Valley Voices

Fresno County students succeed despite daunting barriers

Hank Gutierrez graduated from Fowler High and attended California State University, Fresno. He is now assistant superintendent at Washington Unified School District in Fresno.
Hank Gutierrez graduated from Fowler High and attended California State University, Fresno. He is now assistant superintendent at Washington Unified School District in Fresno. Vida en el Valle file

Thank you, educators!

The recent news from the California Department of Education regarding overall increased graduation rates (82.3 percent in 2015) comes with much-needed reassurance, but no surprise for those working in the field of K-12 public education.

It’s no surprise because these promising results are affirmation that we can help our students succeed. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson explained, “This is encouraging news any way you look at it, especially since the increase is occurring as we are introducing much more rigorous academic standards.

“I am also pleased to see the first signs of the narrowing of the pernicious and persistent achievement gap.”

As the school year comes to an end, teachers are already asking themselves the same question, “What can I do better next year to prepare my kids for success?”

I say, “Thank you, educators” because you do the best you can each and every day. At times, you have to fill in the gaps emotionally, spiritually and financially. It does not go overlooked by your students.

In Fresno County, more than 70 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. That means that seven out of 10 families are struggling financially in some form or another.

More importantly, it suggests that a majority of our students are at greater risk for academic failures. Teachers are fully aware of these sobering statistics, yet continue to challenge the perceived barriers to bring about student success.

It is well known that academic struggles and sometimes behavioral issues are manifestations of the home life, which include a plethora of deficiencies, such as a lack of early literacy and language fluency, malnutrition, homelessness and single-parent households.

And yet our teachers continue to use best practices, leaving no stone unturned in order to become difference makers.

Valley students are rising to the challenge because of a collaborative and focused effort on delivering proven curriculum. Now, as the standards have become increasingly rigorous, it’s even more urgent that daily instructional expectations revolve around engaging students interactively and intentionally.

It is also well known that students who are faced with academic challenges, language barriers and low self-esteem, thrive when they are engaged with purposeful and meaningful learning outcomes.

And as any teacher will tell you, self-confidence builds success and success fosters resiliency. Why is this notion of building academic resiliency in our students so important? It allows our children to look beyond where the next meal is coming from, forget the social pitfalls, and sets the foundation of belief that their educational journey will pay off.

Charles Mendez III, director of the C.E. Mendez Foundation, recently stated, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that students who feel more connected to their school have better health and educational outcomes than those who do not. It is vital for schools to foster the belief that the adults and peers at school care about the student education as well as about the students as individuals.”

The four main factors directly affecting school connectedness are:

▪ Adult support and leadership: Students need positive support and respect from the adults in their lives, both at home and at school.

▪ Positive peer groups: Students are heavily influenced by their peers, often basing their opinions and activities on what the peer group supports.

▪ Commitment to education: When students are committed to their own education and the belief that education is a priority, they feel more of a connection to their school community and have greater academic success.

▪ School environment: The environment created by the school, also referred to as school climate, is an essential piece of school connectedness.

All four factors for developing school connectedness are bolstered by ensuring students have strong social-emotional skills. In essence, positive experiences with adults, peers and school climate strengthen social-emotional skills, which lead to an academically resilient child.

There is no surprise in the increased graduation rates reported by the California Department of Education, especially those of Hispanic or Latino students up 1.9 percentage points to 78.5 percent and our African American subgroup rose to 70.8 percent from 68.2 percent. No surprise because our kids are capable of insurmountable tasks.

Look at Fresno County; the numbers are even greater (nearly 2 percent higher in every subgroup). It is a testament that our teachers are working deliberately and efficiently to provide a rigorous and relevant education, coupled with positive relationships that will only continue to yield more of the recent good news.

Some districts in Fresno County are reporting graduation rates among cohorts at nearly 98 percent overall. That is astonishing.

As a Hispanic male, raised by a single mother in the small town of Fowler, I do not have all the answers of how to break the cycle of poverty. What I do know is that being afforded a quality education and fostering academic resiliency was my great equalizer.

Thank you, Valley teachers and educators, your hard work does not go overlooked. Please believe that you are developing those resilient and capable learners who shall see their true potential one day at a time.

Hank Gutierrez is assistant superintendent at Washington Unified School District in Fresno and was the Fresno County Office of Education Administrator of the Year in 2014.