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.
The two men met last month, and Guzman laid out his plans for a three-year commission that would work to get funding and create services to help more students stay in school.
Trustee Michelle Asadoorian said she was waiting for Hanson's report at today's board meeting. She said she had heard nothing about the task force until late afternoon Tuesday, hours after the news conference.
"Mr. Hanson does not feel it necessary to follow the direction of the board," Asadoorian said. "He's the CEO of a public company, and he's acting as if he's the CEO of a private company. That is not how education works."
Other board members said Hanson informed them of his plans either Tuesday morning or late last week.
Guzman said he, too, was surprised. After the meeting with Hanson, he had started preparing another presentation about the dropout commission for the board's Feb. 22 meeting. He said he had thought there still was a chance to win district support for his plan.
Hanson said the news conference Tuesday was intended to serve as his message to the board and the entire community about how he wants to tackle the dropout problem. Guzman's three-year plan did not match the district's need to move swiftly, he said.
Mills wrote in an email that she saw the superintendent's task force as an appropriate follow-up to the December meeting. The board had promised the community it would address the dropout problem, she said, and the graduation task force is one way to do that.
Guzman said he plans to proceed with his commission without Fresno Unified officials. Arambula had invited him to join the graduation task force, but Guzman said he was undecided. He doubted its success, and challenged the idea that the task force could finish its work by summer: "That's ludicrous," he said.
Asadoorian said the district had sacrificed an opportunity to have a community-wide, grassroots commission tackling the problem, and will now have two disjointed groups working on the problem, with a gulf of politics dividing them.
Arambula, who has four children who graduated from Fresno Unified, brings a history of board politics with him. He served on the school board from 1987 to 1996, and his involvement in the district continued for the next decade.
He led an effort in 2006 to pack the board with four candidates backed by a group of politicians and business leaders. Voters rejected the slate, ousting board president Luisa Medina and incumbent Pat Barr. The winning candidates -- incumbents Vang and Valerie Davis and challengers Cal Johnson and Asadoorian -- won with teachers' union support. All four are still on the board.
Arambula, who served six years in the Assembly before leaving in 2010, also sponsored failed legislation to shift academic oversight of troubled school districts from state officials to locally elected county superintendents, and giving districts more flexibility in spending education money. The legislation targeted 13 districts, including Fresno Unified. Teachers unions and FUSD trustees, led by then-board president Mills, helped defeat the plan.
Check back for more on this developing story.