Javier Guzman sees dropping out of school as the symptom of a disease -- a deadly strain of poverty, crime and unemployment. And he wants to help find the cure.
He's no doctor, but almost two decades of public health experience have shaped the approach Guzman, director of the Chicano Youth Center, is taking to tackle Fresno Unified School District's dropout crisis.
Find the right antidote for the challenges Fresno's youths face at home and in their neighborhood, Guzman said, and you can start to cure the dropout problem.
Guzman has sought the creation of a student dropout intervention commission to address the district's dropout and truancy problems that have whittled some high school retention rates to nearly 50%.
Last month, Fresno Unified School Board trustees directed Superintendent Michael Hanson and staff to meet with Guzman to explore the possibility of such a commission.
Guzman's request prompted questions from some trustees and observers: Just who is Guzman, and what qualifies him to be the point man for a dropout commission?
He's not a school teacher, administrator or school board member; he isn't a police officer or public official. At the board meeting, trustees Janet Ryan and Valerie Davis said they weren't sure Guzman should lead the commission and raised questions about his educational and professional background.
As director of the Chicano Youth Center, Guzman runs an all-volunteer organization housed at the Dickey Youth Center. What little funding he had has mostly dried up, and he is living on unemployment benefits.
Colleagues, former employers and students he mentors say the 62-year-old has made a career of trying to improve life for the poor and downtrodden, both through his jobs in health and human service fields and also as a grass-roots activist.
"The guy has gone out of his way to make things happen," said Enrique Reade, a Chicano Youth Center board member and owner of Reade and Sons Funeral Home in downtown Fresno. "He really thinks about the young people -- where they're at and where they're going."
But if there is a dropout commission, and if Guzman is chosen to head it, he will have to work side by side with district administrators. That may require a more delicate approach for Guzman, who some call a "bulldog."
Guzman and Hanson will meet this month to discuss possibilities for a dropout commission, and Hanson is to report back to the board in early February.
Hanson isn't sold on the proposal, but Guzman said it will work -- he says he helped set up a similar commission years ago when he worked as an adviser in the rural health division for the California Department of Public Health. The commission advised lawmakers about setting up rural health clinics, which were funded by legislation by then-Assembly Member John Garamendi in the late 1970s.
Guzman said he wants to model the dropout commission after the rural health commission.
"I'm saying that I've done something that works, and it will work here," he said.
Stephen Schilling, chief executive officer of Clinica Sierra Vista, a Bakersfield-based health center serving poor and rural communities, also served on the rural health commission in the late 1970s and early '80s, and helped advise lawmakers. Schilling said he doesn't remember Guzman from that time, but he does remember that the commission was a success.
"It played a big role in helping bring health care into communities that were challenged," Schilling said.
The state defunded rural health services in 2009, said Department of Public Health spokesman Anthony Cava. Most rural clinics now rely on federal funding and Medi-Cal.
During his stint in Sacramento, Guzman also helped create the Migrant Alternative Payment Program, a state Department of Education-funded program that provides child care for migrant worker families. He aided then-state Sen. Jim Costa in crafting the program. Through a spokeswoman, Costa said he and Guzman had a "good working relationship."
'A labor of love'
The son of migrant field workers from Mexico, Guzman understands the struggles of Fresno's most challenged youths, shackled by poverty and inequity. Helping disadvantaged youths through the Chicano Youth Center has become Guzman's life -- particularly since he was laid off last year from his full-time job at I-5 Social Services Corp.
Guzman worked as curriculum coordinator for the nonprofit organization, which runs state-funded day care centers in rural areas of Fresno and Madera counties. Guzman and several other I-5 employees lost their jobs with state budget cuts, said executive director Alex Valdez.
Guzman doesn't get paid for his work at the Chicano Youth Center, and neither do the board members -- it has been an all volunteer-run organization since it was created by students at California State University, Fresno, in the 1970s.
"I'm living on whatever meager funds I have and unemployment" benefits, he said. "It's called a labor of love."
The organization's funding, which comes entirely from grants and donations, has dropped off steadily over the past several years and continues to decline. In 1997, it received $152,599 in donations -- almost nine times what it gets today; in 2005, the year Guzman took over, the center took in $22,524.
Today, the Chicano Youth Center operates on a shoestring budget -- 2008 tax documents, the most recent available, show a budget of $20,580. Most of that pays for daily operations, including Internet and phones, and food and games for kids after school, Guzman said. The city parks department rents Guzman space in the Dickey Youth Center for $1 a year.
Guzman said he doesn't have staff to write grants, so he relies on small contributions from companies such as Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which gave $1,500 in 2010. The Fresno Regional Foundation gave grants ranging from $13,000 to $65,000 each year from 1997 to 2000, said chief executive officer Dan DeSantis. Its last gift was a $10,000 youth grant in 2008 that DeSantis said was very competitive.
With meager funding and staff, most of what the Chicano Youth Center does today is offer space to community groups for conferences and training, help the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission provide free lunches to children during the summer and join the city park and recreation staff in coordinating sporting events and other activities.
Its low profile and small operations have kept the organization a mystery to some residents of the Lowell neighborhood.
