Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson announced Tuesday that he is creating a high-level task force to find ways to keep students in school until they graduate.
Hanson tapped former state Assembly Member Juan Arambula to lead the Graduation Task Force, and said it would be made up of community members with "expertise and knowledge of developing solutions to complex issues like increasing the graduation rate."
The group's composition is not yet final, but members will be selected by Hanson. Arambula, school board President Tony Vang and Trustee Carol Mills said they've already suggested members, while some members of the splintered FUSD board said they only just learned of the task force after the announcement.
The district's dropout problem has been debated for years, and became a hot topic again after The Bee published a series in November entitled "Dropping Out: A Matter of Life and Death." It's expected to be a theme of this year's school board elections.
Arambula, who said he accepted Hanson's request to chair the group last week, said the issue is personal for him -- three of his siblings dropped out of high school, and he has watched them struggle to make a living.
"It's a real heartache," Arambula said.
Arambula said he wants to take on several complicated issues, such as improving school discipline policies that inadvertently may encourage students to drop out. According to a district news release, the task force will also look at career technical education, attendance and "student achievement issues."
Vang said that the task force would help provide insight into a decades-old problem.
"Those kids need help," he said. "And we have to find ways to put more resources into the classroom."
The district said the task force has support from the Fresno Regional Foundation, the California Endowment and the United Way. The organizations have not provided funding for the task force, Hanson said.
Hanson said the task force will start meeting later this month and will report to the school board by early June with recommendations.
He said the task force was an extension of the district's efforts since 2008 to combat dropouts, but it would require contributions from every corner of the city.
The dropout and graduation rates are difficult to pin down and subject to debate. The most recent data provided by the California Department of Education show the district graduation rate at 66.4% in 2009-10, based on attendance figures reported by the district; some teachers and community leaders say it's closer to 50%.
Hanson says it was 72.5% in 2009-10 -- up from 69.1% in 2007-08. Those numbers are based on a formula that the federal government requires public schools use.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said the federal formula is less accurate than the state-reported 66.4%. However, the state does not have graduation rates for previous years, so the federal formula is the best way to show changes over time.
Hanson said he was confident the graduation rate will continue to go up, "but it's not nearly enough."
"We simply have to do more as a community," he said.
The announcement of the task force comes less than two months after the school board directed Hanson to meet with Javier Guzman, director of the Chicano Youth Center and an education reform activist, to discuss his proposal for a commission to prevent dropouts.
Guzman appeared before the board in December with a plan to reduce the dropout rate through a community-led commission. At the Dec. 14 meeting, the board told Hanson to report back on the possibility of such a commission in early February.
Check back for more on this developing story.