Fresno Unified's Hanson stymies community efforts to fight dropout crisis

Special to The BeeNovember 21, 2011 

From the front steps of the Chicano Youth Center in the heart of Fresno, director Javier Guzman sees the harsh realities of a growing dropout problem every day.

"Half the Latino kids are dropping out, and half of those dropouts are committing crimes," he said. "The Fresno Unified School District has become a feeder for the California prison system."

Two years ago, an alarmed Guzman drew up an action plan that called for the formation of a city dropout commission that would bring together every segment of the community. The commission would focus not just on Hispanic youth but on the high dropout rates among black students and Hmong boys.

"My idea was to have everyone in the same room -- elected officials, business leaders, community leaders, police, teachers, school administrators, parents, the kids themselves. The plan wasn't to blame anyone. The plan was to attack the problem like you'd attack an epidemic."

Guzman, who runs after-school programs for kids, said he enlisted the support of the mayor, police chief and several members of the City Council, who agreed to take up the matter in a vote. Two teenagers at the Youth Center helped him put together a PowerPoint presentation detailing the depths of the dropout problem -- and its roots in poverty and family and school dysfunction.

But he said there remained one roadblock: Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson.

As hard as Guzman tried, he couldn't get Hanson to give his blessing to the dropout commission, he said. When he attempted to go around Hanson and give his presentation to the school board, Hanson refused to place him on the agenda, Guzman said.

On the eve of the City Council vote, Guzman got a call from then-Council Member Henry T. Perea, a supporter. Hanson had sent one of his top aides to City Hall to lobby against the proposal. One by one, Perea told Guzman, the mayor, city manager and five council members now stood in opposition.

The dropout commission died before it ever got off the ground.

"What it came down to is Mr. Hanson didn't want anyone from the community highlighting the problem or stepping on his turf," Guzman said. "Instead of seeing me and others on the front lines as part of the solution, he saw us as threats to his power. So he killed the whole idea."

Hanson did not respond to repeated phone calls and written requests for an interview to explain his stance on the dropout commission and what steps the school district is taking to address the growing dropout crisis.

But interviews with civic and elected leaders and a review of public documents support Guzman's version of events and raise larger questions about the superintendent's willingness to work with community and nonprofit groups to find solutions.

"The first step to solving the problem is to admit how big a problem it is," said Hugo Morales, the Harvard-educated founder of Radio Bilingüe. "You need an outstanding superintendent who is willing to acknowledge the extent of the problem and outstanding principals who can inspire staff and communicate with parents, teachers and kids. And you have to have an enthusiastic set of teachers who really care about the kids. That's a tall order. To make it happen, the community has to be involved."

Everyone agrees the factors that cause a student to drop out of school are a complex brew. So many thousands of children arrive each year at the doorstep of Fresno Unified lacking the basics: proficiency in English; the presence of two parents; the steady income of a wage earner. Add a parent who may be addicted to drugs or involved in crime, and you've got a child whose diminished chance of success rests almost completely on the school system.

That's a huge burden for a school district to shoulder. It can be argued that few, if any, superintendents in California have a more daunting challenge before them than Michael Hanson. After all, experts say, dropout rates are primarily a function of poverty, and few places in America have more concentrated poverty than Fresno.

Deborah Nankivell of the Fresno Business Council, a longtime Hanson supporter, says critics often lose sight of the magnitude of the social problems facing the school district.

"This is an impoverished community, and Fresno Unified is at the heart of that," she said. "I've found the superintendent to be a great community partner looking at ways to leverage with the city. He does a ton of stuff. He visits campuses. I've seen him at community meetings. He's involved in community events."

She said blaming Hanson for the dropout problem was "sort of like blaming the social worker when the baby died on their watch. All these forces converged to put this child at risk. And whoever was there last, somehow it's all their fault."

Community activists say they are not blaming the superintendent for the problem but for the way he goes about solving it. Rather than tap into their expertise and eagerness to help, he regards them as meddling and shuts them out of the process, they say. As a result, elected officials and business leaders, ever careful not to step on Hanson's turf, have shied away from tackling the dropout crisis.

It is this civic inaction that drives Guzman crazy as he sits in his office at the Chicano Youth Center and looks out proudly to the Mayan water fountain that he says has never been marred by graffiti from Hispanic crews that seem to tag everything.

"This city's burning from the inside out, and our leaders are comatose," he said. "You go to L.A. and the mayor is leading the charge on fixing the dropout problem. Here, the mayor and the City Council are afraid to step on the superintendent's toes."

If Guzman sounds angry, he is. He says his attempts in 2009 to persuade the school district and City Hall to support a dropout commission met with all sorts of disingenuous responses.

In a June 2009 letter, Hanson told Guzman he didn't have the money in his budget to create and support such a commission. Guzman wrote back, saying he wasn't looking for any money.

Three months later, records show, Hanson dispatched Miguel Arias, FUSD's head of constituent services, to City Hall to lobby against the proposal. During the public comments before the vote, then-city manager Andy Souza said it wouldn't be prudent to move forward in the face of the school district's opposition.

"Any action must be taken in conjunction with Fresno Unified," Souza said. "We can't be working independent of the major stakeholder in this issue."

Council Members Andreas Borgeas, Lee Brand, Larry Westerlund, Blong Xiong and Cynthia Sterling agreed. Only Perea and Council Member Mike Dages voted to support the idea.

Two years later, Perea, now a state Assembly member, still remembers his disappointment. "The City Council did a huge disservice to this community. Blew a great opportunity to work with a community interest group that could tackle one of the biggest issues facing our generation."

What especially galled Perea and Guzman was the school district's rationale for not supporting the commission. Arias told the City Council the school district was in the midst of planning a big dropout summit with the local United Way. Guzman's proposal, he said, would be a duplication of efforts.

"The results of the summit will lead to an action plan to address the needs of individuals who have been dropping out of our system," Arias pledged to the council.

But organizers at United Way describe Fresno Unified as a reluctant participant in the October 2009 summit. From the get-go, Hanson put up several obstacles, said Yvonne Freve, then the vice president of community impact for United Way.

"I hit the wall with Fresno Unified. They opposed us every step of the way," said Freve, a retired Fresno educator who has spent years studying the dropout problem. "Hanson was the last public official to commit. He said he'd participate only if we didn't blame Fresno Unified for the problem, and only if we used their data on dropouts."

As it turned out, the dropout summit wasn't a turning point. Only one council member, Xiong, showed up. Hanson read a speech and left. Just a handful of parents and teachers attended. "It was a disappointment," Freve said.

As for the school district's promised "action plan," she said, none was ever delivered.

Guzman, Freve and others said that any action plan must start with leadership, and they say neither Hanson nor the school board nor Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Larry Powell has shown the boldness for true "transformational" reform.

"Everyone is willing to admit that, yeah, we've got a problem, but no one has the courage to do what it takes to tackle it," Freve said. "Larry Powell is a good man, but he doesn't want to lead on this. He doesn't want to risk the backlash from Hanson's friends in the business community. But the real obstacle is Hanson himself.

"He has a chip on his shoulder. He has a basic distrust of community groups. He doesn't want them involved in his schools. He doesn't want anyone telling him what to do."

Powell responded that he does have the leadership skills to tackle the problem and will soon make public his ideas for reform.

Nankivell said Hanson's critics are forgetting that the school district was on the brink of financial collapse just five years ago. That took considerable time to fix and so will a dropout problem rooted deep in the city's pathology.

"Fresno Unified was in a world of hurt, and the first thing you do is deal with your own ship and then you ripple out from there," she said. "I would ask him, 'What's the strategy now to focus on ?' "

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