National racial tensions became the focus of Fresno Unified’s annual back-to-school event on Wednesday, as Superintendent Michael Hanson called on the community to help the school district’s struggling minority students.
While Fresno Unified’s graduation rates are climbing, black students in the district continue to fall behind on standardized tests and are disproportionately disciplined. Only 9 percent of black students were proficient in math on last year’s Smarter Balanced test, compared to 36 percent of white students. The suspension rate for black students at Fresno Unified is 2.5 times higher than the district average.
“Despite our significant growth across a number of metrics that show our system is healthier and improving … the group we are leaving the furthest behind are our black boys and black young men,” Hanson said. “Our African American youth act as the canary in the coal mine of achievement and progress for Fresno Unified and the city. If we move them, if we do right by them, everything else falls much easier.”
Hanson called on the thousands of teachers at Save Mart Center not to stay silent about the Black Lives Matter movement, saying schools are the intersection of race and class, and calling Fresno “one of the most challenged urban areas in America.”
“Black lives matter. They matter a hell of a lot,” Hanson said. “Blue lives matter, too, in a big, big way. The choice is not either-or. It’s not one or the other. We actually can be pro-child and pro-police at the same time. In fact, we have to be.”
Later in his talk, Hanson seemed to backpedal, asking teachers not to attach Fresno to national stories of police brutality against black men. He also gave a shoutout to police Chief Jerry Dyer, who he says “aches to make Fresno a better place.”
“After today, you’re not going to hear me talk about movements. You’re not going to hear me talk about black lives, blue lives, all lives, any other lives,” Hanson said. “It’s not helpful. Because what it does to our local community is that it attaches us to something that’s going on nationally somewhere else that we can’t control.”
Several black teachers at Wednesday’s rally spoke to The Bee about Hanson’s comments but did not want to be identified.
One teacher called his speech contradictory. “It was all over the place. Stuff was canceling out. He was saying one thing and then completely contradicting it five minutes later.”
Another teacher pointed to the the lack of black teachers in the district. Only about 3 percent of the district’s 3,800 teachers are black. More than 20 percent of teachers are Hispanic, and a majority are white.
Cindy Montes, a teacher at Norseman Elementary School, said she was glad Hanson touched on the controversial topic. “Everything outside in the media and on the news … It’s not about where we stand, it’s about letting (students) express how they feel, the things that they’ve heard, the things their parents say. We constantly are always talking to all of our kids that we’re all equal, we’re all the same, we’re all a family.”
Carl Ray Harris, a campus safety officer at Sequoia Middle School, who is black, said racial tensions are not something educators can ignore.
“Trust me, I’m from the west side of Fresno. I know these kids are talking,” he said. “I tell them it’s not your problem, you just have to go to school and make life as best as you can. Don’t get caught up in all of this mess.”
Mayor Ashley Swearengin also spoke at Wednesday’s convocation, promoting the district’s “I Am Ready” campaign, which aims to increase the graduation rate from 82 percent to a full 100 percent.
Swearengin said the success of Fresno Unified goes beyond its teachers, administrators and students.
“Research has shown that a major indicator of a child’s success in school is determined by the quality of a neighborhood through which he or she walks every day,” Swearengin said. “As a community member, am I doing my part to make sure those neighborhoods are the kind of neighborhoods that support the kind of educational outcome we want to see from that school?”