Courtesy: Julie Boesch
Sixth grade Maple Elementary students watch their classmates and teacher line dancing during Spirit Week.

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In 2018, three small rural elementary school districts in Kern County — Lost Hills Union Elementary, Semitropic Elementary, and Maple Elementary — came together as the West Kern Consortium serving 1,085 students in 650 square miles.

At the time, as successful grant recipients of the highly competitive federal Full Service Community Schools Grant Program, the West Kern Consortium built and deepened a whole-child, whole-community approach to student and community success, including early childhood education, expanded learning, math instruction, family and community partnerships, and social and health services.

In this first-of-its-kind project, resources were pooled across districts to allow for shared project management and staffing. Each district brought its assets, expertise, relationships and partnerships to bear to create a small but extraordinary rural example of collective impact. We established the Children’s Cabinet of West Kern, hired parent liaison/community school coordinators, created regional preschool programs at Lost Hills, and regional Expanded and Summer Learning Programs at Semitropic and Maple, hired a shared math coach to increase the effectiveness of instruction, created an attendance campaign to target chronic absenteeism, and secured regional social workers and other mental health resources.

Without such intentional and strategic collaboration, each of our small districts knew that individually, we would not have the capacity to accomplish what we have done collectively. Since then, Elk Hills Elementary School District, Wasco Union High School District and Taft Union High School District, have joined the consortium, further strengthening our community’s cradle-to-career approach in which all children are known, valued and supported to be successful.

In January, we celebrated the State Board of Education’s announcement of the expansion of competitive priorities for the CA Community Schools Partnership Grant Program to include “applicants serving small and rural schools.” Far too many small districts are disproportionately under prioritized for discretionary or supplemental funds due to their “low” enrollment, and as a result, pursuing grant opportunities with formula allocations is oftentimes not worth the effort.

This underinvestment takes a toll on the access to opportunities for rural children and their families, such as the absence of services most schools see as commonplace, like instructional coaches for teachers, instructional aides, therapists of all kinds, and administrators. We were encouraged, however, that the additional competitive priority, coupled with the eligibility of a consortium, “on behalf of one or more schools that are qualifying entities,” was an explicit incentive for small districts to collaborate and to invest in shared infrastructure to support student success.

Our West Kern Consortium was excited to submit our community schools implementation grant proposal to the California Department of Education to leverage our success thus far and expand our reach. Based on the ongoing data that we had been collecting, we prioritized our shared concerns about basic literacy skills and the need for greater planning time to collectively strengthen multi-tiered systems of support.

We also wanted to respond to the increases in depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation and domestic abuse that our regional social workers were seeing. Our plan is to continue risk screening for all students three times a year and bolster a consortium-wide referral process.

Unfortunately, the work of the consortium is facing a disconcerting but disappointingly predictable hurdle. Maple Elementary — a single-school district that was an anchor of the consortium and one of the first three community schools in Kern County — was not funded as part of the consortium’s implementation budget because of its comparatively lower number of the high-needs student populations targeted under state’s Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF.

While the unduplicated count of English learners, foster youth, and low-income students for the consortium as a whole is 76%, in Maple elementary, just over 55% of its 285 K-8 students fell into that category in 2018-19, the year of the data considered for the grants. (In 2021-22, Maple Elementary’s unduplicated percentage of high-needs students was 56%.)

Maple has led much of the consortium’s work over the past four years and the decision to remove the district is a blow to the entire consortium’s reliance on pooled funding, particularly to support mental health staff and supervision, an overarching data infrastructure, shared instructional coaches, and regional community school coordinators. All of these critical ingredients are possible when pooling, nearly impossible without shared resources, and definitely impossible with $0 funding. Not just for Maple’s students, but for all 3,942 students served by the consortium.

We know the importance of considering the proportion of high-needs students in order to protect and prioritize equitable distribution of resources across the state. However, rural local educational agency realities don’t behave according to the same formulas and economies of scale that exist in larger districts and municipalities.

Consortiums like West Kern are an invaluable way to not only maximize and leverage resources — hallmarks of successful community school strategies — but also recognize the interdependence of our neighbors in helping our students and families thrive. Without a more nuanced and explicit consideration of what small and rural communities face in serving their students a competitive priority is in name only, and the rural inequities will persist.

•••

Julie Boesch is the superintendent of Maple School District, a small, rural, single-school district, between the two farming communities of Shafter and Wasco in the San Joaquin Valley of Kern County.

Tim Taylor is the executive director of the Small School Districts Association, whose mission is to support smaller school districts in California with average daily attendance of less than 5,000 students.

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