Uniting Rural School Districts for Community Success 

Monday March 18, 2024

Amid sprawling almond orchards and oil patches on Kern’s west side, a unique partnership has emerged that embodies what it means to truly collaborate to uplift an entire community. Pre-pandemic, three tiny districts in the region formed the West Kern Consortium for Community Schools (WKC). 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 districts found they had a lot of things in common and faced many similar challenges. Through their collective efforts in recent years, the school districts have discovered strength in unity. And student success has followed. 

Fidelina Saso is the assistant superintendent of Lost Hills School District and project director for the WKC. She says that by working together the consortium is able to benefit the students in ways they couldn’t achieve as a single district alone. By combining resources, they found they could meet those challenges and positively impact students, families, and the community as a whole.

For example, using community schools grant funding, WKC was able to hire social workers and a math coach who are shared between the districts. Saso said that couldn’t have happened unless all the districts worked together.

Lost Hills serves as the lead agency, handling reporting, data gathering, and budgeting, providing support to other member districts. Saso works to secure grant funding on behalf of the consortium, allowing individual districts to focus on academics and support services for families.

“We feel like we are able to lean on each other,” she said. “We’ve visited each other’s sites just to learn from each other and that has been very beneficial for us.”

Shane Pate from the Elk Hills School District leads a small-group reading lesson.

Community Schools Early Adopters

Students cannot learn and grow if their most basic needs – food, shelter, and personal safety – are not being met. That is the foundation of the community schools model. While school districts around the county, and across the state, have more recently embracing this “whole child” approach to education, WKC districts adopted a full-service community school back in 2018.  

Michael Figueroa, CEO of Figueroa Consulting, serves in a support role for the consortium. He says adopting the community schools model helps to prioritize parent and student voices, fostering a reciprocal relationship between the community and educational organizations.

“It’s really a partnership of all hands-on deck; the whole child, whole family, whole community,” he said.

Figueroa says most people think of community schools as just wraparound services, such as social-emotional services, health care, and food security. While those elements are present with WKC districts, what sets the consortium apart, he says, is the deliberate focus on academics within the community school model.

“Academics are equally important,” Figueroa said. “If we’re not actually changing instruction for kids, we’re not living up to our community school vision.”

Figueroa says they have seen great results from their efforts across each of the partnering districts. Results such as test scores, chronic absenteeism rates and other metrics have improved in the years since the WKC secured community schools funding.

Maple Elementary School District in Shafter is home to just under 300 students. It has the lowest Chronic Absenteeism Rate in the county at just 7.4 percent.  

Meanwhile, WKC districts have seen significant growth in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math proficiency, according to the 2023 California Smarter Balanced Summative Assessment (CAASPP) data release. For example, Lost Hills Union Elementary School District, Maple Elementary School District, and Semitropic Elementary School District achieved the top three spots for proficiency gains throughout Kern County in ELA and math from pre-pandemic levels.

For their efforts, two WKC schools were among those chosen as 2024 California Distinguished Schools earlier this month.

Thomas Middle Schools (Lost Hills) and Wasco High School were both awarded for their efforts in closing the achievement gap or achieving exemplary performance in English Language Arts and Math, reducing suspensions and for demonstrating high graduation rates.

Mrs. Gilbert teaches music in Maple
School District’s afterschool program.

Community Partnerships

School leaders in West Kern have also formed the Children’s Cabinet of West Kern (CCWK), an advisory body to WKC districts composed of parents, community partners, and school leaders, who collaborate to address challenges in resource allocation.

The community needs in West Kern are similar to those faced in Bakersfield and other town hubs. The difference, Figueroa says, is people in remote areas are farther away from access to support.

“There’s countywide services that are provided, but those countywide services tend to be focused in regional hubs,” he said. “What we’ve learned is that unless we put a concentrated spotlight on our community, everything just passes over them.”

So, engaging the community, building connections, and providing a hub for resources through WKCs community school model is very important.

Chevron and The Kern Community Foundation have been great partners, assisting with numerous projects and providing connections to resources. Those resources must be carefully coordinated so they are most effective in meeting people’s needs.

One of the needs that CCWK is currently considering is housing.

“The lack of low-income housing in all of these areas has come up through our social worker program as being one of the issues,” said Saso. “That’s something that one of our cabinet subgroups is trying to address.”

The WKC also hosts events like the Color Run, Fall Harvest Festival, and a yearly Community Thanksgiving Dinner to engage parents and connect with community partners.

The collaboration that has been occurring in West Kern is so apparent it caught the attention of educators 3,000 miles away.

Jay Roscup, Community Schools Director for the Sodus Central School District in Wayne County, New York was among a group of educators to visit West Kern in late 2022. Because Wayne County shares many similarities with Kern, including small, rural communities and an agricultural base, the group embarked on a trip to glean insights into best practices and share many of their own. 

“We were so impressed to learn how Kern’s small, rural community schools were improving behavioral, health, and academic outcomes for students,” Roscup said. 

Last November, members from the WKC visited New York to continue the learning exchange.

“We wanted to initiate a longstanding learning exchange with our new friends in Kern,” Roscup said.  

The cross-country relationship was coined “Almonds to Apples” and continues to thrive. 

Photo Gallery
“Almonds to Apples”

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.