Problem #1

  • By: Al Smith – President and CEO of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce

The phone rang in the office a couple of weeks ago and when I answered it, the voice at the other end introduced himself and said, “Betty Yee wants to come visit you.”

My mind flashed back to the recent election in which our own Mayor, Ashley Swearengin ran a very competitive race for State Controller against someone named Betty Yee.

I said, “That Betty Yee? Controller?” To which I received an affirmative reply.

Knowing that we were strong supporters of our Mayor in that race, I wasn’t sure what was on the newly elected Controller’s mind.  Hopefully it didn’t include violence.

It seemed like Betty Yee had never spent much time in the Valley and she wanted to come and hear what our very livable part of California is all about, as well as what issues we might have that she could assist in.   An encouraging gesture.

Our current Board Chair, Lorraine Salazar, our in-coming 2016 Chair, Al Solis, along with Chamber VP of Governmental Affairs Rachel Eslick and I sat down with Yee and a staff member to share the uniqueness of the Central Valley and the challenges we have.

Ms. Yee asked what was the single most important thing impacting Fresno.  Everyone looked at each other and quickly said, “Education – education of our youth.”  Unfortunately for our community, the fact is that of the almost 5,000 students who start as high-school freshmen in Fresno Unified, close to 25% never finish.  Sadly, that one out of every four student dropout rate is an improvement over past performances.

It is critical to find ways of keeping kids in school, to spark a vocational interest and to seek ways to block that all too convenient escape to the streets without a thought given to future plans.

A figure  thrown out to me a few years back stated there were 22,000 people on the streets of Fresno between the ages of 16-25 that had dropped out of school; never had a job; don’t want a job and spend the day just “spending”. Whether that figure is exact or not, it is safe to assume there is a large number of kids out there that are not up to anything good.

After falling out of favor for too many years, career technical education (us old folks called it vocational education) is moving back into the educational spotlight.  Degrees in History are useful, but so is the training that allows a good mechanic to make $50 an hour.  Getting a student hooked on something productive – in addition to reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic – can lead to passion that turns into a vocation and allows the individual to make a positive contribution to society.

As a Chamber, as a citizen, as a community – we collectively should never let that goal get out of our sight.  The leadership of our education systems needs to “run – don’t walk” to create the opportunities within our schools that can ignite the interests of tomorrow’s adults.

Sharing our challenges with the Controller was nice, but sharing those same needs continually with our community is vital.  Particularly when our future is at stake.

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