Located in the heart of California’s agricultural interior, the Fresno community faces a unique blend of rural and urban characteristics. The city is home to large populations of Latinx, African-American and Southeast Asian, particularly Hmong and Punjabi, residents. These communities of color represent more than 70% of the total population in Fresno, yet have traditionally been underserved and underrepresented.
Language barriers, limited public transportation, few health care resources, and economic disinvestment from the city’s south and west sides have historically left many people of color at a disadvantage.
Income disparities between people living in Fresno Unified School District and those in surrounding school districts have made Fresno one of the most economically and racially segregated districts in the country. Currently, 89% of children attending Fresno Unified, California’s fourth largest district in the state, are living in poverty. Additionally, immigrant, Latinx, and Black communities are widely and increasingly targeted by Immigration Enforcement Agency (ICE) and the police-- leaving communities feeling especially vulnerable, and unsafe.
This trend is magnified within Fresno Unified School District (FUSD), where 90% of all students are youth of color and the teaching force is predominantly (60%) white. Fresno Unified struggles with racial disparities and unequal opportunity among it’s student population. In 2015-16, only 49% of Fresno students were enrolled in A-G classes. School discipline rates tell a similar story of disparity, with Black students greatly overrepresented -- accounting for 30 percent of all expulsions -- compared to any other student population.
“For students, school is so much more than academics. School should be a place where no student has to worry about about feeling excluded; where we can talk to a caring adult in our time of need. The need and want for better relationships is universal. It’s something we all need to succeed in life.”
– Draquari McGhee, CFJ Fresno student leader
Despite these challenges, Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) has made enormous strides. Fresno Unified continues to unfold as a bright spot in the State of California where graduation rates have increased over the last six years. In particular, Black, Latinx, and Hmong students who have historically struggled in Fresno schools have seen a significant jump in graduation rates over the last four years. Additionally, the number of students enrolled in A-G classes has almost doubled in the last 5 years - growing from 25 percent in 2009-10 to 49 percent in 2015-16.
CFJ Fresno is dedicated to ending the racial disparities experienced by our students and ensuring youth of color feel safe, supported and capable of thriving in school. By lifting up and activating the voices of young people of color in Fresno Unified, we seek to unlock the healthy, just and vibrant future the city deserves.
“When you make school climate a priority, you make homeless youth feel supported; you make sure foster youth don’t fall through the cracks…you make sure that 2 million students that do not have a single caring adult, have that adult in their lives.”
– Alena Cotton, CFJ Fresno Student Leader
Over the years, Californians for Justice has worked to bring real change to the district and promote educational justice:
- Fresno student leaders moved FUSD to lower the student-to-counselor ratio from 800 students per counselor to 450 students per counselor. The campaign also led to the district creating a student-friendly college access poster listing “A-G” university entrance requirements in every classroom.
- CFJ Fresno student leaders successfully petitioned FUSD to pilot “Know Your Rights” assemblies for all students. Students also called for and won the expansion of Race and Social Justice courses to every high school and continuation school in the district, helping the course qualify for A-G certification.
- After three years of petitioning the district, CFJ Fresno and youth advocacy allies succeeded in moving Fresno Unified to adopt a restorative justice framework at district high schools and dedicate over $3.6 million to implement it.
- Youth leaders also moved Fresno Unified school leaders to partner with CFJ to implement Relationship Centered Schools framework at Fresno Unified working to transform Fresno schools into places that value student voice, invest in staff, and create space for relationship building.
Our Current Work
Californians for Justice is working in a variety of ways to advance equity in Fresno to ensure every young person feels safe, supported and capable of thriving. Learn more about how we make change across the state here.
Relationship Centered Schools
Relationships between students and educators are crucial to raising student achievement and ending the school-to-prison-pipeline for youth of color. Through our Relationship Centered Schools Campaign, Californians for Justice youth leaders identified that caring relationships with educators were the key to ensuring students, especially students of color, feel like they belong, are believed in, and are supported to succeed in college, career, and community life. Unfortunately, school climate surveys show that 1 in 3 students in California cannot name a single caring adult on campus.
