Alumna develops new K-12 resources for teaching Native American histories

Determined to improve the way K-12 students are educated about the histories of Indigenous peoples, Fresno State alumna Marie Casao (Narragansett) has developed new resources for California teachers.

She curated a curriculum for educators who aim to teach about American Indian tribes and their relationships with ecosystems. This list of educational resources is directly tied to the intellectual knowledge of tribal peoples and their environments.

Casao, who completed Fresno State’s curriculum and instruction graduate program and earned a certificate in educational technology, is a Central Valley native and grew up in Lindsay, 60 miles south of Fresno.

While working as a teacher at a Valley elementary school, Casao, a member of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island, said she felt unnerved when she saw first-hand how teachers referenced Indigenous peoples in the past tense and had students dress up as an “Indian” for a day. “We don’t teach about what it is to be Native in a modern society,” Casao said.

After enrolling in the Master of Arts in Education option in curriculum and instruction at Fresno State, Casao met Dr. Leece Lee-Oliver (Blackfeet/Choctaw/Wyandot/Cherokee), director of the American Indian Studies program and assistant professor at Fresno State.

Lee-Oliver assisted Casao with opportunities such as building a virtual learning science curriculum with the Fresno American Indian Health Project. Casao also collaborated with Fresno State’s California Indian Conference, a digital exhibit that celebrates the perseverance and vibrancy of California American Indian cultures.

“Students should be aware of their local history,” Casao said. “This exhibit offers a way for teachers to explore with their students and acknowledge the land they live on.”

According to the National Congress of American Indians, 87% of state history standards do not mention Native American history after 1900. Thus, creating an inaccurate representation of the many tribes, communities, and individuals that are current and active across the nation.

“In the first grade, I remember dressing up as an ‘Indian’ with my little construction paper headdress and all the kids sat down at a long table in the classroom and celebrated what the teacher said was the first Thanksgiving,” said Dr. Wild Garnett (Lemhi Shoshone), assistant professor of special education at Fresno State.

“Most of what was taught about American Indians in school is purely from a European perspective. It is a perspective that ignores our spiritual existence and connection to all things. It ignores our stories, our practices, our connection to the earth, and all the living beings upon it, and ignores how we create and share knowledge.”

As of 2018, only 0.41% of professors in higher education are of American Indian or Alaska Native descent — one of the most underrepresented groups in higher education. Fresno State is home to nine American Indian faculty members, making up 0.60% of the faculty at the University.

As Casao reflects on her time at Fresno State, her heart warms as she remembers the ample support of her faculty. Before enrolling in her master’s program, she met with Dr. Carol Fry Bohlin, Curriculum and Instruction Department chair, and was supported in her desire to infuse Native American Studies into her education.

She also took classes with Dr. Roy Bohlin, professor emeritus, and appreciated his accommodations to customize final projects on her interests in topics such as Native youth and science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education.

“Because of all of the support from my professors, I have been able to learn how to become a better researcher, improve my writing skills, learn new teaching strategies, learn new methodologies, technology resources and much more,” Casao said.

After graduating in spring 2021, Casao began working as a program officer for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. She works with pre-college programs and builds curricula to provide schools and teachers across the nation with STEAM resources. “Connecting with people who have very similar missions as me and interacting with Indigenous students is a highlight of this work,” Casao said.

Because of efforts such as Casao’s, teachers across the country are steadily gaining access to more resources on Indigenous education. In 2018, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian launched Native Knowledge 360o, an initiative aiming to improve how Native American history and culture are taught in schools.

Initiatives such as these, in addition to local efforts, are helping teachers incorporate current Native histories into the classroom – working to increase the inclusivity of Indigenous cultures in education.

Student-athletes make lasting impact on Valley’s youth

Fresno State women’s soccer player Kayla King is driven to help others — and she has shown it throughout her college years. 

When she started her postsecondary education, she began working as a tutor for school-aged children. Tutoring came naturally to King and created an opportunity for her to work directly with children.

While earning a degree in liberal studies at Fresno State, King excelled at juggling both academics and athletics.

“Being a student-athlete really teaches you a lot about, not only yourself, but how important managing your time is,” said King, a Hollister native. “It teaches you great life lessons that people end up taking with them for the remainder of their lives.” 

Being a student-athlete provided King with a variety of opportunities to partner in the community. In April, King and other student-athletes spoke virtually at a College and Career Day at Wawona K-8 School in Fresno Unified School District. This annual event encourages students to think about their future and what opportunities lie ahead.

“We want local heroes for our kids,” said Bob Nelson, superintendent of Fresno Unified. “We want our kids to see student-athletes who came from their neighborhood and who will inspire them.”

