Valley Voices

It’s time to bring the school model into the digital age. Our students depend on it

Roosevelt High School Principal Michael Allen directs students around campus before classes on the first day of school last August. Former county superintendent of schools Larry Powell says the Fresno Unified School District has a chance to remake itself into a district ready for the challenges of the digital age.
Roosevelt High School Principal Michael Allen directs students around campus before classes on the first day of school last August. Former county superintendent of schools Larry Powell says the Fresno Unified School District has a chance to remake itself into a district ready for the challenges of the digital age. Fresno Bee file

Fresno Unified School District is thankfully emerging from a time of transition and now has in place solid leadership through Superintendent Bob Nelson. I can think of no better time than now to renew the community’s commitment to our students. Since the original Choosing Our Future in 2005 much improvement has occurred, but much remains to be done. Now a new Choosing Our Future is under consideration by the FUSD board and I write today to support the recommendations.

GO Fresno has led this work by engaging nearly 800 parents, educators and community allies over nine months in a discussion of how our schools are doing and what they can do to continue to improve. While we have a much stronger financial position, better facilities, stronger and more streamlined operations and improved graduation and A-G completion rates, we are not finished.

The new Choosing Our Future report highlights this, along with additional data about where we are today. Too few students are ready to thrive. Two out of three students are below grade level in English and three out of four students are below grade level in math. Adding to this, the world now requires even more skills and abilities to thrive.

We know that 80 percent of new jobs will require some form of post-secondary training. It’s critical that students who graduate high school are prepared to choose college or trade school. It has been reported that 65 percent of students entering school today will have jobs that do not yet exist. By 2030, over 400 million workers may be displaced by automation, meaning even more students will need higher skills to compete in a global economy. Also, California will be short 1.1 million college graduates to fill new and existing jobs that require a higher education.

Amazing work has been done by our educators, but our core school model has remained largely unchanged. It’s been said that if Rip Van Winkle were to awaken today, the only thing he would recognize is public education. While humorous, we cannot continue to do what we have always done and expect better results. Our current model was developed to accommodate the baby boom post World War II. We know more about learning science and what is needed to support educators and excite young people now than ever before, yet putting this into practice is made challenging by a school model that is stubbornly stagnant.

Choosing Our Future offers a bold vision about new ways to improve educational outcomes so that every student is academically prepared for this new digital age and is prepared to be prepared to thrive in all facets of life.

Choosing Our Future highlights three critical policy recommendations: First, redefine what success looks like in the 21st century so that our students emerge with an employable skill set now required in the digital age. Second, empower students and educators with individualized data to ensure every child is making real adequate annual progress. This means setting achievable goals and then providing the resources and support to help students achieve their goals and graduate ready to thrive. Finally, create an innovation zone to design and support transformational school models. Some of our best schools have been empowered to do things differently, such as CART or Design Science or dual immersion elementary schools. They are asking that more schools and educators be provided this freedom.

We must ensure that our educators are given the freedom to design a school model and system that best meets the needs of their current students. An innovation zone will provide school sites who are in the zone with additional academic and financial flexibility in exchange for increased accountability. Through this, the hope is to create district-run, teacher-led schools that empower educators and meet the needs of all students.

The report doesn’t call for a one-size-fits-all idea, but rather advocates for letting our Fresno educators determine and create new innovative school models within their school and community.

Choosing Our Future has support from educators, community leaders, business leaders, civic leaders and hundreds of parents. We hope you will join us in supporting Choosing Our Future and ask the Fresno Unified board to accept the Choosing Our Future recommendations on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. Our community wins when all our students succeed.

Larry L. Powell (former Fresno County superintendent of schools)

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