"We don't know them. We don't know what they do," said Don Simmons, a neighborhood resident and a humanics professor at Fresno State. "I'm not sure that they make any real difference here."
Other neighborhood residents weren't certain who Guzman was or what he did but agreed that the Dickey Center on Divisadero Street offered a refuge in a high-crime neighborhood where many children may not have a safe place to go after school.
Without the center, children "would be hanging out in front yards and parks and places where there is more crime," said Esther Delahay, a Lowell resident who works with neighborhood children at the nonprofit Fresno/Madera Youth for Christ.
Phil Skei, director of the Fresno Institute for Urban Leadership, a Christian youth organization, and a longtime Lowell resident, credits Guzman for bringing the Dickey Youth Center into the community in 2008. Guzman helped the city get more than $4 million in grants to build the facility.
"Javier continues to do good work with the community," Skei said. "The kids have a great relationship with Javier."
A few years ago, 22-year-old Veronica Cortes made a documentary when she was a student at Roosevelt High School celebrating Guzman as a Latino community leader.
The daughter of poor immigrants, she often felt discouraged about her future. Then, Guzman volunteered his time to become her mentor and counseled her through high school -- and all the way to Fresno State, where she is a fourth-year mass communication and journalism student.
"He gave me courage to keep going," Cortes said.
Cortes interns at the Chicano Youth Center through a partnership Guzman has with the Fresno State University Migrant Services program.
"I am there to help him because he has helped me so much," she said.
Guzman's politics and activism
Guzman's dropout intervention work in Fresno dates back to the late 1980s, when he joined Alfonso Hernandez, founder of the Chicano Youth Center, to mentor high school MEChA clubs, a student organization for Chicano youth.
Hernandez said the dropout rate was disturbingly high among Latinos even back then, and he and Guzman "did all that we had to do" to keep students in school -- until they ran out of resources. The MEChA clubs are less active today, Hernandez said, and neither man is involved.
He joined Proteus Inc., an education and job training program headquartered in Visalia, where he worked from about 2002-06, managing a teen pregnancy prevention program and a mentoring program for children of prisoners.
"He was very good at that," said Michael McCann, chief executive officer of Proteus Inc., who hired Guzman. "In our industry, we serve people in distress, and I have to have people with heart. And it was very clear ... Javier has the heart for it."
Most who know him agree -- Guzman is all heart. But to make the dropout commission work, Guzman will need more than just heart -- he will need some political savvy to work with district officials.
Guzman has made a habit of standing up to city, county and school district leaders -- part of the reason he has earned a reputation as a bulldog.
He was part of a parent and community group that ousted five Mendota Unified School District trustees when the district had a financial crisis nearly a decade ago.
The group, Adelante Mendota, won a major court battle against the trustees in 1994 for mismanaging funds. The group had support from the Mexican-American Political Association -- a Hispanic political activist group that Guzman joined in the 1990s.
Mendota wasn't MAPA's only target -- it also called on Fresno Unified School District to change how trustees are elected to include more Hispanic board members. The organization has used lawsuits and other tactics to force school districts to abandon at-large trustee elections.
Guzman was a state organizer for MAPA but said he left the organization after a brief stint. He called the organization's impact "very limited" and said he wanted instead to work directly with parents and teachers to change the state's education system.
He was a member of the Fresno County chapter of the San Joaquin Valley Vote, an organization promoting Hispanic empowerment and voter turnout, from 1998 to 2000. He recently joined the Fresno County Central Democratic Committee to lead efforts to increase Latino voter registration.
Some colleagues said Guzman always stands up for what he believes in but at times takes on more than he can handle.
"He's not afraid to publicize or speak up when he thinks something isn't correct," McCann said. That's an admirable trait, he said, but it also "can work against you."
Guzman will have to tread carefully with Fresno Unified leaders. If Guzman alienates Hanson, the dropout commission will not be successful, said John Hernandez, chief executive officer of the Central Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce who has worked with Guzman.
"It has to be led by Mr. Hanson," Hernandez said. "That's the only way to address the issue."
He said community and district leaders need "to work as a team, rather than drawing lines in the sand."
Whether there will be a commission remains to be seen. In earlier interviews, some trustees said they suspected that the superintendent would dismiss the idea.
Their skepticism is well-founded -- Hanson turned down an almost identical proposal from Guzman in 2009, citing concerns about cost and interfering with plans for a dropout summit that were under way at the time.
Guzman has said repeatedly that he's not asking the school district for money for the commission, and he thinks he can get funding from the city, county or community foundations. But there will have to be some money. Guzman says a fully staffed commission may cost up to $200,000 -- the same price Hanson cited when he ruled out the commission in 2009.
Guzman also may have ruffled district feathers last month when he helped organize Reform Fresno Unified, a group advocating the break-up of the school district into two smaller districts.
Valdez of I-5 Social Services Corp. said the school district ought to take Guzman up on his offer. Valdez, who joined Guzman in the crusade against the Mendota trustees, said Guzman could change the dropout problem.
Besides, he said, no one else is offering to solve the dropout crisis.
"Whether it's him or someone else, they need to address the problems of the school district here in Fresno," Valdez said. "It's long overdue."
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