Fresno State initiative trains teachers from South Valley to stay and work

by Kathleen R. Schock

On most days it’s the moon that escorts Danny Velazquez to the parking lot after he closes down the fifth-grade classroom he leads at Porterville’s Olive Street Elementary School.

“I walk the hallway at 7:30 at night, and I’m usually the last car here,” he says with a shrug. But Velazquez is there, not only late at night but often weekends too, because to him, teaching is more than a job. “Seeing kids move up a reading level or reaching that higher test score, that’s the reward. That’s why it’s worth it.”

Velazquez sees a lot of himself in the students who fill his classroom. As the child of farmworkers, he knows the kind of hardship many of his students face at home. But he also knows the impact a good teacher can make. “For me, it was my kindergarten teacher, Ms. Hernandez. I wanted to be a teacher ever since her class.”

That connection to his teacher cemented his dream, but the path to becoming a teacher remained elusive. “Where I come from people don’t go to college. Of all my friends I think I’m the only one. So even though I knew what my goal was, where’s the money going to come from?”

With the help of financial aid, Velazquez was able to earn his bachelor’s degree and teaching credential from Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education and Human Development. He says the path to higher education wasn’t easy, but it was worth it — because his degree changed not only his life, but also the lives of every student who enters his classroom.

“If you think about how a teacher impacts students, the multiplying effect is incredible because that one teacher has the opportunity to touch multiple lives year round,” says Karri Hammerstrom, a longtime supporter of the Kremen School who, along with other community members, is active on a steering committee working to the open doors of opportunity for the next generation of teachers in the South Valley.



South Valley Initiative is born

The South Valley Education Initiative was born from the vision of Dr. Robert Aguilar, a former teacher, counselor, principal, administrator and superintendent with deep roots in the South Valley. “Let’s do something for these kids when they become high school seniors so they have an opportunity to go to college. There’s financial aid, but if that doesn’t cover it, how about scholarships?” says Aguilar, who was chosen as a 2015 Top Dog by the Fresno State Alumni Association.

“Dr. Aguilar’s vision is contagious,” Hammerstrom says. “If a student has a desire to go to college, and they have the sense that they want to be a teacher, perhaps we could help provide for scholarships to fund that education.”

In addition to scholarships, the initiative supports students in Tulare, Kings and Kern counties with a teacher residency program designed to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers to serve the students of the South Valley. As part of this program, resident teachers coming out of Fresno State commit to teach in partner South Valley school districts for at least three years.

Since launching in 2014, the South Valley Education Initiative has raised $205,000 to improve educational attainment in the South Valley. The goal is to establish an endowment to provide a permanent pipeline of teachers to serve the region.

“It’s tough to find teachers who are willing to put in the extra time and are willing to make a difference,” Velazquez admits. But as he looks out over his classroom, he knows the South Valley Education Initiative will be there to support the students he inspires. “The work Dr. Aguilar is doing, I know it will make dreams come true.”

— Kathleen R. Schock is director of strategic communications at Fresno State.