Fresno Unified School District’s annual convocation – a sort of pep rally for school staff – brought thousands to the Save Mart Center on Wednesday.
At the event, designed to motivate staff for the new school year, some danced, waved pom-poms and shook noisemakers while a live band played “We Will Rock You” and confetti was dispersed into the crowd. A music video, where Superintendent Michael Hanson and other school officials lip-synced Pharell Williams’ “Happy,” was played on the big screen in the center of the arena.
But not everyone was glad to be there.
In a recent survey of about 700 teachers conducted by the Fresno Teachers Association, 93 percent said they’d rather be preparing for next week’s first day of school than attending the mandatory event. All 10,000 teachers — and other school employees — have been required to attend convocation for the past three years.
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Tish Rice, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, said some teachers are frustrated that they have to attend the four-hour event instead of preparing their classrooms and are concerned about how much it costs the district.
Rice said she brought these concerns to the Fresno Unified Board of Trustees earlier this year but didn’t receive a response.
“I would argue that the superintendent talks all the time that time is money, so look at the amount of time per every district employee going to this. That’s a lot of money spent away from the classroom,” Rice said. “It’s as simple as making it optional instead of mandatory.”
Fresno Unified spokeswoman Amy Idsvoog did not disclose how much it costs to hold the event. She said outside sponsors cover most of the costs, like renting the Save Mart Center. Sponsors include the Educational Employees Credit Union, Kaiser Permanente, and others. In addition to paying teachers, the district paid up to 1,500 other employees to attend Wednesday’s event, according to Idsvoog.
Just remember that our kids are carrying a heavy load, and the expectations that we set matter greatly to them.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson to teachers
Fresno High School teacher Kevin Ochs said he doesn’t see the benefit of the morale-boosting event for veteran teachers like himself.
“We’re not learning any new strategies to help kids or how to be more affective teachers,” Ochs said. “It’s more about getting your spirits up, which I don’t think is really necessary.”
But people like Leslie Frederick, a teacher at Roeding Elementary, appreciate the intent and the message behind this year’s event: “Be Kind.”
“I don’t mind it. I just think it’s impressive how we’re all together,” she said. “It does give you that good spirit and you can feel that energy.”
Hanson’s convocation speech mostly focused on big changes teachers have had to face recently — like new standardized tests and Common Core standards — and special obstacles many students in Fresno face.
Eight-seven percent of Fresno Unified students live in poverty, and Hanson said he “burns from the inside to make Fresno a better place.” He praised teachers for going the extra mile with these students and pushed them to do more to fill achievement gaps.
87 percentThe number of Fresno Unified students who live in poverty
“It’s actually gotten worse over time, and I’m not talking about students just on the poverty line – what we’re talking about is all-consuming. It’s crushing,” Hanson said. “Because we live in a city of poverty does not mean we can have a poverty of expectations for our youth. We have to be very mindful and think about what they go through outside of basic issues like hunger. There’s fear, anxiety and shame, and you’re the folks who first interact with those kids and can give them a home.”
Hanson thanked teachers for increasing graduation and attendance rates in recent years despite these obstacles. The graduation rate is up to 80%, compared to 68% a few years ago.
The convocation comes in the midst of a no-bid contract controversy that has resulted in calls for Hanson to resign. Hanson didn’t go into detail about the ongoing legal case, which concerns a multimillion-dollar contract the district signed to build Rutherford B. Gaston Middle School but told teachers he wants to be “straight up.”
“Recently many of you may have seen print articles or TV stories that are distracting stories about our school district and me,” he said. “I choose not to be a witness. I choose not to stand idly by when I see bad things starting to happen. I have repeatedly and I have proudly — and candidly damn proudly — done so. I have stood in the gap and I will continue to firmly stand for each and every child in this city.”
Some teachers protested keynote speaker David Coleman, president and CEO of the College Board — the organization that oversees the SAT college entrance exam.
Teachers took to social media Wednesday to criticize the district’s decision to bring in Coleman, who is known as a leading developer of the Common Core standards. Critics said Coleman promotes a one-size-fits-all style of teaching that is detrimental to teachers and students. A few teachers held “Opt Out” signs, urging the district to break away from the new Common Core standards and federally mandated tests.
The first day of school at Fresno Unified is Monday.