Four years ago, I took a seat in the nosebleed section at the Save Mart Center and watched the senior class at Bullard High say goodbye. I was only a ninth-grader but on the way home I got to thinking: What if I could someday graduate first in my class and deliver a commencement speech that reached past the clichés?
Thanks to my parents and teachers and a lot of grinding work, I will be graduating first in my class at Bullard High and attending Stanford University in the fall. But when the commencement speakers, each one deserving, deliver their remarks, I won’t be among them.
I did write a speech and submit it to a panel of school administrators, but it wasn’t selected. My speech didn’t fit the mold the panel had given us. My speech touched on sensitive issues about the broken nature of Bullard High and the Fresno Unified School District. One classmate who read it said that my approach wasn’t in keeping with the “positive” vibe of commencement day. Didn’t I understand that the adults wanted it safe, bland?
But Bullard taught me persistence. If you encounter a roadblock, find an end-around. So here is the speech I had hoped to deliver. I’ll let you, the reader, be the judge.
Dear classmates, teachers, administrators, parents, family and friends:
The day before my 15th birthday, I sat in our cafeteria and awaited a bold new vision for Bullard High and its feeder schools. That evening, hundreds of community members were gathered as Superintendent Hanson’s regional plan for northwest Fresno was unveiled. The comprehensive reform called for school uniforms, stronger discipline, GATE classes that didn’t require busing, a real working Law magnet and smaller class sizes.
As I moved through my years at Bullard, not one of these reforms was ever implemented by Superintendent Hanson and the school board. We had so many students crowded onto campus that my German teacher had to convert a textbook table into makeshift desks. I counted four big fights within a month’s span. Teachers were routinely told to “f-off.” More than one teacher was violently assaulted. And yet the district discouraged suspensions and expulsions.
Vast patches of the school were ruled by complacency. Many teachers held such low expectations for students that disengagement became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fresno Unified, searching for a metric to judge the effectiveness of our education, was using the graduation rate as a proxy for student engagement. But in the race to the top, we were actually running to the bottom.
It was hard to believe how embedded the culture of cheating was. One teacher gave us the answers to the test minutes before we took it. In other classes, teacher’s assistants handed out copies of the test the day before. If you still flunked a class, no need to worry. You could now simply take a credit recovery course for a few hours online and find yourself back on track. This is how the graduation rate was made to look better.
One of my best friends left Bullard for Clovis Unified, and others followed. I, too, began to wonder if Bullard was the right place for me. Such a thought would have been inconceivable only a decade before. That’s when Bullard ranked as one of the very best high schools in the Valley. But we had fallen far down the list – and fast.
Though it wasn’t easy, I stuck it out. I found a stubborn culture of excellence that still remained at Bullard. I was lucky to land in a trigonometry class taught by Ms. Denbesten. I had much curiosity about the world but lacked a solid foundation in logic and mathematics. It seemed that with each lesson, a new peel of the onion of the world was revealed.
I will never forget the intense look in her eyes when she responded to a question. I could feel her energy as she calculated the best way to explain an idea to not only have the student understand it, but also to tee up the concept for application to a more sophisticated problem later. No longer were my math concepts pigeon-holed into discrete formulas simply to be memorized. Math had an underlying connectedness pervading each idea. It was intuitive.
It’s the same with our community. Fresno’s north and south sides are eternally tied. What happens in one end affects the other end. I read the other day about a new national study that found that young adults in Fresno are among the most ill-prepared and disconnected in the nation. They are roaming the city without the job skills or the educational background to find their place.
Some people blame this on the fragmentation of our families; others blame it on the failure of Fresno Unified to provide real career technical education. But each one plays a part.
Even as the buildings of Bullard High undergo a mass renovation, the achievement gap inside the classrooms between white students and students of color is as wide as ever. As families continue to flee Fresno Unified, I wonder what will become of Bullard High and its feeder schools a decade from now.
Will Fresno continue to regard its neighborhoods as disposable? Will the Bullard community be left behind, too, on the great march northward? As I look to my road ahead, I can’t help but see the road behind. It’s not only a bunch of new buildings that we ought to be erecting. It’s a whole new way of thinking about the promise of education.
Gregory Weaver is a 2016 graduate of Bullard High School.