It’s a town almost unnoticeable on a map, a dot signifying a place 18 miles west-northwest of Bakersfield: Shafter, population not-quite 20,000.
But as Herb Caen wrote, “A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.” And there are key players in Shafter laying out and executing some inspiringly grand plans.
Historically, the San Joaquin Valley has relied solely on resource-based industries. For Shafter, this has primarily meant agriculture. In the middle of the last century, dozens of Bakersfield and Shafter family farms began making big money. In 1951, Kern County suddenly had the fifth-highest total farm income in the entire country. Small family farmers and ranchers were amassing more wealth than they knew how to spend. LIFE Magazine described this time like the Gold Rush days in a 1951 story titled “Shirtsleeve Millionaires” and explained that, with the advent of the deep turbine pump, Central Valley farmers were able to reach as far as 2,500 feet to lift water to irrigate their crops.
“The newest crop of the San Joaquin is the sum of all the others. It is millionaires, dozens of new millionaires,” the article declared. “They work as industriously as when they began — only now they roam their ranches in Cadillacs and hop from farm to farm, or to the seaside, in private planes.”
Despite this mid-century boom, with labor, water and other industry challenges, many Shafter leaders have seen the need to work toward diversification. Farmworkers, primarily Hispanic day laborers, toil in the dry heat for little pay, their children rarely reaching beyond high school education. Per 2017 U.S. Census Bureau data, 25.3 percent of Shafter residents live in poverty, double the national poverty rate of 12.3 percent. Low educational attainment has also been a long term challenge for the city as only 57.2 percent of residents graduate high school, which is far below the national average of 87.3 percent.
But I have been impressed over the last few years as I learned about progressive efforts in Shafter focused on improving educational outcomes and promoting economic development; today’s leaders are not ignoring these problems. Because of their efforts, Shafter has become a hub for a variety of economic endeavors, including manufacturing, logistics and energy. I have watched Shafter’s focus on education and economic development, enthralled with not only the ways in which they devise smart plans but also the talented individuals that they are able to recruit and retain to carry them out. A few I have been particularly impressed with include John Guinn, the longtime popular, city manager who retired in 2014; his successor Scott Hurlbert; David Franz, Shafter Education Partnership director; and Bob Meadows, the city’s new business development director.
In an article by The Economist titled “Down on the Farms, California’s recovery is not fixing the chronic problems of its heartland”, Carol Whiteside, president of the research institute Great Valley Center, who has worked on regional infrastructure projects within the Central Valley, explained that she hopes towns in our region like Shafter, seeking to capitalize on the potential benefits of high-speed rail, will see it serve as a necessary ingredient to ensure stability into the future. "If the area is to pick itself up, that is probably one necessary ingredient. A renewed focus on education, particularly among Latinos, is another," she said. "The valley is unlikely ever to enjoy the wealth of its coastal cousins. But by fastening on its advantages … it may be able to offer its children a brighter future than their parents had.”
Shafter visionaries are taking this message to heart and doing some remarkable work in this rural town. In this week’s column, I cover the efforts of David Franz and his role shaping the future of education. Next, I’ll turn to economic development from the perspective of Shafter’s new business development director.
David Franz grew up in the middle of a long trend of economic difficulty, for rural places, and he felt a sense of responsibility. He had a vague sense that he should learn as much as he could and then try to help. So Franz left. He would come back to visit family and get obsessed with Shafter and all of the challenges facing rural places. It started as a recurring daydream to return, but he got serious and talked with then-City Manager John Guinn. After earning a doctoral degree in sociology and completing a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, Franz returned to his hometown of Shafter to lead the Education Partnership.
Franz describes his task at the Education Partnership to work with the grain of their residents’ aspirations. For some, that is discovering a talent or interest in a field of study they didn’t know existed. The center offers classes on geology and rockets and American Sign Language, for example, to third- and fourth-graders. The hope is that students see that the world is big and enchanting and there is a lot of cool stuff to learn. For some, it is about gaining basic reading skills so that they can learn independently. For older students, they support advanced classes and SAT. Most of all, Franz wants students to be taking cues from the most ambitious of their students.
Question: What are some key outcomes you have seen or hope to see in Shafter in the near future?
Answer: I have been very pleased to see the growth of a kind of “nerd culture” here (which I mean in the most affectionate possible way). We want Shafter to have places where kids who are curious about the world can find their people. These are the kids who read up on black holes and study German just because they are interested. At first, it was mostly younger students like that I would talk to at the Learning Center, but we have more junior high and high school students who are in that group now. As one measure of that, the Advanced Placement program at Shafter High has quadrupled in the past five years.
Going forward, I would like to see more of our students finish college, whether it is a certificate or degree. There is a lot that goes into that, but we are spending time working to do better there.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Shafter Learning Center? What inspired it?
A: The Learning Center grew out of a recognition that opportunity is not very equal for children. Living in a college town in Virginia, I saw that if you went to the right school and lived in the right neighborhood, you not only had parents with money and education, but all of your friends parents had money and education. Kids in that environment, grow up knowing about careers and life possibilities that I had no idea about and most kids in Shafter have no idea about. Those kids were not smarter or more motivated. They don’t have better parents. They were just lucky to be surrounded by great, imagination-stirring opportunities.
This is a small slice of what seems to me like a fundamental injustice — our kids are worthy of all of that. The Learning Center is about trying to bring some of those resources into Shafter.
Q: What has surprised you about your work in Shafter?
A: I am extremely impressed with our young people. I know a bunch of young people who are bright, generous and passionate about giving back to our community. These are immigrants and children of immigrants who are going to the best medical and engineering schools in the country and want to come back to Kern County and make it better. For generations, we have been a place where people can come and make a new start. That is the best of who we are and in my experience with the young people of Shafter, that legacy is in good hands.