By Daren Miller
The year is 1970. The location is Lincoln Elementary School, located at the corners of California Avenue and B Street, in the Golden Westside of Fresno. It’s the first day of school for numerous students across the city. At Lincoln Elementary, it is a special day because it also marks the beginning of a trend that would benefit every child at the site for the next two decades, especially African American children.
The new principal at Lincoln Elementary School was Verdell Newsome. He rose quickly to the role as principal, supported by Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) Superintendent Jerry Rosander, who understood the need for African American male leadership in the district. Although Newsome was not the first African American male principal in FUSD, a distinction held by Rutherford B. Gaston, he would clearly grow to be one of the most successful and impactful principals in FUSD history.
Principal Newsome’s tenure at Lincoln Elementary lasted six years, before being transferred to Tioga Middle School. He was moved to Tioga when FUSD instituted mandatory busing in the district. Graduating sixth graders from Lincoln Elementary were bused from Lincoln to Tioga, located in the northeast area of Fresno. Tioga was not the only middle school receiving bused students, but it was by far receiving the largest group of West Fresno students being bused out of the area at the time.
Newsome’s stay at Tioga was brief. He would be assigned to Edison High School to join the returning bused students from Lincoln for their high school days. There were Edison High School graduates in the 1980s who only had one principal, Newsome, for their entire K-12 school existence.
Although Newsome’s principalship in FUSD was extremely storied, it was not unique. There were other African American male principals working all over FUSD and surrounding school districts. Men such as Dolphas Trotter, Dr. Joe Lee, Bobby Lee, Roland Johnson, Curtis Hurd, John Shropshire, Stan McDonald, Bob Edmonds and Nadar Ali were serving students at all grades in FUSD. And they were joined by Columbus Craig, Frank Johnson, Dr. Willie Thomas, Henry Jules and Dr. James Rhodes who worked as principals in the surrounding districts of Clovis Unified, Washington Union and Ivy/Western Elementary School.
Nearly four decades later, there are only two African American male principals working in all of Fresno County. Dr. Brian Clark, elementary principal in the Central Unified School District, and Prince Marshall, middle school principal in the Washington Unified School District. Despite growing to be the third largest school district in California, serving some 75,000 students, FUSD does not employ any African American male principals at any of its 130+ school sites. The last African American male principal to work in FUSD was Dr. Stephen Morris, who left the district in 2012.
In addition, academic achievement for all students in the Central Valley has been disappointing. For 2018, CNBC listed the Fresno/Clovis area as one of the least educated metropolitan regions in the United States. Their reporting cited factors such as low public school quality, minimal graduation rates, lacking college degree attainment, high levels of poverty, substantial health risks and deficient access to educational materials as negatively affecting educational outcomes for students in the region.
One could also add the factor of educational leadership to the equation. Dr. Pedro Noguera, distinguished professor of education at UCLA, says that African American principals can serve in role modeling for students, especially students from the African diaspora. He would likely agree that there is no more impactful educational leadership position than that of principal.
Immediately, upon his arrival as president of Fresno State, Dr. Joseph Castro challenged everyone to “be bold.” And “be bold” is what Fresno State has strived to be. Since his arrival, the university has risen to esteemed academic achievement levels being recognized as one of the top 25 universities in the country. He is the first ethic president in the university’s history.
The State Center Community College District (SCCCD) is one of the largest community college districts in the state. SCCCD serves approximately 70,000 students residing in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties at seven colleges and center facilities. The district’s achievement and graduation rates have continuously improved since the arrival of the current chancellor, Dr. Paul Parnell. Dr. Parnell has taken his own “bold” steps to employ nontraditional leaders at each of his sites. Three of the four colleges in the district are led by women, one being openly LGBT+, and the fourth campus is led by a Hispanic male.
Fresno Pacific University (FPU) also entered the realm of being “bold” when it hired Dr. Joseph Jones as university president. Dr. Jones is African American and arrived in Fresno from the East Coast and Pakistan. FPU leadership was not swayed by his ethnicity. They hired him because they sought a Godly, educational leader, and Dr. Jones fulfilled their outline for presidential leadership.
A California State Board of Education trustee, Dr. Linda Darling Hammond, states that status quo school leadership is being challenged by an increasingly diverse student population. And an Eastern Michigan University professor, Pat Williams-Boyd, exclaimed that educational leaders are challenged to educate an increasingly diversified student population. Fresno area K-12 districts need to navigate a similar direction as that of these higher-education institutions when seeking, hiring and supporting their principal cadres.
African American students have been the lowest performing ethnic cohort in FUSD and other area districts for the past two decades. “While (FUSD) experiences overall increases in student graduation rates, Advanced Placement course enrollment and the number of college and university applications completed, FUSD recognized our African American students are not experiencing these positive trends at the same rate” (FUSD African American Academic Acceleration Department (A4)).
Current FUSD Superintendent Bob Nelson says that “this work requires allies that are willing to move, to act and to put time and resources behind an effort to close a gap. For Black students, we’re not meeting the bar. We need to declare that publicly and do better.”
There exists a local history of successful African American male principals in the area, positive ethnic educational leaders at surrounding higher-education institutions and a body of research that supports the need for ethnic male K-12 educational leadership.
It is for all these reasons that surrounding K-12 districts should accept the challenge to “be bold,” think bold and achieve bold by recruiting, training and maintaining African American male and other ethnic male principals to work in their districts.
“Where have they all gone?” must become a statement of history, never again to be pondered by K-12 school districts in the Central Valley.
Dr. Daren Miller is a recent doctoral graduate from the Educational Leadership Program at Fresno State and a middle school counselor in the Madera Unified School District. He also serves as an elected official on the Fresno County Board of Education, Trustee Area 3, and is a member of numerous community organizations.