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Should Trustees Suspend Program Helping Thousands of Fresno Students?



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English language and math test scores have climbed faster for Fresno Unified elementary school students whose school day is extended by 30 minutes and whose teachers get an extra 10 days of training each year.

A recent report to trustees shows that in the 40 so-called “Designated Schools,” student improvement in meeting and exceeding standards on standardized tests exceeded that of other Fresno County elementary students, students with similar demographics in other school districts, and the entire state of Calif0rnia.

But the extra instruction time isn’t cheap —Fresno Unified pays about $19.5 million yearly for the extra instruction and training time for students and teachers at those 40 schools — and those costs could go up next year if another six schools become Designated Schools.

Even with the prospect of massive budget cuts to offset revenue losses from the economic downturn sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, Fresno Unified administrators say the program needs to continue because of the students’ improved academic performance.


Suspend Designated Schools for Now?

But several trustees say it might not be right time to add another six schools, or even to continue the program at the current 40 schools, given the drastic budget cuts the district faces as well as the interruptions to in-person instruction that COVID-19 caused in the state’s third-largest school district.

Trustees Terry Slatic and Carol Mills noted at Wednesday’s board meeting that instruction time was greatly reduced for the final 12 weeks of the school year after officials closed schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Trustee Terry Slatic

“I am not comfortable progressing with the Designated School Model and its inherent cost when we certainly have derived zero benefit from it since the 13th of March, and will be deriving zero benefit from those dollars for the reasonable future.” — trustee Terry Slatic

With so much uncertainty about what kind of instruction schools will provide in the 2020-21 school year the looming budget shortfalls, the two trustees suggested suspending the program for the short term.

No decisions have been made as to how students will return to their classrooms in August, but educators are considering a number of scenarios. One is a staggered schedule that would have students attend on alternating days.

“I am not comfortable progressing with the Designated School model and its inherent cost when we certainly have derived zero benefit from it since the 13th of March, and will be deriving zero benefit from those dollars for the reasonable future,” said Slatic, who proposed suspending the program for the 2020-21 school year.

Maintain Support for Those Most in Need

Trustee Veva Islas

“I want to remind my colleagues that those programs were put in place specifically because of the disadvantage that certain student populations are having.”trustee Veva Islas

But other trustees were quick to express support for continuing to fund Designated Schools, noting that the students receiving the extra instruction are among the district’s most needy.

“I want to remind my colleagues that those programs were put in place specifically because of the disadvantage that certain student populations are having,” trustee Veva Islas said. “I feel very committed and very strong about, we should be preserving if not expanding resources” to struggling student populations, including African Americans, special education students, and English language learners.

“If this moment is about us expressing where we want to preserve, definitely preserving resources to those populations is my priority,” she said.

Fresno Unified Battles to Improve

Efforts to improve academic success across the district have been undertaken for decades in Fresno Unified, whose students typically perform poorly on nearly every academic measure.

A large portion of students do not test at grade level, and many of the 74,000 students are two or more grade levels behind in English language arts and mathematics.

Officials focused on narrowing the learning gap for children from impoverished homes or who are English language learners. They decided to increase instruction time for those students most in need of an academic boost.

The first group, or Cohort 1, of elementaries — Balderas, Jefferson, Webster, Norseman, Easterby, Viking, Burroughs, Fremont, Lincoln, and Lowell — provided extra instruction to K-6 students in the 2014-15 school year.

Number of Designated Schools Keeps Growing

A second group became Designated Schools in the 2015-16 year: Hidalgo, Slater, Anthony, Calwa, Jackson, Rowell, Lane, Vang Pao, Mayfair, Winchell, Homan, Muir, Williams, Pyle, Birney, Addams, Columbia, King, Del Mar, and Heaton.

The third group became Designated Schools, in the 2016-17 school year: Kirk, Olmos, Wolters, Wilson, Roeding, Ewing, Greenburg, Ericson, Wishon, and Aynesworth.

If the trustees agree to add them in the 2020-21 school year, the fourth group of Designated Schools would be Turner, Leavenworth, Starr, Storey, Lawless, and Bakman.

The result has been improved academic performance for students across the board as well as in subgroups. The district has evaluated student performance for third through sixth graders using data from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Designated Schools Outpace Others

In Cohort 1, the number of students meeting or exceeding standards in English language testing climbed by 11.5 percentage points from 2014-15 to 2018-19; math scores climbed by 17.1 percentage points.

In Cohort 2, students meeting or exceeding English language standards rose by 13.8, and math by 16.4 percent from 2015-16 through 2018-19.

Students in Cohort 3, which began in 2016-17, posted a gain of 11.5 percentage points in English and 14.4 in math through 2018-19.

The state average increase over the same time period was 8.5 percentage points for English and 8.3 for math.

Still Have Far to Go

But even though they are making gains faster, students at the Designated Schools lag their state, county, and district counterparts in meeting or exceeding the testing standards.

In the 2018-19 school year, 49.5% of students statewide met or exceeded standards on English language testing compared to 34.7% of Cohort 1, 30.6% of Cohort 2, and 33.5% of Cohort 3; for math, 42.8% of students statewide met or exceeded standards that year compared to 33.7% for Cohort 1, 28.5% for Cohort 2, and 30.8% for Cohort 3.

District officials support continuing funding for Designated Schools given their success so far, spokeswoman Nikki Henry told GV Wire.

But the district will implement whatever spending cuts the board dictates, she said.

The trustees will meet in June to shape and finalize the spending plan for the next school year.

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