Kern County's education indicators have lagged well behind California's for as long as people have been keeping track.
Poverty levels in Kern are higher, reading levels are lower. Dropout rates are higher, high school graduation rates are lower.
Only 22.9 percent of Kern County residents hold an associate’s degree or higher, compared to the statewide average of 40.4 percent.
But on Tuesday, education leaders from the elementary to the university level came together to say enough is enough. At an event held at Cal State Bakersfield, education and community leaders formally launched what they say is a first-of-its-kind local alliance called the Kern Education Pledge.
"Although local educators and institutions have always worked collaboratively, Kern Education Pledge members are committed to taking this collaboration to the next level by formalizing data sharing and engaging in activities around shared responsibility and shared accountability," said Mary Barlow, Kern County Superintendent of Schools. "Ultimately, our goal is to close achievement gaps between student groups and prepare students for the world of work."
They also want to close the gap between educational performance in Kern and performance in the state as a whole.
Virtually all of Kern's most prominent educators and community leaders were there — or have signed onto the pledge. Joining Barlow on Tuesday were Kern High School District Superintendent Bryon Schaefer; Kern Community Foundation President and CEO Kristen Beall; Cal State Bakersfield President Lynnette Zelezny and others.
Pledge members include representatives from all 47 Kern County school districts, the Kern Community College District, Taft College, CSUB and the business sector. And their goals are ambitious.
"We are lagging. We have a serious gap," Barlow said. But collaborative efforts already underway are showing promise, and while Kern is underperforming overall, it is outpacing the state of California’s growth on some academic indicators.
Barlow would like to see Kern catch up to state averages.
Sometimes it's about helping those students most at risk. As just one example, KHSD's Schaefer said the high school district has redoubled its efforts in preventing foster youth from failing or dropping out.
"We literally find them," the superintendent said of the district's efforts to identify and engage with those teens who are likely to experience less stability in their home lives.
According to a press release from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, the Kern Education Pledge is focused on helping students succeed from the moment they enter pre-school and kindergarten to the time they enter the workforce. It has identified key goals across important grade level benchmarks:
Pre-school — Increasing the percentage of children entering school ready to learn.
Elementary — Increase the percentage of students reading at grade level by the end of third grade and increase the percentage of students demonstrating core math proficiencies by the end of fifth grade.
Middle School — Increase the percentage of students demonstrating reading proficiency by the end of eighth grade and increase the percentage of students demonstrating math proficiency by the end of eighth grade.
High School — Increase the percentage of high school students graduating ready to succeed. Success will be measured using multiple metrics, including the number of students in the 12th grade taking college prep English and math, for example.
Post-Secondary — Increase the percentage of students enrolling in and completing post-secondary programs and entering the skilled workforce.
"We feel that focusing collectively on these key transition points and accompanying goals, and gathering data on each point, regularly, and developing action plans to meet these goals will generate the collective outcomes we want for our all of our students over time,” Barlow said.
The Kern Community Foundation's Beall acknowledged that some might read about the pledge and think, "Another initiative. So what? Why should I care?"
Yes, the challenges are great, she said. But these ideas — developed over more than 18 months — are designed for the long term, over generations, and include setting baseline measures and monitoring progress.
"This is not just another initiative," she said. "This feels much stronger."