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.