At the College and Career Day, King connected with 15 seventh and eighth graders and shared her story of how she became an athlete. She remembers them asking many questions about what it’s like to be a student-athlete. 

Fresno State is fully immersed in the community and continues to find ways for increased collaboration. In just one year, student-athletes volunteered 4,000 community service hours at 460 organizations. In addition to serving the community, the athletics department had a collective 3.30 GPA in spring 2020. This marked the 19th consecutive semester of over a 3.0 departmental GPA. 

“We’re always looking for opportunities to impact our community, and specifically the youth in our community, in a positive manner,” said Terry Tumey, Fresno State’s director of athletics.

With over 6,000 new undergraduate students overall enrolled in fall 2020, 52 percent are from Fresno County. 

“Our staff, coaches and student-athletes understand the important platform we have, and we all collectively consider it an honor to give back and inspire the next generation of Bulldogs and leaders in our Valley,” Tumey said. “Partnering with local school districts to help encourage the importance of education is a privilege for us.”

Bulldog Buddies

Kendall Boliba, a Fresno State athletics academic adviser, grew up as an athlete and remembers engaging with the community in a pen pal project when she was younger. The program was impactful for her, and she wanted to create something similar in the Valley. 

In fall 2019, Boliba partnered with Prince Marshall, then principal of West Fresno Elementary School in Washington Unified School District. She pitched the idea of creating a pen pal program with Fresno State student-athletes. 

With support from Marshall and West Fresno Elementary teachers, Boliba organized for the women’s water polo team to become pen pals with a second-grade class in 2019. She called it the Bulldogs Buddy program. 

This program was powerful for West Fresno Elementary, not only by directly connecting students to collegiate athletes but also by positively reinforcing the power of reading and writing.

According to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (2019), 53% of third-grade students in Fresno County didn’t meet the ELA/Literacy standards. And 83% of West Fresno Elementary third graders didn’t meet the standards.

West Fresno Elementary worked the Bulldogs Buddy program into its curriculum. The second graders wrote back-and-forth with their Fresno State pen pals and worked on incorporating open-ended questions and weekly writing prompts. Marshall said he saw a direct impact on the students’ eagerness to read and write.

“Writing is one of the most difficult tasks for our students, especially second-language learners,” said Beth Liberta, second-grade teacher at West Fresno Elementary. “When we write narratives, informational or persuasive stories the students struggle to develop proper sentences and those sentences are often very short and without details. However, when my students write to their Fresno State Buddies, their sentences are endless and so full of life.”

Though the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily paused the program, Boliba plans to expand the Bulldogs Buddy program across multiple school districts in the Central Valley.

While this program provides a way for Fresno State student-athletes of any major to engage with and positively impact Valley youth, some decide to make a career out of teaching.

After King graduated with her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, she immediately enrolled in Fresno State’s early childhood education graduate program. She is eager to get into the classroom and begin directly impacting Valley youth. She hopes to become an elementary school teacher and one day work with students with special needs.

Meet Sanger Unified’s deputy principal – Samuel Polanco

Fresno State prepares 60% of school administrators across the region.

The Kremen School of Education and Human Development places considerable emphasis on an educator who can function effectively as a leader in a culturally and linguistically diverse society and make a positive difference in the Central Valley.

Our commitment to preparing educational leaders has lead to Fresno State contributing sixty percent of school administrators across the region. Our alumni are leading the valley’s schools as superintendents and principals working to shape the future of our youth.

Samuel Polanco is a an exceptional example of an alumnus dedicated to making a difference.

How are you connected to Central Valley?

I was born at the old Sanger Hospital. Bring raised in Raisin City, California, I attended and graduated from Caruthers High School. I have always been ingrained in rural areas of the Central Valley.

How did your career path lead you to become a deputy principal?

I started by pursuing higher education at Fresno State. I earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and a teaching credential. I then worked as a third- and fourth-grade teacher.

I decided to go back to Fresno State and earn a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration with a preliminary administrative services credential.

After that, I took on new roles. I worked as a curriculum coach, assistant principal, elementary principal and now I am the deputy principal at the Sanger High School West Campus.

Why did Sanger open a new high school?

Sanger Unified’s boundaries encompass about 180 square miles. This not only includes the city of Sanger, but the communities of Centerville, Del Rey, Fairmont, Lone Star, Tivy Valley and portions of the Sunnyside area of metropolitan Fresno. Attendance in the district has continued to grow every year and the district serves about 12,000 students. With a current enrollment of over 3,300, additional space was needed to safely hold high school students.

How did the Preliminary Administrative Services credential and master’s degree in education prepare you for this role?

