California Must Consider Unique Realities of Rural Districts for Community School Grants

Courtesy of Julie Boesch

Sixth grade students at Maple Elementary watch their classmates and teacher line dance during Spirit Week.

In 2018, three small, rural elementary school districts in Kern County—Lost Hills Union Elementary, Semitropic Elementary, and Maple Elementary—come together as West Kern Consortium serving 1,085 students in 650 square miles. At the time, as grant recipients from the highly competitive FFederal Grant Program for Full-Service Community Schoolsthe West Kern Consortium has developed and deepened a whole child and community approach to student and community success, including early childhood education, extended learning, math instruction, family and community partnerships and health and social services.

In this unique project, resources were pooled between districts to enable shared project management and staffing. Each district brought its assets, expertise, relationships and partnerships to create a small but extraordinary rural example of collective impact. We established the West Ker Children’s Cabinetnot, hired parent liaison/community school coordinators, created regional preschool programs in Lost Hills and regional extended learning and summer programs in Semitropic and Maple, hired a shared math coach to increase the effectiveness of teaching, 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 did collectively. Since then, Elk Hills Elementary School District, Wasco Union High School District, and Taft Union High School District have joined the consortium, furthering our community’s cradle-to-career approach in which all children are known, valued, and supported to to succeed.

In January, we celebrated the announcement by the State Board of Education of the expansion of Competing Priorities for the CA Community Schools Partnership Grant Program to include “candidates serving small rural schools”. Far too many small districts are disproportionately underprioritized for discretionary or supplemental funds due to their “low” enrollment, and therefore seeking grant opportunities with formula allocations is often not worth it.

This underinvestment weighs on access to opportunities for rural children and their families, such as the lack of services that most schools consider commonplace, such as instructional coaches for teachers, teaching aids, therapists of all kinds and administrators. However, we were encouraged that the additional competitive priority, coupled with the eligibility of a consortium, “on behalf of one or more schools that are eligible entities”, was an explicit incentive for smaller districts to collaborate and invest in shared infrastructure to support student success.

Our West Kern Consortium was excited to submit our Community School Implementation Grant proposal to the California Department of Education to build on our success thus far and expand our reach. Based on the ongoing data we had gathered, we prioritized our shared concerns around basic literacy skills and the need for more planning time to collectively strengthen multi-level support systems. We also wanted to respond to the increase in depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation and domestic violence noted by our regional social workers. Our plan is to continue risk screening for all students three times a year and to strengthen a consortium-wide referral process.

Unfortunately, the consortium’s work is hitting a disconcerting but sadly predictable hurdle. Maple Elementary—a unique school district that was a Consortium anchor and one of Kern County’s first three community schools—was not funded under the Consortium’s implementation budget due to its comparatively lower number of high-needs students targeted by the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF. While the unduplicated number of English Learners, Homestay Youth and Low-Income Students for the Consortium as a whole is 76%, at Maple Elementary just over 55% of its 285 K-8 students fell into this category in 2018-19, the year of the data considered for the grants. (In 2021-22, the unduplicated percentage of students with high needs was 56%.)

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

We know that it is important to consider the proportion of students with high needs in order to protect and prioritize an equitable distribution of resources in the state. However, the realities of rural local education agencies do not behave according to the same formulas and economies of scale that exist in larger districts and municipalities.

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


Julie Bosch is the superintendent of the Maple School District, a small rural school district located 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 Association of Small School Districtswhose mission is to support small California school districts with an average daily attendance of less than 5,000 students.

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