The race for the Area 6 seat on the Fresno Unified School Board may hinge as much on Hoover High School's graduation rate as on the candidates themselves.
Four challengers vying to replace Janet Ryan as trustee say voters are frustrated with a low graduation rate and want a change in leadership.
The candidates seeking to unseat Ryan are retired teacher Ken Trapp, commercial lender George Whitman, insurance agent Carole Blomgren and Daniel Harrison, a music teacher/economist and full-time student.
Ryan and her challengers say improving third-grade reading levels could hike graduation rates over the long run, and they agree on the importance of providing students with career/technical-education classes. But the challengers say the district has focused too much on college-ready students to the detriment of those who are not college-bound.
Blomgren said she would bring the perspective of a mother to the school board.
Her frustration has grown over the years with the schooling that children receive. Her son struggled at Hoover for years, she said. He's now a senior at Crescent View Charter School. She has a 12-year-old daughter at Edison Computech Middle School.
The district needs to track children from an early age, before middle school or high school, to keep them in school, she said.
In addition, too many students are bored and unhappy at school, she said. "I remember when I was in school, I enjoyed home-ec, I enjoyed pottery."
But Fresno Unified has gutted career/technical education from middle schools, classes that make school enjoyable for many students, she said.
She questions the board's decision to allocate only $500,000 for career/technical education from Proposition 30 funds if voters approve the tax initiative this November.
After graduating from high school, Blomgren married at 19. She attended a career college and became a registered dental assistant. Blomgren said she's taking a leave of absence from that job for the campaign and to concentrate on being an insurance agent.
Harrison, at 21, is the youngest of the candidates, but that's not been a deterrent, he said. In walking precincts, he said, voters have for the most part "been inspired that a young person is taking action into his own hands."
A part-time piano instructor, Harrison said he also works as an economist and has served as an economic policy adviser for the Johnny Tacherra congressional campaign in the Valley. A full-time student at Fresno State, he expects to graduate in December with degrees in political science and economics.
He's single and has no children. But he has connections to education, he said. "Most of my relatives are educators. There's a long family history of teaching in Fresno Unified."
He wants to make Fresno Unified "the safest school district in California so students view school as the second-safest place for them to be, with the first being their home."
His studies in economics also are an asset, he said: "We need leaders who know how to work a budget."
Harrison said reducing Hoover's dropout rate would be a priority. Parents have told him they're afraid to send children to the high school for fear they won't graduate.
The Central Valley's economy depends on having fewer Fresno Unified dropouts, Harrison said.
Contrary to the assertion of critics, Hoover High is not a dropout factory, Ryan said.
The graduation rate has continued to climb, except for a slight dip in 2010-11, she said.
Hoover had a graduation rate of 76.8% in 2011, according to the California Department of Education. It was the third-lowest in the district, exceeded only by McLane and Fresno High.
Ryan has served eight years on the board and has the endorsement of Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell. She said she continues to believe the district must raise educational expectations for all students.
That includes making technical/career education students college-ready, Ryan said. The district has increased the number of career/technical courses that meet the English, math and science requirements for admission into the University of California and California State University systems, she said.
"We all know there are jobs going begging now, good-paying jobs, because we don't have enough highly skilled people to fill them," Ryan said.
She supports a district proposal to add an extra period to the middle-school day so students can take elective classes beyond core English and math subjects.
Ryan strongly supports Fresno Unified using $7.4 million of a potential $17.5 million in Proposition 30 funds to expand preschool education. Early education has been shown to improve third-grade reading levels, an indicator of high school success. Ryan said the Fresno Teachers Association wants more teachers hired to reduce elementary class sizes, but that has not been shown to improve student achievement, she said.
"I believe if we stay on this course, we're going to have a major breakthrough in student achievement," she said.
Trapp said the Fresno Unified board is in turmoil and needs someone to move it in the right direction. He said his business background and 30 years in the Navy Reserves -- he retired as a chief warrant officer -- would serve him well on the board. He also has 25 years teaching experience in Dinuba, where he taught history in a continuation high school before retiring.
But he also has strong links to Hoover High and Fresno Unified. His two adult children are Hoover High graduates, and his wife, Sandra, taught elementary school for Fresno Unified before retiring after 30 years. "I know what school is like, and I know what works."
Trapp said he would support designating more schools that prepare students for jobs, such as Duncan Polytechnical High School, a magnet occupational high school, to lower the district's dropout rates.
Career-technical education classes motivate students to remain in high school, as well as teach them skills necessary to find jobs when they graduate, he said.
Expanding preschool education has merit, Trapp said, but he does not believe it should be mandatory.
Increasing parent involvement is key to improving academic achievement, he said. And he said, "I think parents, as well as the students, should be held accountable for their attendance and their academics."
Whitman said he has a family insight into education, and it's not all good for Fresno Unified.
His wife, Therese, has taught in the district for 17 years and now works at Ericson Elementary. Her enjoyment of her job has dropped because of how Fresno Unified treats teachers, he said.
The Fresno Teachers Association has endorsed Whitman.
Whitman said his business experience would benefit the board. He is a commercial property lender with a degree in marketing from Fresno State. He said frustrated business owners tell him they can't hire high school graduates because they have to teach them to read before they can train them. He supports early childhood education but is concerned that Fresno Unified wants to increase spending for preschool education by 125% but serve only 80% to 90% more students, he said.
The district should focus on kindergarten through third grade, which is the foundation for learning, he said. Without solid reading and math skills, students fall behind, are not successful in high school and are likelier to drop out, he said.
Fresno Unified also should recognize the value of career/technical education in improving graduation rates, but the district has been reluctant to pay for it, Whitman said. Clovis Unified, which is half the size of Fresno Unified, spends twice as much on vocational education and graduates a higher percentage of students, he said.
Fresno Unified School Board, Area 6 candidates
Occupation: Insurance agent, registered dental assistant
Education: Clovis High graduate, some college
Family: Married, three children
Occupation: Economist, college student
Education: Scheduled to graduate in December from Fresno State with degrees in economics and political science
Occupation: FUSD trustee
Education: University of San Francisco, bachelor's in organizational behavior
Family: Married, three children, five grandchildren
Occupation: Retired teacher
Education: Did not respond
Family: Married, two adult children
Occupation: Commercial property lending, licensed real estate broker
Education: California State University, bachelor's in marketing
Family: Married, one adult son
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