I enjoyed my time in the graduate program. The team of professors provided great insight on how to view, coach and build curriculum and instruction, culture and student behaviors. I was able to build lasting relationships with my cohort members.


If you are interested in learning more about furthering your education to become a school administrator, click here.

From dad and mom’s school to law school; grad carves his own path

Written by: BoNhia Lee, Fresno State News

Misty Her remembers walking her son Ryan, then only 2 years old, from their apartment across the street from Fresno State toward the Kremen Education Building to meet her husband after he finished class. 

She told Ryan that he could attend Fresno State someday.

She and her husband, Phong Yang, met at the University. She earned a degree in liberal studies. He earned a French degree. They got married, started a family and supported each other through master’s programs also at Fresno State — Her in school supervision and administration while Yang studied linguistics.

Fresno State was the obvious choice when it was time for Ryan to choose a college, he said. It was close to home, it has a good reputation and he could catch a ride with his dad, who works at the University. 

While their Fresno State ties are strong, Ryan’s parents insist they never pressured him to become a Bulldog. Yang, now director of admissions and recruitment at Fresno State, jokes that he would have been the first to recruit his son. But their children, including daughter Grace who is a Fresno State sophomore, and youngest son Gabriel, a fifth-grader in the Fresno Unified School District, have the opportunity to go anywhere and discover themselves, their parents said. 

Ryan graduates Fresno State in May with a degree in political science and a minor in philosophy. In the fall, he heads to the University of Nebraska for law school with a goal of working for an organization where he can defend First Amendment rights. 

“These last two years went by really fast,” Ryan said. “I’m very excited to be graduating, particularly because I’ve been accepted to law school where the stuff I want to learn and what I want to work in will be at. Let me go, already!”

For Her, she still sees little Ryan. 

 “I feel like I just brought him home. I still see him as this little boy. I can’t believe that he’s graduating,” she said. “He’s worked really hard. He said, ‘I’m going to go and finish in four years’ and before you know it, four years is already here.”

Ryan grew up in his mom’s Fresno Unified classrooms watching her decorate the boards on the wall for her students. Then he watched her climb through the administration ranks to her current post as the district’s deputy superintendent. 

Read more.

South Valley graduate strives to support students of color

Jillin Colunga grew up thinking higher education would never be within reach. Being the oldest of six siblings in a low-income household, the Monson native, knew she had a tough road ahead.

She was determined to show her younger siblings that obtaining a degree is possible, and today Colunga is proud to say she has earned a master’s degree in Multilingual Multicultural Education from Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education and Human Development.

“It feels really nice to be able to have my younger siblings look up to me,” said Colunga, “showing them that we can do this.”

As a first-generation student, Colunga knew there was much to learn about higher education. She traveled to U.C. Santa Barbara and studied Education and Black Studies. Being in a new environment was very difficult and she quickly began performing poorly in her courses. 

What Colunga didn’t expect was that she wouldn’t be able to relate to her professors. “I was scared to reach out, I just didn’t feel comfortable,” said Colunga. That is until she had her first Hispanic professor, Mario Galicia. She remembers seeing him stand in front of a room full of students, and she was immediately inspired. 

Seeing a professor of color gave her the drive she needed to push through her studies. 

During her coursework, she learned about discrimination in the classroom and how some school policies affect students of color differently than other students.

“Coming from a low-income community, I have seen some of these things take place. A lot of what I was reading about I have experienced and I know they happen to other people,” said Colunga.

Colunga is one of many first-generation students the Kremen School has supported straight through to graduation. In fact, Fresno State’s incoming freshmen class was the largest admission in the history of the institution with 54 percent being first-generation.  

The MME program was conceived and designed to specifically bring awareness as well as responsiveness to recognize the need for diverse voices impacting education. Whether in teaching, leadership, or counseling, the Kremen School’s mission is to prepare qualified leaders for diverse contexts. To that end the Kremen School offers unique programming, clinical opportunities in real professional contexts, and even scholarships for students who want to change the face of education. 

“Kremen prepares the largest population of teachers, leaders, and counselors in the State of California that are actually prepared to make such a transformative impact,” said Dean Randy Yerrick, Kremen School of Education and Human Development. “We are very proud of this legacy and are supporting programs like MME and producing new opportunities to promote even greater diversity and leadership in the Valley.”

After Colunga completed her bachelor’s degree, she headed back to the South Valley, ready to make a difference.

Without wasting any time, Colunga enrolled in Fresno State’s M.A. in Education, Multilingual Multicultural Education (MME) program. A highlight of the program is that it can be completed entirely in the South Valley. This was important for Colunga because Monson is a small town 40 miles southeast of Fresno, near Dinuba, and the commute would be time-consuming and costly.

