The Clovis and Sanger school districts are rated among the state's best in closing the academic achievement gap between races, according to a recent study by a California education advocacy group.
That's critical in a state such as California, where a majority of students come from non-white households, yet white students on average perform better in standardized testing.
According to this year's state Academic Performance Index of K-12 students, whites averaged a score of 838, Hispanics 715 and African-Americans 686.
Achievement gaps were a major issue to Jack O'Connell when he was California's state schools superintendent from 2003 to 2011.
"It's not only a moral imperative to remove the achievement gap, it's also an economic imperative because the workforce of the future is in these subgroups that lag behind their white and Asian peers," said O'Connell, who now works for a Sacramento education consulting firm.
Ken Magdaleno, an associate professor at Fresno State specializing in educational equity, said many people don't realize the economic toll when children don't get a proper education. When children lag academically, he said, they are less likely to be productive workers and more likely to be a burden to society.
Said Magdaleno, a former teacher, principal and counselor, "It's a pay-me-now or pay-me-later thing."
The study surveyed 146 districts statewide. In 81 of the districts, more than half the students were Hispanic or African-American, including the state's four largest: Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach and Fresno. All four got D or D-plus grades.
Clovis Unified, which is 32.8% Hispanic and African-American, ranked No. 2 in the state with a B-minus grade. (Lake Elsinore was No. 1 with a B.). Sanger Unified, which is 70% Hispanic and African-American, got a C-plus but still ranked in the top 20, at No. 18.
Personal touch in Sanger
Sanger Unified officials said their success lies in tailoring learning experiences to their district's student population.
As a school district, Sanger mirrors many in the Valley, said Rich Smith, deputy superintendent: 78% of families are considered low-income, 83% are non-white, and many are English learners.
Recent Fresno County Census data show that about one in three Hispanic and African-American families live below the poverty level.
Researcher Jane David said there has always been a strong correlation between school performance and socioeconomic background.
"Kids who come from higher-income families start school with a huge advantage," said David, director of the Bay Area Research Group and co- author of a separate Stanford University study of Sanger Unified.
She said research shows major differences in the vocabularies of children from middle-class families compared with those from struggling socioeconomic backgrounds when they enter school, David said. Lower-income parents also tend to read less to children and are less likely to use proper English, she said.
Sanger officials said the district's smaller size (10,750 students; for comparison, Clovis Unified has 38,000) allows them to more quickly adapt educational strategies to help struggling students catch up.
Sanger's success led to a visit from study authors said Carrie Hahnel and Lindsay Stuart, co-authors of the study by Oakland-based Education Trust-West.
"We were interested in seeing what a high-poverty district is doing to achieve some fairly noteworthy results," Hahnel said.
They call Sanger's the "tight/loose" system, where the priority is in meeting state standards but offering independence to principals in getting there.
When many Sanger schools were lagging in academic performance behind similar schools in the state seven years ago, the district's overall API score was 657. Last year, the district's score hit 805. The state's minimum target is 800.
This year, Washington Academy Middle School in Sanger was named to the national Schools to Watch program, becoming the first Valley school outside Clovis Unified to earn the award.
David, the Bay Area researcher who visited Sanger as part of another study, said the district makes teaching all students "a moral purpose."
She said administrators pore over data to track students and act quickly to fix problems.
The district will change the way it teaches individual students if more conventional routes don't work, said Smith, the deputy superintendent.
Teachers often bounce ideas off each other in their school grade level meetings, known as professional learning communities.
"We work to make it harder for students to fail than to succeed," Smith said.
If a child cannot learn multiplication, for example, his teacher can focus on problems the child didn't understand in a small group with other struggling students.
The idea, Smith said, is for the child to master the concept through teacher intervention, but not to make intervention a "lifelong sentence."
But administrators and teachers also must take responsibility, he added.
Teachers, Smith said, must tell administrators when students are struggling, giving principals and district leaders an opportunity to provide needed support.
"We are not perfect," he said, "but we are trying to get there."
Eye on the prize in Clovis
Clovis Unified puts college-level learning within reach of high school students by connecting their learning to future jobs, said Michelle Steagall, Clovis Unified's associate superintendent for curriculum.
All students take standardized college tests and are sought out to enroll in advanced placement courses to help prepare them for college.
Training for those future jobs is found in the district's Career Technical Education programs, which are on every campus. Students can learn about green energy, automotive technology, emergency services, and agricultural and construction technology. Students also attend the nationally recognized Center for Advanced Research and Technology with Fresno Unified students where they can take classes in environmental or biomedical research, video game design, crime scene and forensics investigation, and engineering.
"These are industries of the future," Steagall said. "We didn't do this because we thought they were fun."
And at least one Clovis school practices a personal touch similar to Sanger's strategy: Temperance-Kutner Elementary School Principal Randy Hein knocks on doors regularly.
Temperance-Kutner – T-K as it is known in the district – is not a typical Clovis school. It's located east of Fresno at the intersection of Olive and Armstrong avenues. Only 12% of its 550 students are white; 34% are Hispanic; and 11% are African-American.
And 83% of its students are from low-income families.
"Most of our moms and dads have not completed high school or just completed high school," Hein said. "Only about 20% have gone to college and very few have a college degree."
Home visits allow Hein and her teachers to show parents ways to help their children and let parents know the school cares about them.
The school runs two all-day kindergarten classes – ending at 3:20 p.m. – and two others that conclude at 1:30 p.m.
But the school day doesn't end there. Children can find a teacher on campus as early as 7:30 a.m. or as late as 6 p.m.
The efforts are paying off.
"They have gone a lot further in their reading and math levels," said Joyce Wagner, who teaches an all-day class of kindergartners with first-graders. "They are supposed to write their numbers up to 30 by the end of the year. They were writing to 100 by Christmas."
T-K's test scores have always been good compared with similar schools statewide. Seven years ago, the school got an 8 of 10 ranking among similar-sized schools in the API scores.
Last year, T-K ranked a 10. No school in its similar-schools group scored higher than T-K's 861, a 93-point jump since 2004-05.
Clovis' efforts don't stop in the elementary grades. High school teachers and counselors are always looking for students like Cristal Martinez, who wants to be first in her family to graduate from college.
Cristal, a Clovis East sophomore, is learning about applying for financial aid and filling out college applications through the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program designed for students from families with little or no college experience.
Cristal's mother dropped out of college soon after she started, and her father has an eighth-grade education. He worked in the fields before he got a job with a local plastics company.
"My mother always said I have to go to college and my life will be easier than it was for her and my dad," said Cristal, the oldest of four.