Square pegs being pushed through round holes. That's how the Fresno County grand jury saw the dropout problem in 2005.
Thousands of kids were failing to graduate from Fresno Unified each year because they had little or no interest in the college-bound curriculum they were being fed. Meanwhile, Fresno Unified was making so many cuts to alternative vocational education that it existed mostly in name.
If the city was going to begin to solve the dropout problem, the grand jury found, the school district needed to change its one-size-fits-all approach. That meant offering the real option of career technical education for many more students.
"We're missing a large percentage of our kids who have no aspirations for college and no desire to work in low-paying jobs," Mary La Follette, a member of the 2004-05 grand jury, said. "They want a career, and they're eager to get the training. But they're not getting it."
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Fast forward to today and not a whole lot has changed.
Fresno Unified failed to apply for millions of dollars in state career technical education grants two years ago, saying it wasn't sure how it would spend the money. Meanwhile, Clovis Unified reeled in nearly $13 million to build a state-of-the-art agricultural mechanics facility at Clovis East and an alternative-energy program at Buchanan High.
Fresno Unified's new $285 million facilities bond fails to set aside enough money to build a new career technical school along the lines of Duncan Polytechnical High School. Instead, the bond allocates $10 million to expand or renovate existing career technical facilities.
"We're going to need to build several new Duncans to tackle the dropout problem," said Jim Harris, a member of the 2004-05 grand jury and a longtime teacher and principal in Fresno Unified. "As it stands now, we don't have the critical mass in career technical education to make a real difference."
Fresno Unified declined to comment for this story. Superintendent Michael Hanson turned down numerous requests for an interview about the dropout and truancy crisis.
Given the complexity of the crisis and its roots in poverty and family and school dysfunction, no single solution will solve the problem, teachers and school administrators agree. Rather, the reforms must be bold and targeted at multiple levels.
Larry Powell, county superintendent of schools, says Fresno Unified needs to borrow from the approach of successful smaller school districts such as Sanger Unified that do a better job of engaging students, parents and the community. Such reform, he says, might even include dividing up Fresno Unified into two or three smaller districts.
And echoing the findings of the 2004-05 grand jury, Powell wants to give many more students the choice to pursue career technical education. He said he was recently reminded of the value of such an education when the refrigerator in his kitchen broke down.
"I had a guy come and repair it. It took him all of three minutes and he said, 'That'll be $100.' I said, 'How much for the part?' And he said, 'Three dollars for the part, and $97 for knowing where to put it.' "
It was a similar exchange in the fall of 2004 that turned grand jury members into education reformers.
At the time, Mary La Follette was working as the development director of the Fresno Art Museum. She was overseeing the building of a sculpture park when a contractor shared his woes about finding qualified trades workers. La Follette compared notes with other contractors and discovered an across-the-board shortage of skilled blue-collar workers in Fresno.
"These are jobs where you can earn a real livable wage, $70,000 a year, and we couldn't fill them," she said. "There was such a shortage that one contractor was stealing away workers from the other."
She took the issue to her fellow grand jury members. They decided to investigate. Dozens of people, from welders to educators, were called to testify. They told the grand jury about a gaping hole in the middle of Fresno's economy -- one that Fresno Unified wasn't addressing.
We had reached deep into the rural heart of Mexico and pulled out a poor, uneducated work force for our farm fields, they said. These hard-working people held firm to the lowest rungs of our economic ladder. Understandably, their children didn't want to follow the parents into the fields.
But what choices were the school district and the city giving them? So many of the middle rungs of the ladder -- the industrial jobs that boosted Los Angeles, for instance -- were missing here. So the children were being asked to leap from the bottom of the ladder to the top in one generation.
The school district wasn't being honest about the students it was serving, the grand jury found. It was asking them to make a leap, from Third World illiteracy to college, that many found extraordinarily difficult.
"When you're dealing with students that you know aren't interested in attending a university or college, you have to have another option, another way," La Follette said. "I don't blame it all on the district because a lot of this is handed down from the state. But the school district needs to think creatively."
The limited vocational education offered by Fresno Unified had created a self-justification. Fresno lacked the skilled work force needed to attract outside industries with good-paying jobs. And the lack of those industries had hardened the school district into a single belief: Prepare the kids for college.
Grand jury members heard about one blue-collar job in Fresno that had attracted more than 100 applicants. Half of them couldn't fill out the application properly, and the other half couldn't pass the drug test.
