19 Oct 2017

Fresno’s school drop-outs a problem for entire Valley.

Jerrold H. Jensen, Visalia
6:16 a.m. PT May 19, 2017

About 70% of the inmates in our state prisons are high school dropouts – and Fresno Unified has a history of producing a lot of them.

Fresno taxpayers would probably be surprised to learn enrollment in their school district has declined by 10% in the last 15 years.

Perversely, that could be good news for the crime rates in surrounding cities including Visalia and Tulare.

About 70% of the inmates in our state prisons are high school dropouts – and Fresno Unified has a history of producing a lot of them.

Ten years ago they only graduated 51% of the freshmen they started with four years earlier.

By comparison, both Visalia Unified and Clovis Unified had 94% graduation rates in 2016.

Their combined enrollment is now nearly equal to Fresno Unified’s.

To be fair, Fresno Unified has recently shown significant progress and claimed an 85% success rate in 2016.

However, FUSD reassigns about 1,100 bored and disruptive kids each year to alternative schools that are located in Fresno – but they are actually chartered and supervised by tiny rural elementary school districts.

Reassigning their problem students to those other districts produces higher – but misleading – graduation rates.

Clearly, disruptive and dangerous students must be removed from mainstream schools.

The Visalia Times-Delta headline on May 12 noted that local teachers are demanding stricter discipline.

This has been a familiar complaint from Fresno Unified as well. But what is the future for these students?

The Fresno Bee recently published my commentary criticizing the Fresno Unified School District for reassigning and then ignoring the subsequent results of the kids they send away.

Unfortunately, less than 20 percent of the “at risk” students in alternative schools will graduate on schedule.

That column prompted phone calls from both Brooke Ashjian, the new President of the Fresno Unified Board of Trustees and Ann Abajian the PR Representative for Learn4Life schools.

Learn4Life runs charter schools throughout the state and has over 1,400 Fresno students in facilities authorized by those rural districts. Joined by Larry Powell, retired Superintendent of Fresno County

Schools, we subsequently visited their largest local alternative school.

Instead of finding a “warehouse” for unruly kids who had dropped out of mainstream schools, we found students quietly following individualized study plans to earn a diploma.

There were two uniformed private security guards and students adhering to a modest dress code can only enter after being recognized by a fingerprint scanner.

The central area had about 150 individual desks with computers and multiple instructors were close by to monitor progress and administer tests.

There were two strollers with babies next to their teenage moms – who also have a private lactation room.

Every classroom had floor to ceiling glass walls – all activity is visible to the staff and security cameras.

We found some students receiving instruction on interviewing and filling out job applications. Adult mentors/role models in another room were engaged in conversation with students discussing life skills needed outside the school.

There were just a handful of administrators – California Public K-12 schools have 296,000 teachers inside classrooms and 292,000 more employees outside them.

This Learn4Life school was offering willing students an orderly second chance to earn a diploma.

Unfortunately, Fresno’s past high school dropouts have affected the quality of life throughout the Central Valley. But their teachers do face the significant challenges of multiple native languages, high levels of poverty, broken families and “white flight” from the district.

About 2% of their first-grade enrollment of white students in 2009 were gone by the time they registered for the eighth grade in 2016.

Many obviously transferred to Clovis Unified.

The racial demographics are significantly different between the two districts.

Whites are just 10% of FUSD’s enrollment, Hispanics are 68%%, Asians 11% and African Americans 8%. Clovis Unified’s numbers in the same order are 40%, 37%, 13% and 3%. Visalia Unified’s are 21%, 68%, 4% and 2%.

Despite declining enrollment, Fresno taxpayers have supported their students with $704 million in three local school bonds since 2001.

However, school administrators ignored the results of thousands of students reassigned to alternative schools.

But the district’s new elected leader, FUSD Board President Ashjian, spent several hours during our tour studying the biggest alternative facility for bored and disruptive kids.

Perhaps someday Fresno will further attack their dropout problem by providing local oversight for these schools located inside their own city limits.

Jerrold H. Jensen lives in Visalia.