Fresno Unified says the situation for its African American students is a state of emergency

A Fresno Unified task force says the environment for the district’s African American students is in a state of emergency.

Fresno State associate professor Jenelle Pitt says she understands the point first-hand.

Pitt recently told the school board about her experience with how a Fresno Unified transitional kindergarten teacher dealt with her then-4-year-old son.

In an interview, Pitt said she was surprised that the teacher had sent her son to the principal’s office – especially when the administrator couldn’t tell her exactly what her son had done wrong. Pitt said she was a regular presence in her son’s classroom and hadn’t seen him run into trouble; rather, she described seeing her son as bright and energetic.

Pitt met with her son’s teacher, who told her that the boy was violent, defiant and prone to giving her dirty looks – characterizations that Pitt said struck her as similar to those she had heard used to describe African American men and boys who had been shot by police.

And Pitt said that when she tried to respond, the teacher abruptly ended the meeting, leaving Pitt to look for another classroom, and ultimately another school for her son, a process that took repeated trips to the transfer office, visits to other campuses and at one point, even resulted in an email mistakenly forwarded to her from a staff member casting doubt on her story.

“It was a while before I said, ‘I think my son is being discriminated against,’” Pitt said. “I ended up crying in the parking lot, and he asks me, ‘Mommy, what’s wrong?’ and I told him, ‘I don’t think they believe me.’”

Pitt shared her experiences as part of a March 6 presentation by Fresno Unified’s African American Acceleration task force, which was created to delve into the persistent achievement gap between African American students and their peers at the district.

What the task force found was that the environment for African American students is a state of emergency requiring an urgent call to action, a conclusion based on both academic data and surveys of school climate: while test scores for African American students have increased over time, they consistently fall behind that of other ethnic groups at the district by double-digits. Meanwhile, the suspension rate for African American students is twice that of other groups and rising. And on top of the academics, the task force found issues of culture at the district, which undermine African American students and make it harder for their families to engage.

Pitt said her experience left her considering homeschool or private school for her son in order to protect him from further discrimination, something she now realizes left an impact on the boy as he began to cry while getting ready in the mornings. Working with the task force helped her realize others had similar experiences at the district, too, she said.

“It breaks your trust,” Pitt said. “But the task force offers hope that maybe his school experience doesn’t have to be the way it started out.”

Task force recommendations

To begin to address what the district calls “disproportionate outcomes,” the task force recommended a series of steps that would affect all levels of the district, beginning with revising board policies to ensure they “address attitudes, beliefs and mindsets of all FUSD employees towards African American students [and employees].”

“Our outcomes for African American students are disproportional and to some degree we’ve normalized that. It’s been bad for long enough that it’s been normalized, it’s expected or even accepted, uncomfortably so,” Superintendent Bob Nelson said. “The brass tacks reality is that if you’re male, you’re special education and you’re black, you’re three times more likely to be suspended than your colleagues.”

Cultural bias training would be included, something Pitt, an associate professor at Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education, said requires more than just a one-off session on professional development days. Instead, it must be ongoing, with follow-ups, assessments and reflection periods.

“And as a professor, I’ll say that people don’t like diversity training. It makes them feel icky, it makes them uncomfortable,” Pitt said. “And some people are going to go in kicking and screaming. But it has to be intentional.”

The task force also recommended expanding opportunities for early learning and advanced classes and stressed the importance of recruiting more African American teachers and administrators to better reflect the student body. Nelson noted that the district currently does not have any African American men serving as principals.

Another speaker at the presentation to the school board, Bullard High alumna Adonai Howard, said many of the things that the task force is asking for are things she wished she had as a student at Fresno Unified, like more academic support.

“I didn’t have anybody who looked like me, so I didn’t feel comfortable going to anyone,” Howard said. “I felt like I was looked down upon during my whole experience.”

Family engagement needed

The task force’s recommendations also emphasized the importance of engaging family members and the larger community, especially as part of cultural and implicit bias training. Wendy McCulley, the task force leader, said her group heard from parents who “expressed eagerness” in working with the district on those issues.

