Fresno Unified trustees split on dropout problem

School board members disagree over size of the dilemma, how to solve it.

The Fresno BeeDecember 1, 2011 

Does Fresno Unified School District have a dropout problem, and if so, how bad is it?

The answer varies depending on which school board trustee you talk to.

The Bee polled the seven trustees about the district's dropout rate following a special series published last month.

The series, "Dropping out: A matter of life and death," explored the district's staggering truancy and dropout problems and missed opportunities by school officials to take charge of at-risk students.

The board members' positions ranged from satisfaction with current district policy, reluctance to interfere in administrative decisions and concern that the district has failed students. Some were quick to blame other board members or the district administration for policy failures. That lack of consensus could stymie efforts to develop a strategy to keep more students in school and on track to graduate, some trustees said.

Trustees Carol Mills and Larry Moore and board president Michelle Asadoorian said the district's dropout problem has been neglected. The three have been the board's most vocal critics of Superintendent Michael Hanson.

Board members might not even be able to agree to discuss the issue at a meeting, said Mills. Even though the trustees are elected to set district policy, Asadoorian said the community can't depend on them to solve the problem, because politics get in the way.

"For our part, we have failed," Asadoorian said.

She's relying on parents, students and community leaders to create such an uproar that the board has no choice but to act.

"You have to put pressure on us," she said. "Constant and consistent pressure."

But not all the trustees think there's much of a dropout problem. Tony Vang said the issue has been overblown.

"It's not that huge," he said "It's not the end of the world."

Trustee Janet Ryan said the district has taken steps to improve graduation rates. Fresno Unified has increased adult education and vocational training opportunities and is working with parents and community organizations to help students stay in school. High school mentors and Saturday school have helped keep many students from falling behind.

"To suggest that we haven't done anything during all these years is just flat-out wrong," Ryan said.

Ryan said the district is doing all the right things – it just needs more time.

Board member Cal Johnson had little to say on the issue, other than, "I think, personally, the district is doing a good job." Asked whether the district has a dropout problem, he said, "This interview is over," and hung up the phone.

The series discussed the difficulty in pinpointing a dropout or graduation rate and the different ways dropout rates can be calculated and reported. For example, according to the state education department's database, the 2010 graduation rate for Fresno Unified could range from 66% to 72.5%. The series also used a more basic calculation, comparing the number of graduating seniors in 2010 to ninth graders four years earlier. Using that method, which doesn't account for students who transfer in or out, the number of students who graduated in 2010 was 53% of the number of freshmen in 2006.

And officials describe a bigger problem in private than what's admitted in public, according to the series.

Whatever the rate, the consequences can be dire. Out of school, many teens succumb to a life of poverty, drugs and crime.

Asadoorian and Moore said they want the district to take swift action.

"We need triage immediately," Asadoorian said.

Some proposals to address the problem are solutions that have been tried before – and failed, in many cases, because of a lack of political will or support from Hanson, board members say.

Asadoorian and Moore propose the same solution that Javier Guzman, director of Fresno's Chicano Youth Center, offered more than two years ago – a broad-based, grass-roots coalition to keep more students on track to graduate. In 2009, Guzman approached Fresno Unified and city officials with a proposal for a dropout-prevention commission.

Trustee Valerie Davis said she did not support Guzman's proposal in 2009 because it came with a $100,000 price tag. Guzman, however, said the idea was shot down before any costs were discussed.

According to Guzman, the idea never took off because Hanson opposed it, and Guzman was never able to garner the board's support – including Moore, who he called asking for help.

Moore said he was unaware of Guzman's proposal more than two years ago and never received the messages Guzman said he left.

But Moore said he's ready to support Guzman's renewed efforts to create the commission. Guzman said he will have another opportunity to present his idea at the Dec. 14 school board meeting. District officials did not confirm that Guzman has been added to the agenda.

"The unfortunate thing is, we could have had a two years' head start with this," Guzman said.

Mills said Fresno Unified isn't doing enough for students who need career training. She said one solution to reducing dropouts is something she's been proposing for years – increasing career and technical education programs. That's the same solution recommended by a 2005 Fresno County Grand Jury, which said the district failed to provide vocational training to thousands of students who were not interested in college curriculum, leading to higher dropout rates.

Instead of expecting all students to take the same college preparation curriculum – such as algebra in the eighth grade – "we should be preparing everyone for a career pathway or college, whatever they choose to do," Mills said.

Mills said she hasn't had support from the rest of the board – another sign of the division that may derail efforts to develop a new dropout-prevention strategy.

But at least one trustee said it's not the board's responsibility to devise a plan to fix the dropout problem.

Davis agrees that dropouts are a "pressing problem" – but district staffers need to solve it.

"We are the policymakers," Davis said. "[The superintendent and staff] are the paid professionals. They craft the plan."

The reporter can be reached at hsomerville@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6412.

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