Fresno Unified School District faces big year with new money, new standards

The Fresno BeeAugust 18, 2013 

Fresno Unified School District board member Michelle Asadoorian

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Fresno Unified officials say they're preparing for a historic year as the district gets an extra $15 million from the state, freedom from federal accountability laws and a new set of education standards.

But the changes are creating heartburn for some teachers and school board members, who worry new programs will bring higher expectations and put extra pressure on already-overworked educators.

Several new factors are at play: lawmakers approved a new state education formula this summer that shells out more money to schools with high poverty rates, including Fresno Unified. The district also got a $5 million windfall to pay for teacher training from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in July.

And then there is a new set of education benchmarks, the Common Core State Standards, that required teachers and administrators to prepare over the summer for a major education shift.

The standards — which are being criticized by both early adopters and skeptics in states such as Michigan and New York — are described as a way to boost critical thinking and better prepare students for higher education and careers. Fresno Unified is rolling out many of the changes this year.

And just two weeks ago, the district learned its waiver to opt out of federal No Child Left Behind accountability measures had been granted. Fresno Unified and seven other districts have a reprieve from stringent student performance measures and wiggle room to redirect Title I dollars.

School board trustee Michelle Asadoorian called the collection of changes a "monumental shift." But she warned against looking for results right away.

"There are a lot of moving parts happening at one time," she said. "It takes years in a large urban school district to really reach ground level. Common Core alone is an overwhelming body of work."

How to gauge success is an issue with which education leaders on all sides are still grappling.

Attendance and parent involvement are two ways to check the district's pulse, said Valerie Davis, school board president. She said she aims to make sure the board doesn't "squander" new state dollars, but declined to offer specific plans for how that money will be used.

"We've not had a track record of success, we don't have the high and constant test scores like Clovis does, but we have the opportunity to build this," Davis said.

Administrators and union officials agree that using student test scores as a yardstick — at least at first — could be misleading. That's because the district is planning to switch to a new standardized test in the spring and will need at least a few years of data to make comparisons.

Even so, Fresno Teachers Association officials say they need clarity on what is expected from teachers as the changes come into place.

For example, association officials say, asking teachers to overhaul the way they teach under Common Core without other guarantees — like lowering class sizes — could add to already heavy workloads.

"Because of this collection of new things, teachers are understandably distraught," said Rhonnie Tinsley, FTA executive director. "Common Core in and of itself is a brand new way of approaching instruction, and learning how to do that correctly is difficult enough."

New classroom learning standards under Common Core come at the same time the measures used to evaluate teachers are set to change.

Earlier this month, Fresno Unified and seven other California districts got a pass from some federal provisions — including a requirement that all students be proficient in math and English by 2014. But the districts are expected to hold themselves accountable via an oversight board and new teacher evaluation methods.

Scott Hatfield, a Bullard High School science teacher, said he and his colleagues are in the dark about how the new tests might be tied to their job performance.

"New teachers, who have not gone through successive waves of reform, are worried they will be judged for something on which there is no script," he said. "No one knows exactly what Common Core assessments will look like, and some people are very apprehensive about that."

Asadoorian said there is another cause for concern: even the school board trustees aren't aware of how many of the changes — like those required under the No Child Left Behind waiver — will play out. She said she twice has requested a copy of the district's final waiver, but still hasn't heard back from Superintendent Michael Hanson or other administrators.

"We are the conduit between Fresno Unified and the community," she said, "and when that pipeline gets jammed, when we are not in receipt of critical information, it's really problematic."

Hanson was not available for comment Friday.

Back to school

More than 73,000 Fresno Unified School District students head back to class today. Several other districts and universities in the region resume class this week:

Today: Big Creek, Clay Joint, Clovis Unified, Ramacher, Kingsburg Joint Union High, Parlier Unified, Washington Colony

Wednesday: Kingsburg Elementary Charter, Monroe, Pine Ridge, Sierra Unified

Thursday: Sanger Unified, California State University, Fresno

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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