Three years ago, partly in response to the grand jury's report, Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson launched a commission on work force readiness and career technical education made up of business and industry leaders.
The commissioners went straight to work, devoting more than 1,000 hours to finding ways to turn potential dropouts into career-ready graduates. In May 2009, they delivered a report to the school board, underscoring 25 recommendations and citing Duncan Poly High School and the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) as models. Both programs were combining academic rigor with technical rigor, offering students a way to pursue college or a job or both.
Fresno Unified needed to broaden this approach, the report said, implementing career technical education concepts as early as the fifth grade and offering more counselors at every level to help students with "Individual Career Plans."
"This is not one of those efforts that ended in a report that got thrown on the shelf," said Tracewell Hanrahan, the district administrator who led the commission and now heads the Fresno Housing Authority. "We've reported to the board three times. Several of the recommendations have been implemented."
Fresno Unified has set up a career technical education center at Edison High, she said, and renovated the counseling center at Bullard High. And in response to a shortage of counselors, the district has added positions throughout the district.
But teachers and community activists, along with several members of the 2004-05 grand jury, say the dimensions of the dropout problem require much bolder change.
A 2009 study by the California Dropout Research Project found that a single year's dropouts could cost Fresno $555 million in economic losses over their lifetimes. In the face of such losses, they say, the district's approach has been inconsistent, at best.
Linda Caraveo, a veteran English teacher at Terronez Middle School in southeast Fresno, agrees that the district is overlooking the unique skills of huge swaths of students. "My kids are drawers. They're artists. Art, drafting, drawing. We need to combine these classes with the reading and writing classes."
Caraveo said the district's decision to require eighth-graders to take algebra is another example of an unrealistic expectation that hits low-income Hispanic and African-American students the hardest.
"I sometimes substitute in math, and the kids are so low in their skills that they don't know what 12 times 2 is. These are eighth-graders," she said. "Maybe 20% of them can handle algebra. The rest are profoundly behind."
Many Hispanic leaders who came of age during the Chicano era look warily at career technical education, recalling the days in the 1960s and '70s when high school counselors steered them to the auto shop or wood shop just because their skin was brown.
"I don't want my kids directed toward vocational education," said Dr. Juan Carlos Gonzalez, a professor at Fresno State who has interviewed dozens of struggling Hispanic students as part of his work in the educational research and administration department. "I want them directed toward college."
And yet, many of the Hispanic youths Gonzalez has met complain about the lack of vocational opportunities offered by Fresno Unified.
"You ask them and a lot of them want to be mechanics. One kid told me, 'Over in the Clovis schools, they have five or six cars you can work on, and they don't even want to be mechanics. At our high schools, we've got one car and lots of kids who want to be mechanics.' "
County schools superintendent Powell said the most important consideration was giving each student a choice. Whether blue-collar job or four-year college, "it's their choice because we prepared them to have that choice. We shouldn't say one is better than the other."
In recent months, Powell has talked about addressing the city's dropout problem through major reform. He says less emphasis needs to be placed on "teaching" state standardized tests, which has become the tail that now wags the dog. More emphasis should be placed on the arts and music as a way to engage all kids. And, perhaps most boldly, the community needs to have a full and honest discussion about overhauling the structure of Fresno Unified.
The district is arguably too big and bureaucratic to get troubled students the help they need, he said. Dividing the district into two or three smaller parts would cut out the red tape that gets in the way of true intervention -- an idea that his predecessor, Pete Mehas, pushed a decade ago.
"Districts with fewer than 35,000 students have a better opportunity to do the things you need to do to address these issues," Powell said in an interview.
Powell pointed to the smaller Sanger Unified School District, where low-income Hispanic students with similar challenges are attending classes, earning solid grades and graduating in high numbers.
But in tough economic times, he said, such reform isn't an easy sell. "There's lots of costs associated with breaking up a school district. So it's not simple. But I do think it's time that we, as a community, begin a conversation about dividing up Fresno Unified into smaller parts."
For the time being, Powell is focused on creating a task force to address the African-American dropout rate, which is even higher than the Hispanic rate. He pledges to do the same for Hispanic dropouts.
"Sixty-five percent of African-Americans who drop out end up in prison," he said. "The tragedy of that is something we cannot continue to allow. We must not wait for the state. We must do it ourselves."