Modesto candidates zero in on dropout rate

Almost a quarter of Modesto high schoolers will drop out before earning their diploma.

So it's not surprising that candidates for the Modesto City Schools Board of Education are debating how best to reach those struggling students -- from offering more vocational classes to opening a charter school.

The field is a crowded one, with seven candidates vying for three open seats.

Odessa Johnson, a 16-year school board veteran, and Connie Chin, who was elected to the Modesto board in 1999, have bowed out of the race this fall. Neither Johnson nor Chin has endorsed a candidate, although Chin said she plans to endorse at least one person.

Gary A. Lopez, a captain with the Modesto Fire Department, is the only current board member seeking re-election Nov. 6.

Lopez, along with office manager Kimberly Gerber Spina and former board member Steve Grenbeaux, were endorsed by the Modesto Teachers Association.

While the candidates have set their sights on reforming the high schools, they don't all agree on how best to do it.

Dale "Gene" Williams, Rickey McGill and Sareth Pen all said they would oppose opening a charter school in the district.

Maria Alvarez, Grenbeaux, Lopez and Spina said they would consider opening charter schools, a tactic used heavily by Superintendent Arturo Flores in his Sacramento job. Flores helped lead a reform effort called e21, which divided large high schools into "learning communities" and created smaller high schools with roughly 500 students each.

Here's a look at the seven candidates and their goals:

Lopez, 46, said his most important priority is the completion of Gregori High School in Salida. Lopez and other board members have been criticized for the project, which has been delayed several times and is now scheduled to open in fall 2010.

"We've had some problems but we're going to get it done," he said.

Lopez said many of the district's "positive success stories" often are overlooked. He said he takes weekly trips to John Muir Elementary with fellow fire- fighters to help mentor fourth- graders. Students in Lopez's original group are now high school juniors.

Grenbeaux, 62, is a longtime fifth-grade teacher at Empire Elementary and plans to retire in June. Grenbeaux is banking on his experience on the Modesto City Schools Board of Education -- he served from 1979 to 1991 -- to win him votes in November.

"I have built schools, I have closed schools, I am dedicated to education," Grenbeaux said.

Grenbeaux garnered support from Jim Enochs, Modesto's superintendent of the past 21 years, in a letter to the editor printed today in The Bee.

Grenbeaux said he sees Salida's Gregori High school, situated near a business park, as a place where the technical arts programs can flourish.

Salida resident Spina, 48, has support from former Modesto schools board member Kate Nyegaard and longtime education advocate Bette Belle Smith.

Spina, who operates a walnut ranch with her husband, said she has seen the success of after-school programs at Salida Middle School and wants to replicate those programs in Modesto.

"I think that we need to have tutoring and success programs early on to nurture those children -- get them caught up and help them get organized and learn how they can help themselves to do their homework," Spina said. "And, amazingly, they'll do well on tests."

Pen, 54, said he spoke no English when he came from Cambodia to the United States in 1980.

"I want to represent my people," Pen said. "I don't think anyone in this community has seen an Asian refugee run for office."

Pen said he would represent southeast Asian refugees in the school system and help minority parents become more involved in their children's education.

"I came to this country without speaking a word of English, but I have been able to go to school and get the education I need," said Pen, a social worker for Central Valley Foster Care Inc.

Alvarez, 52, holds a doctorate in education and works as an instructional services coordinator with the Merced County Office of Education.

She was born in Mexico and said she has the educational experience and cultural back- ground to help the district's English-learners succeed. She wants a "more creative" approach to addressing the needs of students learning English, who make up 35 percent of Modesto's elementary and junior high students and 13 percent of high schoolers.

"Those students have two jobs, which are learning English and learning in English at the same time," Alvarez said.

McGill, 57, works as a high school assistant principal in a Stockton youth correctional facility. He's had three unsuccessful bids for the Modesto school board.

McGill criticized the district's move to consider a lease- leaseback contract for Gregori High School. That construction method gives the district extra time to pay back the cost of the school after construction is completed.

"What you've done is let down a group of people you've made promises to over and over again," McGill said.

McGill advocates a mix of academic and vocational opportunities so graduates can "successfully enter into adulthood and become responsible citizens."

Williams, 40, is a career counselor for the California Army National Guard. He said he advocates a "back to basics" approach, with a renewed focus on reading, writing and math. He said the skills of Modesto's high school graduates aren't well-matched with high-paying career opportunities.

"The hard part is when I stop to look at the kids coming out of our schools," Williams said. "Companies simply don't want to come to Modesto today because our education is below their technology, below their manufacturing capabilities."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.