Eye on Education

Boys in dresses, gun-toting teachers and a resignation: 2016 was a big year for education

2016 was a big year of ups and downs. OK, mostly downs.

Between a divisive presidential election, the passing of some of America’s favorite celebrities and the Zika virus, it wasn’t easy. Though there was some good: It rained – helping parts of the state heal from the drought; the USA won gold in the Rio Olympics – which featured a Clovis track star – and the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday, bringing President Barack Obama to our beloved Yosemite.

The Valley’s schools were no exception to big news, with local education stories making national headlines this year. Here are some of the biggest stories in education in 2016:

Fresno Unified’s superintendent resigned – Let’s start with the obvious. Michael Hanson, who has headed the state’s fourth-largest school district for nearly 12 years, announced he will leave this summer. His resignation comes after a federal grand jury subpoena, served to Fresno Unified officials in 2015, is probing the district’s priciest no-bid contracts. But Hanson says the timing is just a coincidence.

Clovis Unified made its dress code gender neutral – The Clovis Unified school board shocked many when it refused to vote for recommendations in January to revise its decades-old dress code to reflect state gender-rights laws. The strict policy had forbidden boys from wearing earrings and long hair, in addition to several other requirements. The board reluctantly made the changes in April after boys wore dresses to class in protest, the transgender community spoke out and the American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to represent a black boy who got detention for having curly hair that touched his shirt collar.

We got a better understanding of “lease-leaseback” contracts – The confusing term that has put school districts across the state on pause when it comes to no-bid construction deals has played out in Fresno Unified over the past year. In March, a public records request made by The Bee showed Fresno Unified officials were quite cozy with the contractor that got a bulk of its multimillion-dollar projects, and in May, a judge denied the school district’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges such. The leaseback financing method, which allows districts to skip the traditional bidding process, was partly to blame for some of Fresno Unified’s own trustees’ opposition to Measure X, a $225 million school bond measure that passed in November. We’re still waiting for an outcome of the pending legal battle – and the federal investigation.

Politics, politics – This year, we watched how national politics trickle down to school campuses. The Black Lives Matter movement got a substitute teacher fired from a Clovis Unified high school earlier this month and was the cornerstone of Fresno Unified’s annual back-to-school rally in August. Something called the “Trump effect” had local Latino students fearful, and schools offered post-election counseling and called to become “sanctuary campuses” to protect the undocumented. A new state law led Kingsburg Joint Union High School District to allow teachers to carry guns on campus in April, while other legislation pushed Tulare, Chowchilla and other districtsto drop their high school Redskin mascot and got teachers across the state talking about the LGBT community and the Armenian genocide. We also saw Proposition 58 pass in November, allowing more room for bilingual programs that were once considered controversial.

A teacher got in trouble for what? – While a slew of teachers in Fresno and surrounding counties were charged with sex crimes against children this year, it was a Chowchilla teacher’s lesser offense that really turned heads. In January, Kim Kutzner, an English teacher at Chowchilla Union High School, spoke out after being reprimanded for buying her students computers. District officials said they were concerned about outside equipment and protection of student data. Someone also presumably got in trouble at Addicott Elementary in September after a special needs student was allegedly tube-fed bleach. Speaking of getting in trouble, teachers and Fresno Unified trustees demanded stricter student discipline in May, saying restorative programs that aim to curb suspensions aren’t working. But according to a petition signed by teachers at McLane High earlier this month, those problems are getting worse, not better.

Other top education stories this year, based on website hits, include University High’s worries about having its charter revoked after discrimination concerns; a report that says Fresno Unified and its surrounding school districts are among the most economically segregated in the country; and a warning from Fresno police to teenage social media clowns that empty threats are still considered felonies.

Here’s to 2017.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays