Valley Voices

Bring it back: Fresno Unified’s JEY program worked wonders with discipline

William (Bill) Larkin
William (Bill) Larkin

Almost 20 years ago, The Bee published an essay I wrote for the Valley Voices section called “Teacher’s travail includes some flowers.” At the time, I was running an alternative-education class in the Fresno Unified School District for students who had been expelled or placed on suspended-expulsion status.

In that essay, I made the comment, “Where I teach, I have seen a small piece of our future; it is broken, it is frightening, it is coming around the corner fast and large, and few in authority have a clue about what to do.”

Recently, more than 80 percent of McLane High School teachers signed a petition regarding the increase in negative and disruptive student behavior in the absence of meaningful consequences. They didn’t do this just for themselves; it was for the majority of students who rely on them for a safe and secure environment in which to learn.

Be assured, McLane is not an anomaly. They’ve just reached the point of feeling helpless but not yet voiceless.

So you might ask yourself, “What is going on?” How can things be so bad that educators feel the need to petition?

Superintendent Michael Hanson’s administration issued a mandate to all school principals, vice principals and counselors to lower the number of suspensions and expulsions districtwide using a repackaged, rhetoric-filled behavioral modification program called Restorative Justice.

This Restorative Justice concept is not new. These interventions usually fail under the weight of their overexaggerated promises. This leads to an odd belief that if you decrease the number of official suspensions on paper, you can claim success regarding improved behavior.

Fresno Unified board member Christopher De La Cerda, McLane’s representative, highlighted this delusion when he stated, “The data confirms that restorative practices at McLane are working as we intended it to work.” Sort of like bragging that no one drowned in the pool after the water was removed.

If the intention was for more than 80 percent of the teaching staff to be so fed up they needed to file a petition – congratulations! Mission accomplished.

The saddest part of this debacle is that it has ironically resulted in increased insecurity and systemic violence for our teachers and students who truly want to be educated.

But here is the most disappointing fact: This situation did not need to happen; it was self-inflicted.

Three years ago, there was a wonderful, accredited, academic program in Fresno Unified that took in up to 1,600 secondary students a year, who either could not – or should not – attend a traditional high school.

This program was a last-chance beacon of hope for thousands of students who, by their own fault or the fault of others, would have had no real chance of graduating from high school. It was called the J.E.Young Academic Center (JEY). It provided an educational sanctuary for the very students FUSD is trying to corral with this Restorative Justice debacle.

This program was as unique as it was successful. So much so, that other school districts across the state, as well as one visit by educators from China, wanted to see how JEY did it. It was a sound and highly effective program. The entire staff, from administrators to office help, at JEY were more of a “family” than a “faculty.”

Every student was treated – educationally and emotionally – as a unique individual. JEY accepted the entire spectrum of students; from those whose special needs could not be adequately met, to those whose behaviors could not be adequately accommodated on a traditional high school campus. This program was an oasis for students on the precipice of failure.

It was a wonderful independent study program that served the needs of those most in need. Everybody won. But that didn’t matter.

For spurious and ego-driven reasons, this program was dismantled and diminished to a mere shell of its former self. It was replaced by a program that failed after two years. Like prisons, it involves removing those in society with unacceptable behaviors and placing them into a concentrated environment of only themselves.

If shooting oneself in the foot was considered a good thing, then FUSD could qualify as a world-class marksman regarding this issue. If FUSD really wanted to practice restorative justice, it would bring JEY back to its previous stature. Maybe Larry Powell could help.

William (Bill) Larkin monitors online credit-recovery classes in the Apex program. He taught in the JEY program for eight years. Connect with him at William.Larkin@fresnounified.org.

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