House parties and parent classes: Group tries new ways to improve Fresno Unified

The Fresno Unified School District office building in downtown Fresno photographed in 2014.
The Fresno Unified School District office building in downtown Fresno photographed in 2014.

Dozens of parents and community members attended a meeting at the Big Red Church on Wednesday to discuss how to improve Fresno Unified and the success of its students – but it wasn’t hosted by the district.

Go Public Schools, a nonprofit that has worked with struggling schools in Oakland, created a branch of the organization in Fresno earlier this year, with the goal of “expanding access to quality education in Fresno’s most historically under-served neighborhoods.”

Since Go Public Schools Fresno opened in June, it has hosted “house parties” across the city, where parents exchange ideas in their homes, and offered a 10-week course to Spanish-speaking parents, teaching them how to become more engaged in community issues and urging them to attend school board meetings.

Carmen Zamora, a first generation Mexican American mother of three, went though the training and said the organization is helping parents “regardless of language barriers, their ethnicity or their economic backgrounds” become involved in their children’s education.

“It would have made a huge difference to someone like my own mother,” she said. “I made a promise to myself that life with my children would be different.”

Go Public Schools Executive Director Diego Arambula pointed to a slew of data points as a reason for change, including Fresno Unified’s high school standardized test results, saying students are not leaving the district ready for college.

More than half of Fresno Unified’s 11th-graders are not proficient in English and language arts, and 84 percent are not proficient in math.

“These numbers are a huge problem,” Arambula said. “For too many of our kids, what this means is if they attempt college, when they get there, they drop out. They take on college debt and internalize it and wonder, ‘What did I do wrong?’ While we know while we’ve got them under our care that they’re not actually ready.”

As part of its mission, the organization is revisiting a call to action Fresno Unified established for itself in 2005, which focuses on student achievement.

“This was during a very dark moment in Fresno Unified history. Our schools were hurting. We were on the brink of financial disaster. Our facilities were a mess. Morale was very low,” Mary Jane Skjellerup, strategy director for Go Public Schools Fresno, said of the original report. “This is another great time, in this season of transition, to once again take that look in the mirror.”

Assemblyman Dr. Joaquin Arambula (Diego’s brother), D-Fresno, also was there Wednesday, and said it’s time for more parents to be advocates for their children and their communities – and for organizations to embrace them.

“In Sacramento, we have a saying: if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu,” he said. “I know the problems of our communities, like my brother does, because we went to school here. And it’s time educators, the leaders of tomorrow, the new future, the new parents, have a seat at the table.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays