Community Schools Support the Whole Child, Whole Families

Tuesday February 13, 2024

Community Schools are a nationwide initiative to bring education together with whole communities. They not only focus on academics, but also on providing students and families with wraparound support services such as social emotional support, healthcare, transportation and much more. Research has shown that students who have all their basic needs met are set up for better academic success. Successful community schools lead to better attendance, fewer discipline issues, improved school culture and better communication with parents and the community, experts say.

That’s why California has invested $4 billion into the California Community Schools Partnership Program (CCSPP). Funds have started to find their way to Kern County with the State Board of Education approving planning and implementation grants totaling more that $65.5 million to local school districts.

CCSPP contains four “pillars” to guide community schools: integrating services, expanding learning time, sharing decision-making among educators and administrators, and engaging families and the community. Kern County Superintendent of Schools (KCSOS) is helping several local districts make the transition.

“It’s a true shared vision and shared decision making,” said Anita Cruz, KCSOS’s Director of Community Schools. “You truly are engaging the community members, parents, staff, anyone to help build this, like building a village.”

Cruz calls it a whole child strategy, because the community is focused on the overall wellbeing of all students. 

“It is no longer only investing in one portion of the child. It’s really saying how we can get through this together,” she said.

Cruz says it’s important for whole communities to buy into and support education, so not only the school thrives, but the whole environment thrives as well.

“When you have community-based organizations, teachers, churches, public health agencies, coming together, and creating a vision, there’s an ownership to that,” she said. “That ownership makes it a lot more powerful when the work can be done.”

Community Schools grants cover a multitude of projects such as establishing family health centers on or near school sites, providing mental and behavioral health services to students, opening food pantries, hiring more school counselors, and improving transportation services, among others.

KCSOS’s Community Schools Coordinator Angelica Ranches presents during a recent community schools workshop.

Early Adopters

In 2018, prior to the California’s push for community schools, three tiny Kern County school districts formed the West Kern Consortium for Community Schools. The partnership was originally composed of Lost Hills Union Elementary School District, Maple Elementary School District and Semitropic Elementary School District. Elk Hills Elementary School District, Taft Union High School District and Wasco Union High School District were added later.

The six participating districts have found success by pooling resources and sharing essential staff to ensure that students receive the health, social service, and learning opportunities they need to be successful.

“We have social workers, a nurse, instructional coaches, and county partners on campus regularly. This was unheard of prior to our community schools partnership,” said Tiffany Touchstone, Elk Hills School District Superintendent/Principal.

Despite all odds, the community school model helped these districts through tough COVID years, so much so, they caught the eye of educators 3,000 miles away.

“We were so impressed to learn how Kern’s small, rural community schools were improving behavioral, health, and academic outcomes for students. We wanted to initiate a longstanding learning exchange with our new friends in Kern,” said Jay Roscup, Community Schools Director for the Sodus Central School District in New York.

Roscup was among a group of New Yorkers to visit West Kern in late 2022 to gather and share ideas. Last November, members from the West Kern Consortium visited New York to continue the learning exchange.

Kelsea Linnell, Literacy Intervention Teacher at the Elk Hills School District, interacts with students as superintendents from visiting New York school districts look on.

Meeting Family Needs

Just like every school district is different with its own set of unique needs, challenges and barriers, community schools initiatives and projects look different for each school and community.

Fallon Mitchell is a CCSPP grant coordinator with Southern Kern Unified School District (SKUSD) in Rosamond, Calif. Since receiving funding, the district has created a parent community center where students and parents have access to resources and assistance. 

The community center includes a free library, computers and printers for parents to use, a classroom, meeting space and more. 

“The goal is to have a place where parents can come, they can ask for information, they can get resources,” Mitchell said. 

She also helps people look for jobs, reviews resumes and coaches them on interviews. 

“This is very community based and family based,” she said.

SKUSD also hosted a parent community center fair in January. Several Kern County organizations and vendors came out to provide resources and assistance for the community. 

“I want the parents to be able to come, have a bunch of their local resources in one place, so they could find out what was offered and where it was,” she said.

SKUSD’s parent community center includes a free library, computers and printers for parents to use, a classroom, meeting space and more. 

Mitchell says meeting the whole family’s needs is extremely important.

“If you are not supporting a student and their family’s basic needs, which is mental health, food and clothing, shelter, there is no way for that student to be successful and come to school and be able to learn,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Bakersfield City School District has used the grants to establish wellness centers across the city. McFarland Unified School District contracted with Good Samaritan Hospital and hired health aides who not only provide health services at the school, but also do home visits for students and parents.

Community Hubs

Families in rural Weedpatch are getting their basic needs met thanks to the Vineland School District, which plans to use grant funding to build a parent center and provide resources, services, and education to everyone in the area. 

“We are everything that a community school is. We are what I always call the hub of the community,” says Anthony Beckman, director of support services for Vineland.

Beckman says Vineland has become a place that families can trust. 

“It’s an established pattern that we have helped these families. This is who they call, we really put it out there and help in any way that we can,” he said.

The district also established a food pantry where parents and the public can get all their basic necessities for free. Vineland has also partnered with Kern Medical to bring mobile medical units to school grounds and provide free services to the community.

Vineland Superintendent Cindy Castro and
Anthony Beckman at the Vineland Food Pantry.

The Fairfax School District hosts English and citizenship classes at its parent community center. District administrators saw a need in their area for parents wanting to learn English and partnered with the Bakersfield Adult School to make it happen. 

“Our ultimate goal is to have our parents feel comfortable being a participant in their child’s education,” says Jose Quintero, Director of Parent Education and Resource Center for Fairfax.

Local educators agree it’s going to take some time to see all the evidence-based results from these numerous projects, but already they’re seeing improvements in certain metrics.

“We’ve got to do the hard work right now and recognize that it’s all for the benefit of the child,” said KCSOS’s Anita Cruz. “All schools can be a community school, and it’s up to the communities and the districts to work collaboratively to achieve that.”

Parents of students in the Fairfax School District and community members participate in classes to learn English at the district’s community center.

This is one of many stories in a series where we will focus on how local school districts are implementing community school initiatives.

By Katie Avery

By Katie Avery

Katie Avery joined the Kern County Superintendent of Schools in 2023 as a Communications Specialist. As a former journalist and marketing professional, her passions include media and storytelling. Before joining KCSOS, Avery worked for various local TV stations as well as the health care industry.