PITTSBURG -- Three candidates running for an open seat on the Pittsburg Unified School District have outlined strategies for improving high school graduation rates and test scores for students.

Former school district trustee Joe Arenivar, newcomer Ruben Esqueda, and Duane Smith, who is making a second bid for a seat on the school board, are vying for a vacancy created by the resignation in June of former trustee Robert Belleci.

Whoever gets the most votes on the November ballot will serve the remaining two years of Bellecci's four-year term.

The district's high school graduation rate of 66 percent is well below the statewide average of 76 percent, and while Pittsburg students have made steady progress in the last few years on test scores that measure competency in English and math skills, they are still 13 to 8 percentage points below the statewide average.

Children need to get a good education in the lower grades to have the academic foundation needed to better in school and graduate, said Arenivar, who worked as a teacher and administrator in the district before he retired and served on the school board.

"Education starts in the home. We have to catch them in the lower grades and make sure when they are promoted they have earned it," said the 78-year-old Arenivar.

He served as a school board trustee for 13 years before he failed to win re-election 2010, the same year that Smith made his unsuccessful bid the first time around.

Increased parental involvement and volunteering in the schools is indeed important when it comes to improving student performance and graduation rates, said Smith, a 49 year-old software engineer.

There should also be a bigger push to get more high school students to take courses at Los Medanos College that can be applied as credits toward high school graduation, he said.

"We need to make sure our students stay on track," said Smith, who has served on the Foothill Elementary School Site for five years and is president of the Parents Club at Foothill.

Esqueda is 31-year-old software engineer who grew up in Pittsburg and attended schools here.

"We have seen a lot of progress in the schools in the last 10 years and it's important not to just keep progressing but also to get better," he said.

Esqueda also believes parental involvement is a key plank when it comes to improving schools.

Schools could be improved by obtaining more feedback from teachers, said Esqueda, who believes that his work as a member of city's advisory Community Advisory Commission will help him when it comes to being a school board trustee.

Arenivar, who graduated from Pittsburg High, stresses his previous service on the school board and his long history of working as teacher and administrator for district from 1960 to 1994 as among the reasons that make him the best candidate.

"I'm going to hit the road running and I don't have to learn," he said. "I think my experience will help."

Both Esqueda and Smith have children who attend Pittsburg public schools and think this will make them do a better job as a trustee.

"I think being a parent, I can bring a fresh perspective on the board from the parents point of view," Smith said.

"I want my daughter to have the best education possible," Esqueda said.

Reach Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.

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