Fresno Unified hears appeal to create dropout panel

The Fresno BeeDecember 14, 2011 

Community members and parents asked Fresno Unified school officials Wednesday night to find a solution to curb the district's epidemic of high dropout rates.

Education advocate Javier Guzman appealed to trustees to create a student dropout prevention commission, which he said would hold hearings around the city.

He said students of color are most at risk of dropping out.

"Our children are leaving school, dying on the streets, and those who don't do that are ending up in prison," Guzman said. "As much as you want to deny that it exists ... it's an epidemic."

Guzman, director of the Chicano Youth Center, asked the board to support the commission, which he said would have 15 to 21 members, including professionals, community advocates and parents.

Guzman wants the commission to be created legislatively so it has some authority to help the district make better policies to reduce dropout rates.

The dropout problem is rooted in issues like poverty and gangs -- challenges that exist far beyond school and involve the whole community.

Response from the board was mixed. Trustee Janet Ryan said she would defer to Superintendent Michael Hanson and school officials.

"We know we have a problem," she said. "We want to deal with it. But we need to get more input out there."

Trustee Michelle Asadoorian applauded Guzman's efforts.

"I've been waiting for five years for the community to become enraged enough to say what we're doing isn't working," she said.

Wednesday's board meeting was the second time Guzman has pitched his idea to school officials. He made a similar proposal in May 2009 but could not get on the board's agenda.

Guzman recently organized Reform Fresno Unified, a group pushing to break up the district into two smaller school systems. On Monday, they launched a campaign to gather 16,000 signatures of support -- the number required to bring their idea to the Fresno County Office of Education.

In other business, the trustees:

Voted to dip into its reserve funds to try to alleviate crowding in some classrooms by hiring additional teachers. The FUSD board decided Wednesday night to draw from the district's $62.2 million cash reserves to pay for additional teachers at 19 elementary schools and four high schools where there are a large number of classes with more than 39 students. The plan will also beef up teacher training in middle-school math and upgrade computer systems.

Elected trustee Tony Vang as the new board chairman. Vang is in his third term on the board and was board president in 2008. He's a vocal supporter of Superintendent Michael Hanson.

The vote was 5-2, with trustee Larry Moore and Asadoorian abstaining.

The reporter can be reached at vgibbons@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6378.

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