Square pegs being pushed through round holes. That's how the Fresno County grand jury saw the dropout problem in 2005.
Thousands of kids were failing to graduate from Fresno Unified each year because they had little or no interest in the college-bound curriculum they were being fed. Meanwhile, Fresno Unified was making so many cuts to alternative vocational education that it existed mostly in name.
If the city was going to begin to solve the dropout problem, the grand jury found, the school district needed to change its one-size-fits-all approach. That meant offering the real option of career technical education for many more students.
"We're missing a large percentage of our kids who have no aspirations for college and no desire to work in low-paying jobs," Mary La Follette, a member of the 2004-05 grand jury, said. "They want a career, and they're eager to get the training. But they're not getting it."
Fast forward to today and not a whole lot has changed.
Fresno Unified failed to apply for millions of dollars in state career technical education grants two years ago, saying it wasn't sure how it would spend the money. Meanwhile, Clovis Unified reeled in nearly $13 million to build a state-of-the-art agricultural mechanics facility at Clovis East and an alternative-energy program at Buchanan High.
Fresno Unified's new $285 million facilities bond fails to set aside enough money to build a new career technical school along the lines of Duncan Polytechnical High School. Instead, the bond allocates $10 million to expand or renovate existing career technical facilities.
"We're going to need to build several new Duncans to tackle the dropout problem," said Jim Harris, a member of the 2004-05 grand jury and a longtime teacher and principal in Fresno Unified. "As it stands now, we don't have the critical mass in career technical education to make a real difference."
Fresno Unified declined to comment for this story. Superintendent Michael Hanson turned down numerous requests for an interview about the dropout and truancy crisis.
Given the complexity of the crisis and its roots in poverty and family and school dysfunction, no single solution will solve the problem, teachers and school administrators agree. Rather, the reforms must be bold and targeted at multiple levels.
Larry Powell, county superintendent of schools, says Fresno Unified needs to borrow from the approach of successful smaller school districts such as Sanger Unified that do a better job of engaging students, parents and the community. Such reform, he says, might even include dividing up Fresno Unified into two or three smaller districts.
And echoing the findings of the 2004-05 grand jury, Powell wants to give many more students the choice to pursue career technical education. He said he was recently reminded of the value of such an education when the refrigerator in his kitchen broke down.
"I had a guy come and repair it. It took him all of three minutes and he said, 'That'll be $100.' I said, 'How much for the part?' And he said, 'Three dollars for the part, and $97 for knowing where to put it.' "
It was a similar exchange in the fall of 2004 that turned grand jury members into education reformers.
At the time, Mary La Follette was working as the development director of the Fresno Art Museum. She was overseeing the building of a sculpture park when a contractor shared his woes about finding qualified trades workers. La Follette compared notes with other contractors and discovered an across-the-board shortage of skilled blue-collar workers in Fresno.