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Our traditional public funding parameters don’t fit rural communities

Field trip fun for students at schools within the West Kern Consortium. Photo courtesy of Veronica De Leon.

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Earlier this summer, I headed to upstate New York for the 2023 Finger Lakes Community Schools Resilience and Equity Conference (and had surprisingly great Chinese takeout, if you’re ever in Syracuse).

The conference was so dope. Over 500 rural (and some suburban) community school practitioners, leaders and state policy makers gathered together for an intense three days to talk about how to deepen their community school game.

The opening keynote began with a video short featuring amazing community school innovators and leaders from the West Kern Consortium (WKC). I got goosebumps. Okay, fine, I teared up a tiny bit too. Watch it and try to hold your tears back, I dare ya. ;)

But here’s the thing that made celebrating our rural CA partners on the other side of the country feel, to put it lightly, ironic.

You see, while all of us at Finger Lakes were tearing up over this video, we were also waiting to hear if our WKC friends would even receive CCSPP funding. Even though WKC had been working on their rural community school strategy since they were awarded a highly competitive federal Full Service Community Schools grant in 2018. Even though they were now being featured on the big screen at Finger Lakes. Even though California has committed $4.1 billion dollars to the effort.

I was invited to upstate New York as a follow up from a very cool learning exchange that CSLX helped facilitate where Finger Lakes community school leaders flew out to West Kern to learn more about their work.

While I was there, I sat down with Joe, a Community School Coordinator for Seneca County, to get some of his a-has from his visit to California.

His biggest takeaway? That this “truly rural,” and sometimes barren, farmland community, that also struggled with outdated and dilapidated physical plants was still not paralyzed by the lack of education funding that was available to them:

“...maybe only 5% of the conversation [there] was about funding. It really was about, what are we going to do with what we have now? And that, to be honest, was a little surprising to me, because that is not always the conversation here. Here, that funding concept and discussion and oftentimes, complaining, comes up a lot. And we just didn't hear much of that there. We heard, “we're going to try to figure this out the best way we can.”

Joe saw what many rural community school leaders know and continue to have to navigate: Traditional public funding parameters just don’t fit rural communities. It’s like taking a yardstick to measure allll the plants in a forest. Sure, for the really tall plants, a yardstick is your best bet. But for others? The smaller plants within smaller, but just as rich, ecosystems? Totally wrong.

Right now, our state has no measure that helps us understand how to really support the rich ecosystem of rural communities because the only thing we’re using is a yardstick in a forest. And it’s a problem.

But if we are truly investing in community school strategies, shouldn’t we begin with the premise that there are a variety of unique locales, needs, communities, districts, families, and resources that we must recognize and value? Shouldn’t we respond to what local leaders are telling us? Shouldn’t we differentiate our expectations according to their everyday realities, assets, and challenges, instead of measuring them against what we believe to be true in urban and suburban communities?

You might have already guessed where this is going.

Not long after Finger Lakes, we heard that one of the core, founding districts of the West Kern Consortium – a single-site elementary district that asked for $250,000 a year to deepen and sustain the work that has been featured here and here and here (start at 1:04:00), and for the third consecutive year continues to be in the state’s top 5% for math proficiency GROWTH – was not funded by CA’s multi-BILLION dollar CS initiative.

And despite a denied formal appeal, despite the response that they should file a public records request in order to even see the scoring of their application, despite the encouragement to try again (they have already been denied in two rounds of the CCSPP thus far), they will continue to try and make it work.

They won’t complain. They’ll figure it out. That’s what our rural colleagues do. But c’mon, really? What’s so transformational about that?


P.S. CSLX was lucky enough to interview the West Kern Consortium last fall for our CS Journeys content series. I think you’ll find our profile of them as insightful as we did. You can read the content by clicking here, or hitting the button below.