Fresno Unified orders study of dropout commission

The Fresno BeeDecember 15, 2011 

Fresno Unified trustees took a tentative step toward finding new ways to keep more students in school when they asked staff and Superintendent Michael Hanson on Wednesday to explore creation of a dropout intervention commission.

By early February, Hanson is to report back to the board on the possibility of such a commission, which community advocates have proposed to tackle Fresno Unified's dropout problem.

The idea for the commission came from Chicano Youth Center Executive Director Javier Guzman, who wants to create a 15- to 21-member organization that would hold meetings throughout the city and make recommendations to the district and state on stemming the dropout problem.

Guzman and his supporters enjoyed a small victory Wednesday night, after struggling even to be included on the board agenda, but admit they face a grueling uphill battle against school officials who are unenthusiastic about the commission and skeptical that the district even has a dropout problem.

The plan is for Hanson and Guzman to meet over the coming weeks to discuss specifics about what Guzman proposes. Staff will be assigned to explore the idea. In an email, spokeswoman Susan Bedi said Hanson would provide an update at a February board meeting on the status of discussions.

Trustee Michelle Asadoorian, who has championed community-led efforts to solve the dropout problem, said after the meeting that she's "skeptical" Hanson will allow the commission to go forward.

"Superintendent Hanson is our highest-paid professional staff [member] and ... he is a top-down guy, and this is a bottom-up problem," she said Thursday.

Hanson, who two years ago turned down an almost identical proposal from Guzman, said he would be "perfectly happy" to meet with Guzman and discuss the commission.

Hanson didn't exactly give his blessing -- he called the proposal "ill-defined" and asked for more details about how much power and authority the group wanted. He also said he would only support a commission whose work meshed quickly and easily with existing dropout programs.

Hanson said the district was making steady progress improving graduation rates, and refuted figures reported in a recent series in The Bee that explored the district's dropout rates. The series discussed the difficulty in pinning down the precise rate, which has been variously discussed as anywhere from 15% by the district to 40% by teachers, administrators and community activists in recent years.

In 2006, 7,495 freshmen were enrolled in Fresno Unified high schools. Four years later, 3,997, or 53% of that number graduated from district schools.

The district points instead to a 72% graduation rate based on numbers it provides the state, saying its figures account for students who transfer out of the district.

Trustee Cal Johnson said dropouts are a symptom of Fresno's high unemployment and poverty, but questioned "if in fact we have a high dropout" rate.

Some trustees worried that the district could lose time and resources on a commission that fails under the guidance of a man whose qualifications they're unsure of.

Janet Ryan said she wasn't sure Guzman was the right person for the job, and that Hanson and the ard should meet with other community leaders for their advice on the dropout issue.

Valerie Davis said she was concerned because she didn't know Guzman's educational background or his work in the community.

"For you to come in here and offer your services is admirable," Davis said, but "we're not just going to hand over whatever [resources] you think we have."

Guzman said Thursday that he's asking the district only for school officials' time and for space in schools where the commission could hold community meetings. He said he doesn't need money from the district -- the city and county, and community foundations could share the cost of the commission. He also thinks he could get funding from nonprofits. He estimates a bare-bones commission would cost between $50,000 and $75,000 per year, and a fully staffed commission might cost upward of $200,000.

Hanson said in an earlier interview with The Bee that he didn't cooperate with Guzman in 2009 because Guzman came to the district demanding $200,000 to start the commission. Guzman said he didn't ask for money then, and he's not asking for it now.

And on Wednesday, Hanson said to Guzman: "It is true, you never asked me directly for $200,000."

Hanson added that he opposed the commission in 2009 because it would have detracted from the district's partnership with United Way, which at the time was planning a big dropout summit.

But an organizer of the United Way event has described Fresno Unified as a reluctant and minimal participant in the summit.

Asadoorian said it was "unacceptable" that Guzman's earlier efforts were blocked, and that Hanson's admission was just one of many frustrations she walked away with that evening.

"I'm disturbed by the fact that he's changed his story," she said.

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

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