Valley Voices

Fresno should replicate University High School model, not kill it

From left, University High School students Fayyaz Ahmed, Philip Canoza and Lillian Torres compete in the Super Quiz competition of the 34th Annual Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Saturday, Feb. 6, at Central East High School in Fresno.
From left, University High School students Fayyaz Ahmed, Philip Canoza and Lillian Torres compete in the Super Quiz competition of the 34th Annual Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Saturday, Feb. 6, at Central East High School in Fresno.

I attended the Fresno Unified School Board meeting Oct. 25 that included discussion about the charter renewal of University High School. I was there as an interested parent whose son is about to graduate. So whatever the trustees decide, it will not affect us much, but it will affect all of you.

You see, UHS uniquely provides a small school college preparatory environment with integrated, high-level music theory and performance while offering its students free classes at Fresno State. This formula is so successful that it has been consistently ranked among the top high schools in the country (most recently 81st out of 20,000) and in California (No. 7 this year).

I am most concerned about trustee Christopher De La Cerda’s complaints. While he agrees that UHS is a wonderful school offering a unique experience, he deplores the difference in the demographics of UHS vs. those of the district: 0 percent English learners vs. 22 percent, and 0.6 percent special education vs. 12.5 percent.

Knowing the curriculum at UHS reflects its intense college prep environment, how many of those parents would want to subject their kids to it?

The UHS charter was approved by the Fresno Unified board in 2007. Since then, its mission statement has remained the same. Admission at UHS is by lottery, so everyone who applies has an equal chance. How can a board member expect that somehow the student body will magically reflect the demographics of the community at large? A charter school is, by its very nature, special. Not everyone wants what it offers or is willing to put up with its shortcomings.

While the UHS student body does not match that of the district exactly, it comes pretty close to Bullard High School. UHS is 35 percent Asian, 35 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent African American.

UHS is a place where all students feel accepted. There is no bullying or cliques. We have no jocks or cheerleaders, since there are no team sports. Nobody is judged on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, wealth, clothes or cars but rather on depth of character and academic excellence. Those who want to come accept the demanding workload and the lack of team sports, and are willing to seriously participate in music. Those who do not, select themselves out and do not enter the lottery.

Mr. De La Cerda went on to say that the chance to go to UHS will be improved across the district if UHS was willing to abandon the two-year music requirement. Any Fresno Unified middle school student can take two years of music. By law, charter schools cannot have admission processes that discriminate. If any public school student from the district can fulfill that requirement at no cost, how is this policy discriminatory?

If UHS were to remove this requirement to satisfy this trustee, it will be a meaningless gesture because if the unprepared student is accepted through the lottery, they will likely fail all the musicianship courses and bounce right back to local schools. Does he really care more about access than success?

Since Mr. De La Cerda cares so much for increasing access to a school such as UHS, I have some suggestions.

First, make two years of music a normal part of FUSD curriculum, which will help with right-side brain development and make everyone automatically a candidate for UHS. Since FUSD is funded at a higher level per student than UHS and can afford school buses, offer that service to UHS students as well at no charge. That way, lack of transportation is not an issue for the disadvantaged.

Lastly, since the UHS model is so successful, why not replicate it at all the local colleges? How great would it be if Fresno could boast not one but three top 10 high schools in California.

Fresno Unified’s trustees will vote whether or not to recharter UHS on Wednesday. I invite those who care to show up and speak your concerns.

I sincerely hope Mr. De La Cerda’s opinions do not infect the rest of the board, because the day University High School loses its charter is the day Fresno loses a bit of its luster and really deserves to be the butt of the world’s jokes. It will be the day we tell our children that we prefer to be average, and only the rich who send their children to private schools should have access to top-notch education.

Peter Truong lives and works in Fresno.