mississippi has been a real success story, company sales representative Lou Gonzalez told GV Wire. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, students are tested for proficiency in reading, math, and other subjects.

Mississippi students, many of whom live in poverty or low-income households, routinely tested at the bottom nationally a decade ago. But after the state passed a rule requiring students to be held back in the third grade if they weren’t proficient in reading, curriculum and the methods of teaching reading changed, Gonzalez said.

Mississippi students are now testing at the national average and are considered a national success story.

Fresno, California Students Lag National Average

On the latest NAEP, California students are still below the national average. Fresno had participated in NAEP’s big-city comparison for years, typically ranking near the bottom, but stopped participating in the comparison after the 2019 NAEP.

Does California — one of the states that does not mandate that literacy instruction focus on the science of reading — need a similar third-grade retention rule?

Nelson said before that happens, districts need to make sure that teachers are up-to-date on the best methods of teaching reading so their students can be proficient and not have to be held back.

“I think you better make sure you have pretty well-trained reading teachers, if that’s the line you’re going to draw in the sand,” he said, “I commend the idea that we’re not going to hold people back unless we can promise that the tools that we’re delivering on are actually going to effectuate change. …

“I was a former elementary school teacher, and I taught fifth and sixth grade, and I really don’t recall in-depth instruction on the science of teaching reading, like that wasn’t anything that I didn’t come to until much later in life. And I think a lot of our folks that are in the field right now are experiencing that. So you’re hearing Lou saying from Lexia, it’s a two year-training. People have to really give themselves into it. They to fully explore and study the science. And so we’re embarking on that journey now.”

Phonics Return as Key Reading Tool

No matter which teacher training program, and there are several that the district is using, the focus of all of them relies on the same five factors: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency, Nelson said.

And literacy instruction doesn’t stop at the classroom door, he noted. The documentary emphasizes the importance that parents and the community have in children’s early education by engaging verbally with children from birth onward.

Nelson said he wants the entire community to watch the documentary so they can recognize they too have a role in children’s education, even if they don’t work in classrooms.

“I think the goal for us would be to try and get ‘The Right to Read’ as widely spread and widely viewed as we possibly can, because it just changes your mental attitude around what you want to see happens for the kids in your sphere, whether you’re a parent or grandparent or a teacher, whatever your orientation is,” he said. “If you value your relationship with children and you want them to be successful, you can’t watch that but that it changes your orientation to how you interact with them every day.”

Watch: Leaders React to Right to Read Documentary  


Next Screening

GO Public Schools Fresno, a local education advocacy organization, is working with Every Neighborhood Partnership within its Read Fresno coalition to sponsor a March 4 screening of the documentary at the Tower Theatre. The 6:30 p.m. showing will be followed by an 8 p.m. panel discussion.


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