Why Rural Schools Say California Leaders Have Forgotten Them

At some rural schools construction projects are left undone, teaching jobs are unfilled and students who need specialized services don’t get them.

School buses outside the San Pasqual Unified School District in Winterhaven in Imperial County on Dec. 12, 2023. (Kristian Carreon/CalMatters)

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When Denise Massey’s daughter was 6 years old, she put the girl, who has Down Syndrome, on a van every morning for speech therapy in El Centro: 100 miles round trip, sometimes braving 120-degree heat, monsoons and severe dust storms known in the desert as haboobs.

Thirteen years later she’s still making that daily trek, because her Imperial County school district is so small it can’t offer a full gamut of special education services, and so remote that there’s nothing closer.

“It was hard at first. My daughter was really tired, and she’d act out,” Massey said. “But it’s been worth it because it’s so important my daughter gets the services she needs.”

Special education is only one of the challenges in rural districts like San Pasqual Valley Unified, a 591-student district in the southeastern corner of the state where Massey’s daughter, Annabelle, is enrolled. Transportation, recruiting teachers, finding contractors, tracking mountains of paperwork and complying with state regulations have become so burdensome that superintendents in those districts are begging for relief. Meanwhile, students like Annabelle  sometimes miss out on opportunities that their peers in more populated areas take for granted.

“We have a system that works through an urban and suburban lens, but leaves rural schools behind,” said Rindy DeVoll, executive director of the California Rural Ed Network, which advocates for California’s hundreds of small, remote schools. “Everyone in education has challenges, but they are amplified for rural districts.”

Rural vs. urban outcomes

Despite California being the most populous state, 35% of its school districts are considered rural – which the state defines as having fewer than 600 students and located more than 25 miles from a city. Nearly every county, including some of the most populous, has rural schools, even Los Angeles.

By most measures, rural students lag significantly behind their urban and suburban peers. They’re well behind the state average in meeting English language arts and math standards, and their graduation rate is 79% — 12 percentage points lower than the state average, according to a CalMatters analysis of California Education Department data. Only 29% complete the classwork required to attend California’s public universities, compared to 50% statewide. The college-going rate is nearly 20 percentage points lower than the state average. 

Despite the hardships, superintendents said, state political leaders rarely consider the needs of rural districts when crafting policies.

“There are those who don’t understand that California extends past Woodland (near Sacramento),” said Jeff Harris, superintendent of the Del Norte Unified School District and chair of a coalition of the state’s six single-district counties. “There’s a lot of well-intended legislation that gives no thought to the impact on rural areas.”

A place of extremes

San Pasqual Valley Unified is near Winterhaven, adjacent to the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian reservation on the California-Arizona border. The area is a patchwork of tribal and non-tribal lands, arid desert and lush green lettuce fields, opulent casinos and a dilapidated trailer encampment called the Jungle. The Colorado River, lined with reeds and cottonwoods, winds slowly to the east. Atop a hill in the center of town sits a historic Catholic mission, a white stucco reminder of the days when the Spanish and Americans colonized the area.

Like many rural communities, Winterhaven struggles with poverty and drug abuse. The town has four cannabis dispensaries and a strip club, but no grocery store. Yet there are also signs of hope and renewal. Cultural festivals are well attended, a modern health clinic recently opened, and a thriving new cafe serves as a community hub.

San Pasqual Valley Unified is also a center of the community. Generations of families have attended school in its tidy cinder block buildings, where the elementary, middle and high schools share one campus. Native American cultural festivals, San Pasqual Valley High Warriors basketball games and science fairs can draw the whole community, and signs in Spanish, English and Quechan adorn school walls and hallways. 

But challenges persist, and state laws can sometimes make things even harder. Last year, for example, California mandated that school districts switch to electric school buses by 2035. In San Pasqual Valley, which covers 1,800 square miles of sand and scrub in the Sonoran Desert, the two-hour charge on an electric bus barely gets you through the morning route. 

“It makes no sense,“ said Superintendent Katrina Leon. “I’m all in favor of clean energy, but there’s no way we can comply with this. There has to be some flexibility for districts like us.”

Leon applied for a waiver for the electric bus requirement and is hoping the state grants it — for her students’ sake. One of the district’s bus stops is in a small community called Senator Wash, a remote pumping station on the Colorado River 17 miles away. Leon fears what could happen if an electric bus loses its charge or breaks down, stranding students and the driver in the middle of the desert in extreme heat with no cell service.

“It’s a safety issue,” she said. “We just can’t take that chance.”

Other rural districts face the same challenge. In Mono County, Superintendent Stacey Adler worries whether an electric bus could ascend 8,100-foot Conway Summit in a snowstorm, getting children safely to school. In Del Norte, one of the bus routes runs 70 miles round-trip, on a rugged backroad, and it’s far too risky to send an electric bus loaded with students through the mountains every day, Harris said.

Limited help from government

Small and rural districts can apply for some help through the federal Rural Education and Achievement grant programs. They could use the money for salaries, internet broadband, safe drinking water or other expenses. But the money isn’t much, and not all districts receive funds. In 2022-23, 89 small districts and schools in California shared $5.2 million, with some receiving as little as $6,000. An additional $5 million is available for rural school facilitiesthrough a federal grant the state recently won.

The Legislature hasn’t been much help in recent years. Most rural legislators are Republicans, the minority party in both the state Senate and Assembly, with whom urban Democrats often have little incentive to cooperate, said Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Republican from the Chico area who heads the Assembly Republican Caucus.

“California policy largely does not take into account the needs of rural areas. It’s geared toward wealthier, coastal communities. There might be some lip service, but inland, less wealthy areas are stuck with some pretty expensive burdens,” Gallagher said.