Colunga was drawn to the MME program because it addresses the growing need for linguistically and culturally diverse educators in the Central Valley. The program provides educators with an advanced level of inquiry, research, and professional preparation in both multilingualism and multiculturalism. 

Historically the program has been offered at the Fresno State main campus, but after receiving a growing demand, it was evident that this program needed to be extended to the Fresno State Visalia Campus. 

“One of our primary goals is to make graduate education accessible and affordable to our students while meeting the workforce needs of the South Valley,” said Luz Gonzelez, dean of the Fresno State Visalia Campus.

Financial Support Making it Possible

Not all institutions are as attentive to the struggles first-generation students face. Student debt in this country has dramatically increased, even President Obama saw the impact on students holding large debt years ago. Today the trend of out of control, student debt continues to rise and cause greater burden on students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Unique Struggles of First-Generation Students

  • Navigating institutional systems like admissions, financial aid, professional job placements services, and academic tutoring.
  • Lack of support for cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and other diversity on campus where students need a sense of belonging to complete challenging programs like STEM where opportunity gaps have persisted for decades.  
  • Struggle with identity and imposter syndrome and not asking for help for fear of repercussions or being singled out.

Colunga currently works as a substitute teacher at Cutler Orosi Unified and Monson-Sultana Joint Union Elementary School Districts, teaching subjects ranging from history to science. With existing school loans and unpredictable employment because of the pandemic, Colunga knew obtaining a graduate degree would be a financial burden.

After applying for financial aid, Colunga received news that she was being awarded funds from the State University Grant, a grant given to students who have the greatest need.

“Without that assistance, I probably could not have been able to go through with the program,” Colunga stated.

Fresno State provides over $250 million in financial aid, with almost 80 percent in the form of grants and scholarships. With the generous support of donors, Fresno State continues to be one of the best values in public higher education in the nation.

Impacting the South Valley

The MME program has been educating students since 2014. Colunga is one of ten students to be the first to graduate from the South Valley MME cohort. To date, the MME program has graduated over 60 students, with a majority staying in the Central Valley.

First row: Juan Luevanos Luna, Jimena Quezada, Alejandra Yado, Gloria Ramos, Yelinet Gomez-Quintanar, Jillin Colunga
Second row: Brandi Blankenship, Monica Neri, Sara Montola, Raul Gonzalez, Filiberto Ramos

“Graduates of the Multilingual Multicultural master’s program impact the Central Valley daily,” said Dr. Teresa Huerta, MME program coordinator. “Our community needs leaders in education who are knowledgeable and effective in the areas of bilingual education, culture, critical educational theory, and social justice.” 

Now that Colunga has graduated, she aspires to become a community college professor and represent Hispanic faculty in the South Valley. 

California’s community colleges, similar to other educational institutions in the state, do not have equal ethnic representation between students and faculty. According to the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, in fall 2019 Hispanics made up 47 percent of the student population with only 17 percent for the faculty population. 

In the South Valley, Hispanic students make up an even larger percentage. In fall 2019, College of the Sequoias had a Hispanic student population of 69 percent with only 20 percent of faculty being Hispanic. 

Colunga wants to help change this. “There is low income all around us,” she said. “If I have that ability to be a support system and encourage other first-gen students, I want to be here. This is my home.”

Science teacher enters first year on the job with national recognition

It was an exciting day for then-middle schooler Francisco Barajas as he learned how to use solar power to cook food. That was just one of many hands-on experiments Barajas participated in while attending a summer science program at Fresno State 13 years ago.

“The experiments were based on the idea of how we can push away from using fossil fuels,” Barajas said. “We were doing physics and there was a lot of hands-on construction.” This memory stuck with Barajas as he built a passion for science.

Many teachers will say their passion for teaching came from having great teachers growing up — and Barajas is no different. He remembers having several teachers who pushed him to have fun with science, leading him on the path to becoming a science teacher.

Fast forward 13 years and Barajas has been nominated for the Resident of the Year award from the National Center for Teacher Residencies.

Barajas is currently pursuing his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at Fresno State while simultaneously completing a single subject teaching credential in science. He is able to complete both of these programs through the Fresno Teacher Residency Program.

“It feels amazing, and I’m surprised,” Barajas said. “I feel weird that this is something that I accomplished and they saw that much potential in me.” This year, the National Center for Teacher Residencies is recognizing 15 resident nominees from around the country. This award honors the tremendous work residents are doing to learn and grow as they prepare to become full-time teachers.

