When the pandemic hit, Shannon Boren became the point person among other parents to understand the latest guidance from the CDC or governor or whatever agency's decision was impacting school reopenings.
Boren, the mother of a freshman at Kern High School District and a fifth grader at Norris School District, said she worried about her children remaining in distance learning. But as a former teacher, she also said she wanted schools to open for other students who saw school as a place of refuge and crucial services. She advocated for schools to open for in-person learning at school board meetings and by contacting administrators.
"My kids were OK because they had me at home all day, every day, but OK isn't good enough for my kids," Boren said.
In February, she began the Facebook group "Open Our Schools Bakersfield" as a way to make sure parents had basic information about meetings and the contact information for district board members and administrators. Within a few hours, she said 500 parents had joined. Boren and other parents advocated for schools to open for in-person instruction.
School is out now, but Boren said the pandemic revealed deeper issues around parent engagement. That's why Boren is the founder of a group called Kids First Kern, which aims to organize and educate parents on school issues. This year she and other parents were highly motivated by issues around COVID-19 and school reopening, but she believes the underlying problems haven't been fixed.
Through this process, Boren noticed it was tough for parents to know when board meetings were happening, who represented them on the board or how to submit a public comment. Boren met parents who would have an issue in the classroom, and they would want to talk to the superintendent. She would discuss how to go through protocol, starting with the classroom teacher first. Other parents feel intimidated even calling the principal. Very few parents follow along with state legislation that affects what happens in the classroom.
"I know the schools want the parents to know what is going on in the schools, but not every parent can come to every board meeting every month," she said.
Through her work advocating for schools to open, Boren got into contact with Parent Association, a nonprofit parent advocacy group based in San Diego. It hired a lawyer who successfully sued the state challenging its reopening framework.
Boren told her story to a group of about 50 people gathered in the event room of Temblor Brewing Company on Thursday evening. There were some familiar faces from Bakersfield politics and the education community. The event was organized by Russell Johnson, the owner of Common Sense Consulting, and sponsored by Kern Island, and it's the first one for the group.
Some of Kern Island's members got interested in the politics of education when their own families were affected by schools being closed, said Kern Island chairman Patrick Wade. Boren's brother-in-law serves on the political organization and they recommended her to help out with effort. Kids First Kern is a 501(c)(4), a social welfare organization.
Right now the venture is small and being led by a small group of founders that include Boren. Wade said the organization is run by Boren and other women who are volunteering.
"This isn't a top-down organization," said Wade.
Another founder is Shannon Zimmerman, a teacher on special assignment in Panama-Buena Vista Union School District who was elected to the board of the Bakersfield City School District this November.
Kelly Youngstrom is another founder. She said she is the mother of four with a deep interest in education. Currently, she serves on the PBVUSD Board Bond Oversight Committee, and she ran for a seat on the school board last November.
Youngstrom feels strongly that community engagement on school issues is important generally. When she knocked on doors for her campaign, residents wouldn't realize that they could vote for their school board member or that decisions made would affect their property taxes. And ultimately, she says that the quality of an education ends up affecting the whole community.
Which districts Kids First Kern focuses on and what issues they focus on will depend on which parents show up and what they need.
Right now they have a sign-up form that asks prospective members what they're interested in learning more about: returning to school, curriculum and instruction, masking and vaccines, technology in schools, school safety and class sizes. During election years, Kids in Kern may provide information about bond measures or host candidate forums.
The founders said their approach is not to assume bad faith of any group working in education.
"The teachers care about the kids, the parents care about the kids, the schools care about the kids, the principals care about the kids and we're all on the same team, which is team kids," Boren said.