DeVoll, of the California Rural Ed Network, said the state can help rural districts by streamlining the bureaucratic paperwork, assisting them in  applying for grants and offering more flexibility with regulations. 

Harris’ single-district counties group, meanwhile, is pushing legislators for  state assistance to build affordable housing for school employees, allow reciprocal agreements with neighboring states to hire teachers and relax student-administrator ratios to accommodate schools that might only have a few dozen students. 

“It’s not a Del Norte County issue. It’s not even a Northern California issue,” Harris said. “It’s an issue of creating equal opportunities for every child, no matter where they live. In small and rural communities, that isn’t always the case and it has to change.”

In San Pasqual Valley, special education is particularly vexing because Yuma, Arizona, only a few miles east, has a plethora of special education services. But they’re off limits to students in San Pasqual Valley because the teachers and therapists are licensed in Arizona, not California, unless the state grants a waiver.

So students like Annabelle, with special needs, either have to rely on virtual services or travel long distances. But in places still more remote than San Pasqual Valley, such as Mono County, even having that choice seems like a luxury. 

“We can’t even bus a child for special ed services, because there’s nowhere to bus them to,” Adler said, noting that Reno is three hours away and Bakersfield five, and in winter the roads are often impassable.

‘Our teachers can’t afford to live here’

But for Adler, Mono County’s school superintendent, the most daunting challenge isn’t special education, it’s housing — or the lack of it. The county is home to Mammoth Mountain, a popular ski resort, and much of the available housing is vacation rentals or second homes.

“Our teachers can’t afford to live here. We get fabulous candidates, but they can’t find a place to live. A lot of them have to turn down the job,” Adler said. “And when you have to hire more specialized positions, it becomes even more challenging.”

Rural schools also find it daunting to hire contractors — especially in districts that border another state. Under California law, districts must hire contractors licensed in California. So even if a district finds a qualified roofer in the next town, for example, the district can’t hire them if the next town happens to be in Arizona, Nevada or Oregon. Few contractors are willing to accept a job that might be hours away, which means many jobs are left undone.

For example, last year the state made two moves to help schools combat extreme heat — a significant issue in San Pasqual Valley, where temperatures can hover in the 100s for weeks on end. In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $47 million for schools to replace pavement with trees and plants, and in October, he signed legislation making it easier for schools to build shade structures. 

Although both initiatives would provide welcome relief for San Pasqual Valley, Leon said it was almost impossible to find California-based contractors to do the work.

“We all go into Yuma every single day. It is not a big deal,” Leon said. “Yuma is our community. It makes no sense that we can’t hire there.”

Harris has the same problem in Del Norte, which is close to Brookings, Oregon, but off-limits for hiring without applying for waivers, which is time-consuming, complicated and sometimes unsuccessful. 

Borders and barriers

San Pasqual Valley faces another border challenge, as well: Mexico. A wall traverses the district’s southern boundary, with the Andrade border crossing just a few miles from the campus.  Several dozen students commute through the crossing from Los Algodones, Mexico to attend school. Many are U.S. citizens who live part-time with family in Mexico, and some are children of Mexican farmworkers who travel across the border to toil in Imperial County’s lettuce fields. 

The district’s school buses don’t cross the border, so students rely on rides from their parents. Waits at the border can be long and unpredictable, which means students might have to leave home at 5 a.m. to make it to school by 8 a.m. In addition, the border closes at 10 p.m., which restricts students’ ability to play sports, perform in school plays or hang out with friends on weekends.

Borders can seem like arbitrary lines dividing communities, creating barriers in many aspects of daily life, Leon said.

“Borders are not a thing here. Most of our families have some connection to Mexico,” she said, noting that some employees rely on Mexican health insurance. “When we drive across a border, nothing happens. Flashing lights don’t go off. It’s just part of life here.”

A sacrifice, but ‘worth it’

Despite the challenges, rural schools can offer benefits that are almost unheard of in urban and suburban schools: tight-knit communities where everyone’s rooting for you.

Micah Ericson, a senior at Mono County’s Mammoth High School, said he appreciates the camaraderie he’s experienced at his 350-student school. He plays football, basketball and baseball, and takes online college classes through Cerro Coso College in Kern County. His previous high school in Los Angeles County had 4,000 students — about a third of the population of Mono County — and sports were far too competitive for Ericson to join anything but the wrestling team. 

“It’s just more relaxed here, and it feels like there’s more opportunities,” Ericson said. “I really like the social aspect. You walk around town, and you know a little bit about everybody.”

Ericson plans to move away to attend college next year, and feels he’s well prepared academically as well as socially.

For Denise Massey, Annabelle’s mother, moving away is unthinkable. Her family is there, and as a member of the Quechan tribe, she feels a deep connection to the area. So even when Annabelle needed speech therapy, Massey felt it was better to put her on a van every day to El Centro than move.

That decision was exhausting for the entire family, including Massey’s two older children. Massey switched to the graveyard shift at a local hospital so she could drive Annabelle, when necessary. And Annabelle, stressed from the long commute and being away from home so long, sometimes had meltdowns. 

Now 18, she’s adjusted and has benefited greatly from the special attention she receives in El Centro, Massey said. Outgoing and confident, Annabelle has a slew of friends and is always giving someone a hug or a high five.

“She’s our little superstar,” Massey said. “So it’s been worth it, but we did have to build our whole lives around it. … I wish we had services closer. I think kids in rural areas deserve the same education that other kids get.”

Data reporter Erica Yee contributed to this reporting.

This story was originally published at CalMatters.

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