After graduating from Fresno State in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Barajas spent the next year working as a substitute teacher and after-school program guide. He remembers speaking with the librarian at Sunnyside High School in Fresno and learning the librarian’s daughter went through the teacher residency program. This was not the first time he had heard good things about the program, and he decided to enroll in summer 2019 with an anticipated graduation date of fall 2020.

“It’s an intense program, but you have more than enough support,” Barajas said. “The whole idea is that you aren’t going at this alone. There was never someone I couldn’t talk to.”

Fresno State is dedicated to making a difference in teacher preparation. Teacher residency programs are intensive preservice preparation through which residents become members of the school community on Day 1 and contribute to the community throughout their teacher preparation. The residency model combines rigorous masters-level coursework, teacher credentialing coursework and in-classroom apprenticeship. Evidence shows that residents, upon graduation, are more like second-year teachers in their first year of teaching.

Amy Bennett, Fresno Unified School District’s teacher residency program coordinator, said the partnership between Fresno State and the district was established 12 years ago.

“The residency program allows for collaboration to occur on a regular basis,” Bennett said. “We have resident graduates that are coming in well prepared to work in Fresno Unified. Their entire credentialing experience has been contextualized in our district. Not only is their student teaching being conducted in our classrooms, but they are engaging in professional learning, throughout the entire school year provided by our district, so they’re up to date on all the current initiatives.”

Bennett nominated Barajas for the Resident of the Year award. “He stood out right away in our professional learnings because he is so highly invested in the conversation, willing to participate and make connections to his own experience. He brought background knowledge from his subbing experience that stood out to me right away. He was eager to learn, receptive to the information he was learning, willing to turn it around and apply it to the practice in the classroom.”

Barajas completed his residency in a science classroom at Scandinavian Middle School in Fresno. The science teachers took him under their wing and helped him along the way. He recently accepted a job at Yosemite Middle School as an eighth-grade science teacher and will begin this fall. He is currently planning for his first year to be taught via distance learning and is working on his syllabus and management plan.

“I’m getting used to the idea of working on Microsoft Teams. I have to get used to how to maneuver my way through it and how to set up different groups,” Barajas said. “I’m figuring out exactly how am I going to take attendance and be able to do a warm-up online.”

Fresno Unified is supporting its teachers through this online transition, providing a hub of resources on its website that both teachers and residents have access to. Barajas said he has had an excellent experience and feels well prepared for his first year of teaching.

Connie Mosher – Named National Child Care Teacher of the Year

Fresno State’s Joyce M. Huggins Early Education Center is full of children laughing and playing as they engage and explore with the world around them. This is a typical day for Infant/Toddler Master Teacher – Connie Mosher. Mosher has been working at the Huggins Center since 2012 and she uses her educational expertise in early childhood education to fill each day with educational opportunities where curiosity is encouraged by the children.

The Huggins Center, known for its Reggio Emilia inspired approach to education, recognizes that collaborative and participatory relationships among children, parents, teachers and others not only create powerful and successful education and care programs but also improves the quality of life in the community.

Connie_Mosher_Headshot“My co-teachers and I work to create secure relationships with each child and their families. Working at a Reggio inspired early education center, we view even our youngest learners, our infants and toddlers, as capable beings,” said Mosher. “As a teacher, I learn just as much, if not more from the children so I truly value the process of co-researching alongside the children to develop emergent curriculum throughout the year.”

It is the quality of the Huggins Center’s early educators and educational approach that has received the attention, for a second time, from the Terri Lynne Lokoff National Child Care Foundation (TLLCCF). 

Each year the TLLCCF awards fifty early educators from across the nation for their critical role in providing quality early care and education. Of those fifty awardees, one is awarded the Helen Marks Award and is named the National Child Care Teacher of the Year. This year Mosher was selected as one of the top fifty in the nation and was additionally named the National Child Care Teacher of the Year.

“Receiving the award was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It was surreal sharing the news with my parents, friends and my fellow teachers. I cried telling my parents because I was absolutely blown away and it was such a special moment for all of us. My whole family is extremely proud of me so that is the icing on the cake,” said Mosher. “The award means a lot to me because it truly honors early education and the hard work and dedication that so many of us have to the children and families we serve.”

Mosher is the second teacher from Fresno State’s Huggins Center to be selected among the top fifty early educators in the nation. Last year, Chamroeun Yann was selected among the top fifty in the nation as well.

Along with Mosher’s National Child Care Teacher of the Year award, she was also gifted over $1,500. With that money, she plans to implement a portable light studio in her infant/toddler classroom. 

“I can only hope that with this award I will inspire other infant/toddler and early educators to continually strive for the best for themselves, the children and their families,” said Mosher.