In rural Kern, schools embrace community concept education

May 16, 2024 /

“We are the hub of this community, there’s nothing out here. No grocery stores, no banks, no libraries,” said Cindy Castro, Superintendent for the Vineland School District southeast of Bakersfield.  Comprised of two schools, Vineland Elementary and Sunset Middle School with a total of 650 students, it is right next door to the historic Sunset migrant labor camp housing made famous in the John Steinbeck classic, “The Grapes of Wrath.”  The student population is 99 percent Latino.

But this oasis may soon be getting much-needed help through the state’s Community Schools program. Community schools get families the resources and support they need to thrive, like health care and mental health, and social services – everything from counseling to nutrition programs to tutoring.  It’s a holistic approach meant to create a safe and supportive environment where students and families can advocate for their needs. The hope is that families in community schools will have more resources to promote students’ academic and personal development so that by supporting students outside of the classroom helps them succeed inside the classroom.  

Vineland School District can be considered its poster child. Families in the district live at 300% below the poverty level, said Castro.  Vineland is among eleven Kern County school districts that received grants ranging from $1,187,500 to $13,775,000 in Community Schools implementation grants from the State Board of Education.  The total amount awarded to Kern schools in this latest round of funding is a little more than $49 million.  California is investing $4.1 billion to make one out of every three schools a community school.  

Unlike other state programs that offer financial assistance to districts, the Community School grant has a major difference. “The vast majority of resources go directly to schools for the shared decision-making to happen with the students, parents, community partners, teachers, and staff at the actual school site,” said Katy Nuñez, a statewide coordinator with the California Partnership for the Future of Learning, a non-profit statewide alliance of community organizing and advocacy groups based in Oakland.  An advisory council or committee comprised of students, parents, teachers, and staff at each community school site determines how the funds will be used at their particular site.  Another important distinction is that no portion of community school grants can be used to hire school police officers.  

In the Kernville Union School District, a district wellness center is planned to open next school year, which will enhance physical and mental health through telemedicine, dental services, and vision services, according to Superintendent Steve Martinez.

Superintendent Castro’s mind seems to be racing at top speed as she recites a litany of projects already implemented in her district and which she is excited to expand with the new funds. For example, Vineland is the only elementary district in Kern County to operate a food pantry.  Families–and district staff—can stock up on meat, dry goods, water, baby formula, laundry detergent, and other essentials at no cost.  Castro said she’s had people from Bakersfield show up and no one has been turned away.  Also in the works at Vineland is a new Family Resource Center.  The air-conditioned trailer is nearly completed and will have internet access.  Castro said it will be open on Saturdays to have parents work with students on a number of projects.  Materials for those projects will be provided through the Community School grant. Plans also call for offering training for parents to learn a skill or trade.

“I’m trying to think outside the box,” said Castro. “Whatever I need to do to help these families, I am all in, one hundred percent.”

Students at Sunset Middle School take in a music class.

“I’m trying to think outside of the box to help these families,’ said Vineland Superintendent Cindy Castro.

The migrant housing once known as Sunset Labor Camp is right next door to Sunset school.

Vineland Elementary is a K-4 grade school.

Baby formula is a popular item at the district’s food pantry.

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Jose Gaspar

José Gaspar is a veteran journalist and former news anchor/reporter with Telemundo, Bakersfield. Prior, he worked 28 years at KBAK-TV as a reporter. Email him at