School and government officials came together Tuesday to discuss how changing the environment students live in can improve their performance in the classroom.

Victor, a 17-year-old with three felonies on his record, stood before them at the GradNation summit held at Fresno State as living proof. (The County Office of Education asked The Bee not to identify Victor by his full name for his safety.)

Victor, a student at Violet Heintz Education Academy, spent nearly a year in a juvenile detention center for crimes he doesn’t like to talk about. He said while growing up in a single-parent household in his Bay Area hometown, getting arrested was the norm – but now he is just six credits away from a high school diploma, and credits the teachers and mentors he met along the way for that.

“Since being a student here, I’ve received the role models that I’ve always needed,” he said. “Kids in my position should let their voice be heard and not fall silent into the cracks.

“I realize I’m not the only person in this situation but I feel it’s my responsibility to gain back my freedom and the respect I deserve, but lost due to my mistakes.”

Tuesday’s event, hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, featured a panel that included Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino. Similar events were held across the U.S. and focused on curbing the national high school dropout rate.

The national graduation rate is 80% – the highest in history. Fresno County’s rate is also nearly 80%. The national organization aims to move the mark to 90% by 2020.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin

Only about half of Fresno County high school students go on to college, and about 37% of students were chronically absent last year, missing at least 10% of the school year.

Swearengin pointed to a recent report that shows Fresno has among the highest concentration of poverty in the country as a primary obstacle for students and teachers. About 43% of Fresno County students live in poverty, and the numbers are much higher for the Fresno Unified School District, at about 87%.

“That makes the job of every teacher in every school in those neighborhoods impossible. There’s a direct correlation between the quality of the neighborhood a child walks through to get to school and the performance of that school,” Swearengin said.

“When I consider what our educators are facing in the neighborhoods that we’ve created for them, it makes me very motivated to move the needle on private and public investment back into our city.”

Dyer pointed to the city’s high crime rates, saying it’s crucial to keep kids in school and prevent truancy to curb the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Far too many of our youth today fall behind in school and eventually become habitually truant and drop out only to find themselves involved in gangs and drugs. We see that time and time again.

“Much of that has to do with the fact that some of our kids live in very challenged neighborhoods and grow up living in fear, and it is that fear that doesn’t allow them to feel safe in school,” Dyer said. “We have to eliminate that fear and give them safety and security so that they can learn.”

Yovino said despite talk in education circles about the best facilities and programs, leaders need to go back to the basics when attempting to help at-risk children.

“Effective education really happens in one way, and it’s about human interaction. There’s no substitute for what nurturing can do for a child,” he said.

“It’s that human kindness that triggers the brain to become very active, and it never ends there. That kid becomes an adult and that adult becomes a parent and the cycle continues.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays