by Gail Allyn Short
In 2018, Veva Islas won a seat on the Fresno Unified School District Board. It was her second attempt at elected office.
Islas, who directs a local nonprofit, lost her bid for a seat on the Fresno City Council earlier that year and says she thought she would never try again. Friends, however, convinced her to run for school board.
And she won.
“I know it seems cliché when elected officials say they wanted to run to make a difference. But it really was my interest to try and advance education equity and correct some of the inequities that I was seeing,” she says. “That drove me to want to serve.”
As a member of the FUSD Board, she and her colleagues oversee the welfare of more than 76,000 students. Specifically, Islas represents students living in south central Fresno; it’s an area with a large immigrant population, including a sizable Latino community as well as Hmong, Laotian, Punjabi and other ethnic communities.
South central Fresno is also an area that suffers from poverty and is in need of much economic development, Islas says. As a consequence, many students lack the educational and enrichment opportunities their wealthier counterparts enjoy.
Islas says she knows what it is like to grow up without all of the educational resources she needed at the time.
“That perspective helps me to understand the necessities of immigrant families who may have parents like mine who didn’t have a lot of educational experience and understand what it’s like to really grow up in poverty,” she says.
In response to the disparities, Islas says the school district has implemented a number of programs over the years to help young children from minority and underserved communities achieve greater academic success. “Here in Fresno, we’ve expanded our afterschool programming. We’ve also invested in early education, which are actually educational opportunities even before kindergarten, pre-K and transitional kindergarten.”
This includes the existence of early learning child development centers that support working parents of infants, toddlers and pre-K children.
“This also was the first year we significantly expanded our summer programming, which included not just recreation, but a lot of enrichment programs for our students,” she says.
Moreover, FUSD manages the Office of African American Academic Acceleration, or A4, that aims to improve educational outcomes for African American children and youngsters in other demographic groups.
Additionally, the district offers English Learner Services for children learning English as their second language, she says.
Islas knows firsthand that voting in school board and other elections can make a difference in the kinds and quality of programs and services that children receive. To help their children, parents need to vote.
“Their voice and their vote matters,” she says. “If they care about the safety of their children, the quality of their education, what they’re taught in school, the books they’re reading, the opportunities they have to explore higher education and be counseled and have safe places to play at recess, then absolutely their voices can make a huge difference in changing the things they don’t like.”
Even parents who, because of their immigration status, are unable to vote in elections should speak up to those in public office, she says. “Their voice still makes a huge difference because I, as an elected official, know that many of my constituents aren’t able to vote for me. But they definitely help me to stay informed about the issues that are impacting their children and think of ideas for how to address those issues.”
In the end, Islas says more parents should be involved in their children’s education. “What I’ve observed is that those students with parents who are engaged and involved are generally the students who are more successful.”