Punjabi community urges Clovis Unified to approve One and Only Academy charter school

Members of the Punjabi community and supporters of the One and Only Academy charter school had their voice heard at the Jan. 17 Clovis Unified School District board meeting. (Valerie Shelton/Clovis Roundup)

A petition for a new charter school within Clovis Unified, dubbed One and Only Academy, was considered during a lengthy public hearing at the Jan. 17 school board meeting.

Members of the growing area Punjabi community spoke in favor of the K-8 school that would focus on cultural awareness, bilingual education in English and Punjabi, agricultural gardening, and mindfulness in addition to teaching common core curriculum standards.

Lead petitioner and local educator Harmit Singh Juneja began the hearing with the PowerPoint presentation highlighting the growth of the community and need for this type of charter school within the district before going into details about the planned curriculum.

One of the motivations behind the One and Only Academy, Juneja said, was the occurrence of bullying against Punjabi students reported in traditional local schools. According to a recent survey of Fresno County Punjabi students, 54 percent reported that they have been bullied or harassed and among those that wear a turban, 67 percent reported bullying or harassment.

“This data highlights the fact that some students are not comfortable in their school environment and one of the reasons could be lack of cultural awareness,” Juneja said. “That is part of the reason we are proposing this charter. We are a part of this community and we take ownership and we just want to be a part of that collective solution.”

Over 15 members of the Punjabi community stood to speak in favor of the charter school. Many echoed that bullying is a serious issue within the community and that a school such as One and Only Academy would allow Punjabi students to express themselves without fear of being attacked or made fun of for their religious beliefs and cultural traditions as all students at the academy, through the study of the Punjabi language, would be exposed to and understand the culture and the importance of respecting different cultures.

Clovis North alum Shirjit Singh said he remembers he and friends being picked on in elementary school for wearing Patkas, traditional Sikh headwear for young boys.

“I started my education in Central Unified from K-5 and I had a friend who wore a Patka, otherwise known as a bandana style turban and one morning during recess I witnessed him get his Patka ripped off of his head,” Singh said. “I was too intimidated to do anything, nor did I have the time to act in any fashion. I did not wear a turban during this point in my life, but it hurt me just as much. I later moved to Clovis Unified in the sixth grade and attended Valley Oak Elementary School for a year. I started growing my hair and practicing a vegan diet as I was beginning to adopt of the lifestyle of a baptized Sikh. Then when I moved to Granite Ridge Intermediate in seventh grade, I began wearing a Patka as well. Ironically, a classmate of mine tried grabbing my Patka and I did not stand for it and pushed him off me and my AB teacher was notified. He had a meeting with the student’s parents and the student later wrote me an ‘I’m sorry’ letter where he explained that he thought my Patka was just a fashion statement and not religious headwear.”

In addition to this treatment, Singh said he was subjected to comments from other students who called him a “terrorist” and remembers after Osama Bin Laden was killed, some students went as far as to say “your dad is finally dead” to him. Although these remarks hurt him, Singh said he eventually blossomed as a sophomore at Clovis North High School and started a Sikh club.

Though he said he grew from his bullying experience, he doesn’t think other kids should have to go through the same thing and said he thinks One and Only Academy will allow Punjabi kids to grow without having to worry about bullies.

“Being the youth volunteer for One and Only Academy, I have been involved in discussions to bring this program and out plan is kids will be more mindful, more aware of their surroundings, of themselves, and more in tune with culture,” Singh said. “Bullying has shaped who I am today and allowed me to stand up for myself and others, but not everyone has to go through it. We will
shape students to have even a brighter future, that is our goal.”

Bullying was just one motivation behind the petition for One and Only Academy. Population growth among the Punjabi community is another reason speakers said the charter school should be established.

Naindeep Singh, the executive director of the Jakara Movement, said Fresno County is one of the densest areas of Punjabi speakers in the nation.

“Currently Punjabi is the fourth most spoken language here and by current US census projections, it will be the third between 2025 and 2030, overtaking Hmong,” Singh said. “The largest areas of growth within Clovis Unified are actually around Clovis East High School with the track homes developing around [that area]. That is where you are seeing the largest influx of housing, especially from those who are actually second time movers. There is a large number of those immigrants coming from Punjabi to this area, but there are also a large number who have already settled in some of the farming communities like Caruthers and Selma and Kerman who are purchasing their second houses now in Clovis Unified. There is going to be a huge wave and we expect those numbers to continue to increase in the coming years, specifically over the next decade or so.”