What is a Relationship Centered School?
A Relationship Centered School breaks down the cycles of racial bias and inequity in our schools by supporting educators and students to build relationships that embrace and empower all students to pursue their dreams. They are schools that invest in school staff, value student voice, and create space for relationship building.
To advance our Relationship Centered Schools campaign, Californians for Justice is collaborating with Fresno Unified School District and three early adopter high schools--Edison, McLane and Roosevelt--that are committed to building relationships as the foundation for racial equity. Student leaders at each site work closely with staff and administrators as a part of a design team tasked with identifying ways the campus can support relationship building. From master schedule changes and additional teacher professional development, to placing greater value on student voice in school policy and hiring decisions, our teams are working to ensure that teachers and students alike feel safe, supported and capable of thriving at school.
A critical strategy of our Relationship Centered Schools campaign is shifting the narrative in Fresno to see that race cannot be separated from how students of color experience the classroom and our education system. We are engaging youth, community allies, and educators in Fresno to discuss how we can better center race in our words, in our actions, and in our policies to truly address the inequities youth of color face in our schools and communities. By putting racial equity at the forefront of our work, we hope to promote innovative ideas and the honest reflection that is needed to break the cycle of racial bias and inequality.
Through our Relationship Centered Schools campaign, we aim to make significant progress in closing the racial achievement gap, ending punitive discipline practices, and retaining high-quality and diverse teachers in Fresno.
Equity & Engagement through the Local Control Funding Formula
Californians for Justice was instrumental in securing the adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). The new school funding formula is a key part of our goal to promote equity, engagement and accountability in the public education system, bringing real racial justice to our community. Since 2013, CFJ has worked with Fresno youth and families to understand the new law which prioritizes resources for low-income, English Learner and foster youth and requires greater levels of community input and accountability.
We launched and have continued to support a LCFF Student Advisory Committee which was one of the first in the state. The Student Advisory Committee has proven to be a critical mechanism for youth of color to be uplifted as valued decision-makers and stakeholders in and outside of the school district.
We are working with Fresno allies and education leaders to create more space for meaningful engagement among students and families in the district’s LCAP process. CFJ will continue to ensure that students and families are well-informed of the FUSD Local Control and Accountability Plan, are able to push for greater equity and accountability, and are meaningfully engaged in the decisions that impact them.
Youth Leadership & Civic Engagement
To ensure our goal of equity and racial justice in schools and our communities is achieved, CFJ is actively developing a multi-racial youth base in Fresno that is inclusive of LGBTQ students, foster youth, low-income and immigrant youth. We are actively growing our base of high school youth to include perspectives and promote leadership of students traditionally underrepresented in decision-making. We understand that these youth are the current and future leaders our city and state need, so now is the time to support them in using their voices for change.
CFJ provides leadership development opportunities throughout the school year and summer to ensure our youth leaders gain the political education and valuable organizing skills they need to lead social justice movements. Every year we hold a intensive five-week Summer Youth Leadership Academy, a Fall Leadership Bootcamp, and a Statewide Leadership Retreat in the Spring in addition to weekly youth meetings and workshops. Youth then apply what they are learning in real-time by taking leadership roles in school governance and in our advocacy campaigns.
Through our civic engagement work, CFJ is building an integrated voter engagement strategy with young voters of color in Fresno and across the state to ensure our policies and elected officials reflect their needs and interests. While some of our youth may be too young to vote, they are not too young to care. Fresno youth take active roles in leading “Get out the Vote” drives, voter education events, and youth-centered candidate forums for local elections.
CFJ Fresno is filling a unique role in the community and helping to shift the narrative to ensure our city’s youth are seen as valuable leaders that are worthy of the best Fresno possible.