Rural California: An Education Divide

EdSource Special Report

San Joaquin Valley students set their sights on college

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With pennants, campus tours and bilingual workshops on financial aid, some schools in the San Joaquin Valley have embraced college preparation for students. And are starting to see success.

Dinuba Unified, east of Fresno, has seen big improvements since it began focusing on the issue seven years ago. In 2008, Dinuba High — which has nearly 2,000 students — sent 31 students to a University of California or California State University campus. Last year, that number was more than double. And nearly 180 went to a community college.

The long road to college from California’s small towns

Rural students have among the lowest rates of UC and CSU enrollment in the state. Here’s what districts are doing to change that.

Using grant money and state funding, the district hired more college and career counselors, created two new academies at the high school and is working with UC Merced on improving its course tracking so more students complete the requirements for UC and CSU admission.

The district’s goal isn’t just to send more students to 4-year college. It’s to improve the quality of life in the entire area by providing more opportunities for young people, said Vicky Armstrong, chief academic officer of Dinuba Unified.

“If we can prepare students for the next step after high school, it’s better for our local communities and it’s better for our state,” she said. “We have a moral obligation. I think most districts feel this way.”

College should be an option for students even if it means they’ll ultimately move away from home for higher-paying jobs, she said. But ideally, a more educated local workforce will entice companies to locate in Dinuba, a small farming city, leading to a healthier local economy.

The hardest part of preparing students for college, she said, is not academic. If given enough support, most students can meet the rigors of college prep classes. What’s more challenging is dispelling families’ apprehensions about the world beyond Dinuba, she said.

Families are often nervous about students leaving home, and students sometimes suffer culture shock when arriving at a college with more students — many with different backgrounds — than there are residents in their entire hometown. Parents, also, are often reluctant to let their children move away, knowing they might not come back, she said.

“If you’re from a small town, and especially if you’re a first-generation college student, moving away from home is an act of bravery. It’s a leap into the unknown,” Armstrong said. “Even if a student is brilliant, they sometimes go out in the world and are afraid. They feel like imposters.”

To ease the transition, Dinuba takes students of all ages on college visits, encourages dual enrollment at the local community college so they can earn college credits while in high school and hosts “College Knowledge” workshops to help families with applications, financial aid and enrollment. College pennants line the hallways, and students are encouraged to wear T-shirts from their favorite universities.

Nonetheless, the transition from a small town to a large university can be tough. Andrew Baza, a recent graduate of Dinuba High who went on to UCLA, said he often felt isolated and overwhelmed when he started college. He had gone from being a straight-A student in a small town, with easy access to teachers and a supportive family, to being one of about 6,000 in his freshman class with almost no interaction with his professors. His grades suffered, and he considered dropping out.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider quitting and going home, going to (community college),” he said. “I felt like I didn’t belong there. And I know I wasn’t the only one having these issues.”

In the end, he stayed at UCLA and graduated, thanks to encouragement from his family and friends and his own determination to succeed. After graduation, he returned to the Dinuba area to teach, in part to help students like himself.

He’s now an English teacher at Orosi High, and encourages his students to push themselves academically, take advantage of the college-prep resources at school and not be afraid to explore the world beyond their small town.

“I tell my students to go for it,” he said. “Yes, there will be culture shock, but the best way to get over culture shock is to just experience it. The only way you grow is by challenging yourself.”

In Buttonwillow, a farm town of about 1,500 west of Bakersfield, test scores have risen significantly since the K-8 district started focusing on college readiness. Since 2015, the district has seen a 28 percent jump in math scores and an 8 percent increase in English scores, according to the most recent state assessments.

Among other measures, the district has expanded its bilingual programs and started promoting college to families and children as soon as they start school.

The district is also working with the local high school, Shafter High, to track its students after graduation. Last year, a Buttonwillow graduate went on to UCLA, one of the few such students in recent memory.

That’s a big accomplishment for a district where 66 percent of the students are learning English, and as recently as eight years ago had the lowest math and English scores in Kern County (which itself had scores well below the state average), said Hiedi Witcher, assistant superintendent and principal.

“There had been a mentality here that kids can’t do any better, a belief that, hey, we’ve always been bad, maybe this is the best we can do,” she said. “Now when you come to our campus, you see kids walking around in Harvard T-shirts. They know what they want to major in and where they want to go.”

Taking parents on college tours made a big difference, she said. Families who had been reluctant to push their children toward higher education relaxed once they saw the dorms, the classrooms and everything college had to offer.

“We want to give our kids the opportunity to go beyond Buttonwillow,” she said. “And if they do come back, they can have plenty of options” no matter what they decide to do, whether it’s a career in the skilled trades or as a college-educated professional.

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