Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa. Apr '13. Image by Nagarjun via Flickr Creative Commons

The ACLU Goes Back to School

The Golden Westside Planning Committee and others in southwest Fresno asked the Fresno Area American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Board to support community efforts to build a new neighborhood middle school in southwest Fresno. That seemed to be a reasonable request.

When we started to look into it, it became mind-boggling. First we talked to staff members at the San Francisco Affiliate. We discovered that the ACLU supports equal and integrated education with schools located throughout the area of a school district. The ACLU does not support “neighborhood schools.” Sound like semantics? Unfortunately, “neighborhood schools” is a nationally used code for “re-segregate our schools.”

But a new southwest Fresno middle school still sounded like a reasonable thing. So the ACLU-NC director for racial justice policy came to Fresno and met with some chapter board members and with members of the southwest Fresno community. After that meeting, the local board did some more investigating. From what we learned, there seems to be a two-pronged approach in Fresno to desegregating schools. There is a “Fresno Desegregation Policy” dating back to at least 1979. How can a 1979 desegregation policy possibly still be appropriate in a city that has changed so much? Must be, because the policy was reaffirmed in 2007 when the Fresno Unified School District applied for grants for magnet schools. We are trying to get a copy of that policy. The two elements of the desegregation policy seem to be to 1) use a system of magnet schools to encourage students to be bused voluntarily from their neighborhood and 2) involuntarily bus every middle school student from southwest Fresno to schools up to 10 miles away. If only one segment of the population is involuntarily bused, that is patently discriminatory. That puts us back on track for a southwest Fresno middle school.

But then there is the question whether southwest Fresno will support a new middle school. Some members of that community have told me that many people mistakenly think their children will get a better education in other schools and will still insist on busing their children out of the neighborhood. We have been told that the neighborhood Irwin Middle School was closed in the mid-1970s because it had so few students. Most neighborhood students were voluntarily bused elsewhere. After a few years, the old Irwin School was changed to the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) Computech Middle School. Unfortunately, although 10% of Fresno students are classified as GATE, there are no GATE students in southwest Fresno elementary schools and therefore no southwest Fresno students are eligible for Computech. I happen to know some highly gifted students in southwest Fresno, but they are not identified as GATE.

Several years ago, Carver Academy in southwest Fresno was converted from a K-6 school to a 5-8 middle school. But it never attracted students. It ran into achievement problems last year and has been changed to a 5-6 school. Carver enrolled about 270 students in 2009–2010; it could hold around 800 students, room for almost all the southwest students being involuntarily bused. We will have to go back and talk to community members about why Carver was unacceptable. Similar schools like Hamilton K-8 and Baird 5-8 are among the most popular in Fresno.

The school board has agreed to build a new middle school on property favored by the community. The problem is that the property is across the street from Carver on land in the West Fresno Elementary School District and the Washington Union High School District. Why is that property preferable to Carver? Carver could be a middle school tomorrow, with additional facilities built in the next few years. It could take several years of fighting with the other districts to use the site across the street. There is also the problem that a southwest middle school violates the desegregation policy, and that issue has not been addressed. We have to go back to the community on those questions.

And then there is the new FUSD Facilities Master Plan, which firmly embraces neighborhood, re-segregated, schools. It has redrawn the feeder school pattern to the extent that there will apparently be few slots available in magnet schools for out-of-boundary students, another problem with the desegregation policy and another element in re-segregating Fresno schools. The new feeder school map is really questionable on other issues besides leading toward re-segregation of schools. For instance, Fresno High School is a magnet school with an International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, and Wawona Middle School set up a similar program to feed into Fresno High. With the new feeder school map, Wawona will feed into Bullard High School. And magnet programs cannot easily be changed.

A teacher has told me that a student in a school with inferior API scores can demand to go to a better school. In response, large school districts like Los Angeles build new schools in “bad” neighborhoods. Because it takes three years to establish an API score in a middle school and five years in a high school, students in those neighborhoods can’t demand to go to a better school. The new Master Facilities Plan calls for new middle schools in southeast Fresno and southwest Fresno and a new high school in southeast Fresno.

Just to put this in context, FUSD schools are 13.5% White, 60.6% Hispanic, 10.7% African-American, and 13.7% Asian. Clovis schools are 48.6% White, 29.2% Hispanic, 3.6% African-American, and 13.2% Asian. Almost 40% of Clovis students are actually from Fresno. We are told that Fresno schools north of Shaw are up to 85% White.

On a less confused and more positive note, the Fresno Area Chapter of the ACLU held its annual membership meeting and election of a new board on September 13. The new board includes Bill Simon, Donna Hardina, Jean Hays, Dan Yaseen, Georgia Williams, Chuck Krugman, Catherine Campbell, Steve Malm, Phil Connelly, Anthony Yrigollen, and newcomers Kathy Mitchell, Leonel Flores, Janet Spinosa, Roger Brown and Carlos Casarez. Carlos lives in Dinuba and Janet in Madera, so we actually have board members from outside of Clovis and Fresno.

Special thanks go to our departing board members for their service: Rev. Floyd Harris, Heidi Saunier, Mike Rhodes and Pedro Ramirez.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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