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Supporting Rural Education Gains Through Community Schools

Transforming Schools blog series: Community Schools Supporting Rural Education by Anna Maier

This blog is part of the Transforming Schools series, which shares effective practices and foundational research for educators, students, families, and policymakers who are reimagining schools as places where students are safe and can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.

Lost Hills Union Elementary School District (Lost Hills) is surrounded by almond fields and rolling green hills in rural Kern County, CA. The district currently serves approximately 287 students across grades TK–8, more than half of whom are English learners and more than 80% of whom are from low-income families. In 2018, Lost Hills started implementing a community schools strategy, and the impact has been clearly noticeable. As Principal Verónica Sánchez-Gregory of Lost Hills Elementary explains, “After nearly 5 years of community school implementation, we achieved top academic growth in our county for English language arts [ELA] and math. Securing double-digit proficiency growth is huge, but doing it during a pandemic year is unprecedented.”

What Does It Mean to Be a Community School?

Community schools organize in- and out-of-school resources and supports such as mental health services, meals, health care, tutoring, internships, and other learning and career opportunities that fit specific needs of their communities. Through this strategy, students, families, educators, and community partners come together to support student success. While the specific programs and services vary according to local context, key site-level practices include: (1) expanded, enriched learning opportunities; (2) rigorous, community-connected classroom instruction; (3) a culture of belonging, safety, and care; (4) integrated systems of support; (5) powerful student and family engagement; and (6) collaborative leadership and shared power and voice.

Community schools are growing across the nation, and California has become a leader in implementation in recent years, supported by an unprecedented $4.1 billion investment through the California Community Schools Partnership Program. The program provides grants that enable school and district partnerships with community agencies and local government to support students’ academic, physical, and mental development.

Lost Hills is the lead partner in the West Kern Consortium for Full-Service Community Schools (the Consortium). The Consortium combines and leverages resources across several neighboring small, rural districts. These include Maple, Semitropic, and Elk Hills Elementary School Districts and, more recently, Wasco and Taft Union High School Districts. Each school in the Consortium has a community school coordinator, a social worker, and an AmeriCorps mentor who work together to support students and families. The Consortium also sponsors after-school programming, shared nursing services, and preschool in Lost Hills. An innovative rural Children’s Cabinet brings together key county-level decision-makers from education, health, human services, and housing alongside school leaders, community partners, and families to address common challenges like chronic absenteeism and access to children’s mental health services. For the latter, working with local agencies and school districts, the Consortium has been able to pilot the placement of MediCal-sponsored mental health services directly on school campuses 1 day per week.

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On the academic front, the Consortium identified math education as a focus area. Together, the elementary school districts invested in one-on-one video math coaching through Harvard’s Mathematical Quality of Instruction initiative for teachers. Lost Hills then extended the training to instructional aides who work with small learning groups for mathematics. A middle school math coach from Maple also provides cross-district support. Principal Sánchez-Gregory participated in math coaching and worked with a small learning group to understand the experience of the educators she is leading. In addition, teachers participated in professional learning community meetings focused on math instruction and implemented the Data Wise Improvement Process.

School climate has been another area of focus for the Consortium. School sites ensure that instruction fosters social and emotional learning. In addition, to support an intentional effort to create a welcoming environment, Lost Hills, Semitropic, and Elk Hills have established a staff/student mentoring program in which all students are matched with an adult on campus. Mentors and mentees meet monthly for one-on-one check-ins and activities, like conversation starters or games of Uno. These are well-attended events: A recent check-in day at Lost Hills had a 98% attendance rate.

Students from Lost Hills, Semitropic, and Maple elementary schools perform in a cross-district mariachi band.
Students from Lost Hills, Semitropic, and Maple elementary schools perform in a cross-district mariachi band. Photo courtesy of the West Kern Consortium for Full-Service Community Schools.

To address chronic absenteeism, the Children’s Cabinet hosts an Attendance Improvement Subcommittee, which researches and implements strategies to increase attendance and track progress across the Consortium. Strategies employed by school sites to address attendance and chronic absenteeism include providing positive reinforcement and rewards (e.g., field trips, dress-up days, and raffles) for attendance, providing rides to school if students miss the bus, and communicating with families through conversations, calls home, and sending home postcards and letters.

These efforts are paying off academically as well. Lost Hills saw a 17 percentage point improvement in students meeting or exceeding the Smarter Balanced math proficiency standard and a 12 percentage point improvement for English language arts from the 2020–21 school year to the 2021–22 school year. Consortium leaders noted that in the 2022–23 school year, Lost Hills, Maple, and Semitropic (the three founding districts) achieved the top three spots for proficiency gains from pre-pandemic levels in English language arts and math, compared to 46 total school districts in Kern County. This academic performance placed the three districts in the top 5% of districts in terms of math proficiency growth statewide. Importantly, at a time when chronic absenteeism is a growing concern nationally and in Kern County (which had a 26.3% absenteeism rate in 2022–23), Maple achieved the lowest chronic absenteeism rate countywide at 7.4%, and Lost Hills was in the top four districts, at 14.6%.

Funding Community Schools Implementation in Kern County

In 2018, the Consortium received a $2.5 million federal Full-Service Community Schools grant and began implementing its community schools strategy. A $643,471 federal School Climate Transformation grant helped the Consortium to expand in 2019. Starting in 2020, the Consortium received $12.5 million in state funding from the California Community Schools Partnership Program (CCSPP), which helped it expand to its current roster of six district partners. Unfortunately, Maple Elementary School District, which has a lower percentage of students designated as high-need (59%) compared to other districts in the Consortium, did not receive California state funding.

In addition to the CCSPP, district leaders plan to leverage other funding sources to sustain their community schools strategy as federal funds phase out, including California state preschool funding, ongoing state expanded learning funding, Title I, state behavioral health resources, and state funding formula education dollars.

Staffing Community Schools

As is common in rural areas, recruitment and retention of qualified community school staff is another implementation challenge for the county, but Consortium districts have leveraged their collective resources to respond. For example, when a qualified math coach was not immediately available, the online Math Quality Institute coaching filled an important need. Later, the Consortium was able to adopt a Grow Your Own approach by encouraging an interested 6th-grade math teacher to take on the coaching role. The Consortium districts have also leveraged their ability to pool resources. Former Maple Superintendent Julie Boesch described how they hired teachers across districts for summer learning programs and even brought together students across district lines when construction disrupted summer programming.

What’s Next for the Consortium?

The next stages of the Consortium’s work include adopting an Interconnected Systems Framework for mental health services; enhancing literacy instruction, particularly for multilingual learners in grades preschool–3rd grade with coaching support from the Kern County Office of Education and the Emerging Bilingual Collaborative; enhancing parent partnerships; and continuing to address chronic absenteeism through the Children’s Cabinet and coordinated efforts at school sites.

The founding districts of the Consortium offer a window into the impact strong and ongoing implementation of community schools can produce statewide. As CCSPP grants continue to roll out, Principal Sánchez-Gregory reminds us that community schools strengthen student–staff relationships and help students thrive. “You get to see these kids come here from kindergarten to 8th grade and then flourish as adults,” she says. “They still recognize you, they still say hi to you, they still love you—that’s just the ultimate cherry on the top.”