How 3 superintendents are finding fresh purpose by adapting a whole child focus

'We're maximizing every minute. And we're leaning into kids' interests,' one leader says.

A whole child approach is central to Superintendent Bob Nelson’s mission to change the negative perceptions about Fresno USD, one of the most impoverished of the nation’s large, urban school districts.

Superintendent Bob Nelson (Photo: Fresno USD)
Superintendent Bob Nelson (Photo: Fresno USD)

“We need to fix that for our kids,” says Nelson, now in his sixth year at the helm of California’s third-largest school district. “When kids are starting to believe in themselves, it stops the self-loathing.”

One key to achieving this, however, is being authentic about the system’s shortcomings—and that cultural shift starts with the superintendent and the leadership team. “You can’t have a culture of failing forward if everyone pretends every day that nothing is wrong,” Nelson explains. “As a leader, you’re either a barrier, a vehicle for the accomplishments of others or you’re irrelevant—in none of those roles are you a human. So the question is, ‘How do you present as a human every day from a leadership perspective.'”

Nelson’s efforts are an example of how District Administration‘s latest group of superintendents to watch are finding renewed purpose in prioritizing the whole child in meeting the needs of all learners.

‘Maximizing every minute’

One positive at Fresno USD is that the district not having to deal with declining enrollment or staff shortages because housing costs are much more affordable than in the Los Angeles or San Francisco areas. Despite an 88% poverty rate, its students are outpacing their peers across the state in academic growth.

However, they still lag behind in overall proficiency—about one-third of Fresno USD’s students are at grade level in math and the rate is only slightly higher in English. “We’re making growth faster than other districts but we’re way behind because we’re starting way behind,” Nelson adds. “So we’re expanding what kids can do.”

That whole child-driven expansion includes winter enrichment camps that focus on specialties such as engineering and aviation during the district’s three-week winter break. The program combines academics with activities such and skiing and snowboarding as some students have never left the Fresno metropolitan area. Fresno USD also oversees all after-school programs to ensure the instruction and the other activities offered are an extension of what students are working on during regular class time.

“We’re maximizing every minute,” Nelson says. “And we’re leaning into kids’ interests.”

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Because the Fresno area lags behind the rest of California in bachelor’s degree attainment, the district is hoping to partner with a historically Black college and university to locate a branch campus in the city. The closest HBCU is in Texas and Fresno State University is the only institute of higher education in the city, meaning students often leave the area to pursue post-secondary education.

He is also focused on the emotional well-being of students, staff and the wider community as everyone tries to recover from the upheavals of the last three years while coping with new spates of violence in some neighborhoods. He’s also concerned that the controversies that have erupted around public education will dissuade people from choosing education as a career.

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“Nobody would paint what happened during the pandemic as a success story for kids,” he points out. “And kids know exactly how you see them, so if you try to be anything other than authentic, kids know it’s a hustle.”

Here for the whole child

In Northern California, leaders at Manteca USD have centralized the students in everything they do because “that’s the purpose of us being here,” Superintendent Clark Burke says. That guiding philosophy led Burke and his team to rebuild key parts of the Manteca USD system—instead of trying to resuscitate programs that weren’t working. In the process, they identified “authentic and aligned” data points to better deploy resources and meet students’ learning needs.

Students need to feel good about the social-emotional setting in order to self-actualize and learn,” Burke says. “We have to look at equitable solutions based on individual student needs—we have to focus on the core learning and giving that differentiated support while meeting our base program.”

These whole child concepts helped the district zero in on its priorities—which include standards, safety and students’ diverse learning styles—and define the outcomes Manteca USD’s educators are working to achieve. Leaders at each school in the district develop their own strategic plans to better delineate their building’s needs. Teachers, students, parents and community members are also involved in creating these plans that tend to include a strong focus on interim and formative assessment data to measure each learner’s progress more consistently and accurately.

Then, educators are using that data to reflect and refine practices all the way down to specific classroom practices. They also use the information to ensure programs are student-driven and to eliminate practices and initiatives that aren’t working.

“We spend a lot of time defining the base programs that every student gets—that’s the equal access,” he explains. “Then we look at supplemental programming as an equity-based initiative and we look for those barriers where there’s a deficit in the base programs”

Burke and his team have also prioritized collaboration among Manteca USD’s departments to align initiatives and prevent educators from falling into silos. That’s a pretty lofty goal for an organization of its size, he says.  “Collective capacity can’t just be a school board mission statement,” he continues. “It has to be replicable, it has to be articulated all the way down to the classroom—when we share a common vision and a common purpose and we know where we trying to go, it makes the journey much easier.”

Student advisory councils are safe spaces

The Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council at San Juan USD near Sacramento, California, is a sign to the community that students’ perspectives are prioritized and valued by the district’s leaders and educators, “We’ve created a safe space with these students where they feel comfortable emailing me with concerns and ideas,” Superintendent Kent Kern says. “I’m here to listen and to create opportunities for change.”

San Juan USD launched its student advisory council in the 2017-18 school year and its members have tackled issues such as mental wellness, finding trusted adults on campus and enhancing student communication channels. The council, which comprises two students from each San Juan USD high school, recently launched a student podcast and social media accounts and has also created scholarship opportunities. The group is currently working on updating the district’s dress code. Highlights include:

  • 2017-18: Created a survey to identify the social-emotional and academic needs of high school students.
  • 2018-19: All of San Juan USD’s high schools now have their own branded app, which was the council’s solution for removing barriers to student communication.
  • 2019-20: Creating a “Find Your Trusted Adult” campaign to support the social-emotional needs of teens. The initiative, however, was cut short by COVID.
  • 2020-21: Established a San Juan Student podcast and scholarships for graduating seniors that have awarded 40 students $500 each over the last two years. The council also established a Student Speakers Series on how students were dealing with the impacts of COVID.

The dress code has been the council’s project this school year and last. It surveyed 4,500 students to gather their views on the dress code, how it’s enforced and whether it should be updated.

Each summer, more than 100 students apply to serve on the council and their applications are reviewed by the existing council members. “Students bring feedback, perspectives and ideas from their own experience at their high school to share with me and other members of district leadership,” Kern concludes. “This has provided us the opportunity to elevate student voice and create opportunities for systemic change.”


Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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