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.