In praise of the Fresno public high schools

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Many of us think of students from large public inner-city high schools as, well, somewhat deprived. How can they, we reason, get the same level of education, challenge and individual attention as those at, say, smaller and/or private institutions? I will admit to some of these biases, even though I come from a large, public Fresno high school myself and never felt the lack. (In fact, I feel I was quite prepared overall for college, and graduate school as well.)

I now coordinate the writing program at Fresno Pacific University, a private institution, and am observing closely who does and does not have difficulties with our English placement exam. The format is primarily a timed essay-writing exam, with a choice from two open-ended prompts. For the reading portion, an article from Newsweek, Time or some comparable magazine is used to check general comprehension. The exam takes one hour. Our freshmen write it so English department faculty can determine which freshman composition class they will be placed in. There is either the fast-paced one-semester writing course or the stretch class, which involves composing shorter essays in the first semester and the more arduous research paper in the second (not, by the way, with different standards, assignments or texts, but just with a slower pace and more outside support).

Over the past two years of collecting data on who meets the minimum requirement for the one-semester class and who does not, my colleagues and I have been a bit surprised by the results. Students from large Fresno high schools have fared quite well, overall, matching success rates with other high schools in the Valley and elsewhere, public or private. In fact, students from Fresno public schools have in some cases outperformed students from some smaller, rural schools, and even some of the private high schools in the area. From 2006-2008, 70 percent of students from Fresno public schools met the minimum writing and reading scores for placement the one-semester writing course, while 68.5 percent of students from other schools met those requirements. This followed a pattern in the previous few years that between 50 and 65 percent of our incoming freshmen placed in the standard, one-semester course.

On the other end of the spectrum, when we looked at placement test data for our lowest-scoring students over the past two years, we found:

  • Only 11 percent of the students from Fresno public high schools were unable to reach our minimum requirement for both writing and reading, placing them in the developmental, stretch class.
  • In comparison, 16 percent of students from other high schools (including private schools and schools from outlying towns), were unable to reach our requirements for both the writing and the reading tests.
  • If the above number is broken down further, 22 percent of students from private schools (twice the percentage of Fresno public schools) were unable to reach minimum requirements for both writing and the reading.

What do these numbers tell us? Well, perhaps not a lot, since it is only two years of data collection, and there are several factors involved. Perhaps, however, the findings suggest Fresno public high schools are doing a good job of preparing students for college—despite the challenges of poverty and English language learners. The average of approximately 90 percent of Fresno students reaching minimum scores on our English placement test, either in writing or reading, is something to be proud of. No doubt aiding the preparedness of students are the programs put in place to increase the rigor of academic classes in Fresno high schools—the International Baccalaureate program at Fresno High, the GATE program at Edison, University High’s rigorous standards, the Doctors Academy at Sunnyside to name a few. Also, of course, AP and honors classes are likely contributing as well.

So this study may suggest Fresno public high schools do not need to take a back seat to other schools, public or private. To the principals, staff and especially teachers in these schools, we commend your efforts and say, “Well done!” You do not deserve a bad rap, but rather our praise. Whatever you are doing is working. We at the university are observing your success and want to say “thanks” for preparing our future students well.

Fran Martens Friesen teaches in the English department at Fresno Pacific University.

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