Right now, Boris Elementary and Fancher Elementary have the highest population of Punjabi students and Singh suggested a charter school in this area would better serve those students.

In addition to decreasing instances of bullying and providing another option for the growing Punjabi population, speakers boasted about the positives of a program that incorporates bilingual education, working with your hands in nature through agricultural gardening, and mindfulness.

“This is a great opportunity for bilingual education,” said Gurdeep Shergill, an educator with Central Unified, pointing out that Punjabi is becoming a recognized language in the state, with election ballots now offered in the language. Nationally, he said, the community is proud to say that a Sikh is now serving as an Attorney General in New Jersey. As the culture and language becomes more prominent, Shergill said, students learning both Punjabi and English at One and Only Academy would have a leg up.

Juneja noted the benefits of working with one’s hands through gardening.

“We live in the Central Valley and we should be connected to agriculture. Kids love doing things with their hands and in this day and age where you can flip through 100 photos in three seconds, maybe it is a wonderful thing to slow them down a little bit and witness the patience in nature and guess what? If you sow something, you are probably going to eat it, so healthy eating habits may be a good outcome of that as well,” Juneja said. “We do need technology, but we need this other side of it as well.”

Then there is mindfulness, which Juneja cited as the pinnacle of the One and Only Academy’s curriculum.

Clovis Unified has a very beautiful mantra, In mind, body and spirit, and I think we are going in that direction,” Juneja said. “I’m a teacher and I constantly tell the kids to pay attention and focus, but it’s been brought to our attention: Have these little kids in kindergarten or first grade been taught how to pay attention? What is attention? What is focus and how do I pay it? Mindfulness and the daily practice of mindfulness will empower the kids and they will learn how to focus and learn how to regulate their emotions. They will be more socially and emotionally competent and they will be ready to learn with an open heart and an open mind.”

Juneja demonstrated mindfulness to the board with a listening exercise, in which board members focused on the sound of chimes he played in order to heighten their hearing and mindfulness of noises in the room. It’s exercises like this that will be done with students each day in the classroom—20 minutes in the morning, 10 after lunchtime and five before dismissal. These exercises, he said, will help students focus.

Siya Dang, a sophomore at Clovis North, said she likes the One and Only Academy’s heavy focus on mindfulness and cultural awareness.

“This will create a campus culture where students will learn to respect and embrace each other’s differences,” Dang said. “I feel that a school that incorporates mindfulness and foreign language into the daily life of a student starting from a young age is very beneficial and will foster students individually and as a community. I strongly support this initiative and urge the board for approval.”

Parents also urged the board to approve the charter school petition.

“I’m a mother of four children, I live here in Clovis and my children attend and will be attending Riverview Elementary,” Manpreet Kaur said. “I’m delighted that there is an opportunity for parents like myself to have a choice in our children’s education. I strongly feel that mindfulness and learning two languages from a young age are very powerful tools for a child’s development. I fully support One and Only Academy. Given the opportunity, it would be my first choice to enroll my kids in this school.”

In the interest of time, Kaur asked fellow parents in support of the One and Only Academy to stand, at which point at least 50 adults in the room stood up to show the board they were in favor of the charter.

Only one individual spoke in some opposition to the school.

Parent Josh Fulfer, who is not from the Punjabi community, said he liked Juneja’s presentation of the charter school but was unsure such a school would actually address the issue of bullying and said he felt the idea for a charter school should be presented to and discussed by the entire Clovis Unified community before it moves forward.

“I don’t think a charter school is necessarily the solution for bullying,” Fulfer said. “Do I support charter schools? Yes, I do, but you have a large community here in the Clovis Unified School District. So, I believe we need to focus on what we have here and if we do go to adopt a charter school, I think the whole community needs to be involved and there needs to be some diversity in that. We preach diversity all the time, it’s constantly at every high school and junior high, and the bullying continues to go on. It’s not necessarily the school’s fault, some of these children are not raised properly, in my opinion, and there is not much you can do about that, except we have a zero-tolerance policy. Nobody deserves to hear what some of these people have heard and I think the presentation was great but if the charter school is something you look into, I just ask that you let the community get involved and make it a process that includes everyone.”

The board did not make a decision on the One and Only Academy at the Jan. 17 meeting nor did any of the board members express their thoughts. Instead, the board indicated that the possibility of the charter school will be addressed at a future meeting.