“Task force members felt that many educators are not prepared or do not feel comfortable incorporating African American history and culture into the curriculum,” McCulley said. “Evidence was presented that many educators feel afraid to communicate with African American students and families.”

Asked about this point, Fresno Unified board member and teacher Keshia Thomas said she was not surprised at all.

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Fresno Unified Trustee Keshia Thomas Keshia Thomas

Thomas said that when teachers are afraid to call parents and talk to students, they may miss something going on in a student’s home life that could be contributing to discipline or academic issues. She says she’s experienced it in her own classroom when a previously straight-A student began to withdraw, acting out despite repeated warnings from Thomas. When she called home, she realized that the teen had been taken away from his parents, knowledge she used going forward with the student.

“It was, ‘You have detention still, but I’m going to find out what’s going on,’” Thomas said. “At our schools, there’s CPS issues, abuse, abandonment. As teachers, we cannot be intimidated.”

One family-focused initiative that has already been rolled out is the Springboard Collaborative summer reading program that asked students and their parents to read daily together for five weeks last year. The program also included weekly workshops to teach parents to teach their children to read with themes like “Coach, don’t tell,” and “Asking open-ended questions.” Over 81 percent of program participants were black, 8 percent were Latino and around 10 percent were another race or declined to report.

Thomas said she participated in the program with her son, an eighth-grader, who read on grade level for the first time. Thomas said she liked the parent buy-in, too.

“Historically, that’s what families did, they sat down and did homework,” Thomas said. “If you show up, it shows the student that you care.”

The 198 Fresno Unified students enrolled in the program showed an average of 4.9 months of reading gain during the program, well above the national average and a reversal of the so-called summer slide. The program will be expanded to more Fresno Unified students this year.

Higher ed perspective

The discrepancy in outcomes isn’t confined to Fresno Unified. A report from the Campaign for College Opportunity found that while more black students are graduating from high school than ever before, California high schools consistently graduate black students at lower rates than all other racial and ethnic groups. Schools where specific subsets of the student population underperform have been found to be in need of targeted support; at Fresno Unified, seven schools where African American students fall behind are on that list.

The Campaign for College Opportunity report also found that 63 percent of black community college students do not earn a degree or transfer within six years, that 57 percent of black freshmen at California State University schools do not complete a degree within six years and that almost half all black students who attend college leave without a degree.

The deficit is cyclical, as fewer African American graduates means there are fewer teachers to help boost the next generation of students. Pitt said that Fresno Unified may also struggle to attract and retain teachers of diverse backgrounds because they are reluctant to relive their experiences at the district.

Fresno Unified would do well to focus on the positives in order to recruit teachers who are committed to staying in underserved communities, Pitt added, rather than those who want a point on their resume before moving on.

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State Center Community College District Trustee Eric Payne Special to The Bee

“We have community-based strength, and our students show tremendous resilience – they may wish their skin was lighter or that they blend in more, but they succeed in spite of that,” Pitt said. “That’s an asset-based approach, rather than a deficit-based approach.”

State Center Community College District Trustee Eric Payne said that there are also systemic issues at the root of both K-12 and higher education hurdles that will require multi-agency collaboration. Fresno Unified’s proposals are a good start, Payne said.

“It is so important that we invest in our future, and I believe that the more we invest in them, the better our city [will be], because the crisis is real and we need all hands on deck across systems in order to move the student success needle,” Payne said.

Fresno as a whole has been found to be one of the worst cities for black people to live in, one study said, with disproportionate unemployment rates and wage gaps creating additional hardship.

Childhood poverty is one example of an underlying issue that affects students from long before they begin school up through the time they attend college. Payne said that while the statewide childhood poverty rate hovers around 22 percent, it jumps to 38 percent in Fresno County and 66 percent for black children in Fresno County.

“Backpacks are not the only things our children bring to school each day,” he said.

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Aleksandra Appleton covers schools for the Fresno Bee. She grew up in Fresno before attending UC San Diego and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.