(Photo by Julie Leopo/EdSource)

The exchange went awry quickly. Jill McWilliams, a high school guidance counselor was trying to persuade a student and her mother that the bright, motivated senior should apply to college.

“The mom said to her daughter, ‘What, you think you’re better than us?’ The girl started crying and said, ‘No, I don’t. I’m sorry,’” recounted McWilliams at Anderson New Technology High School in rural Shasta County.

“This story isn’t unique. That’s all too often what we’re facing up here.”

The girl did not go to college.

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And she’s not alone: As enrollment in California’s public four-year universities surges, one demographic group is notably under-represented on the state’s public college campuses: Students who come from the vast, lightly populated rural communities stretching across the deserts, mountains and valleys from Oregon to the Mexico border.

Jill McWilliams, who’s been a high school guidance counselor for 17 years, encourages students to attend a four-year college.

While eight out of 10 students from rural areas graduate from high school, many are not ready for college. It starts with a lack of college preparation beginning in ninth grade. Fewer rural students — 28 percent, compared to 41 percent of students in urban areas — took the required coursework for admission to the University of California or California State University, according to an EdSource analysis of 2018-19 state data.

As rural areas grapple with poverty and other challenges, the futures of young people — and their communities — should not be limited by lack of educational opportunities, said Phil Halperin, executive director of California Education Partners, a nonprofit that helps districts prepare their students for college.

In California, about 1 in 10 students — more than half a million — live in rural areas.

“If California holds itself up as a progressive, forward-thinking state, a leader in the 21st century economy, it’s absolutely critical we do this,” Halperin said, referring to efforts to boost college readiness in rural California. “We have the economic imperative, the societal imperative, the moral imperative to work on this.”

Starts in elementary school

Educators around the state have been working hard to reverse the trend, by boosting college-prep classes in high schools and addressing the underlying factors that keep rural students from venturing to four-year universities.

The problem goes beyond filling out applications and submitting transcripts. It starts as far back as elementary school, when students start preparing for the high school courses they will need for college admission.

In high school, a lower share of rural students enroll in Advanced Placement classes for college credit and fewer take the SAT or ACT standardized test needed for freshman college admission.

That means that fewer rural students are able to boost their high school grade point average with their AP grades, which makes them less competitive in the admissions process. UC requires applicants to take the SAT or ACT; CSU requires most.

Judy Flores, superintendent of the Shasta County Office of Education, says the drive to get students to college starts in Pre-K.

Some schools including Anderson New Technology High, where McWilliams works — are encouraging students to take the admissions tests, which for the first time this year are being offered at the high school.

“The data was alarming. That’s what brought us all together, saying, ‘We’ve got to do something different,’ ” said Judy Flores, Shasta County superintendent. “And when we started looking at it, we quickly realized this isn’t a high school problem. This is a Pre-K through 12th grade problem. We have to bring everyone together to work on this, or we’re not going to change anything.”

The root of problem, according to educators and policy experts, is nuanced and multi-tiered. In many rural communities, well-paying jobs that require bachelor’s degrees are scarce, so students who want to stay in the community have little incentive to pursue higher education. And because attending a four-year-college almost always means moving away, paying upwards of $12,000 a year to live in a dorm, depending on its location, can seem daunting to low-income families.

Career and technical programs thriving

Career and technical courses offer many students in rural areas a pathway to careers that require minimal training after high school. In Shasta County, Shasta Union High School District offers 11 career training programs, including construction, medical technology, agriculture and law enforcement.

Among the most popular is the firefighter training program, which has nearly 100 percent job placement after graduation. Firefighting has a special appeal to many Northern California students since the Carr Fire ravaged 230,000 acres in and around Redding in 2018, and the deadly Camp Fire scorched Butte County the same year.

Bob Price, a retired firefighter, is an instructor at the Shasta Union High School District’s firefighting academy.

“We know that not all our kids are going to college. But we can lay a foundation, give them the hands-on experience, to be successful no matter what they decide to do,” said Milan Woollard, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “ CTE gives them a chance to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and turn it into something tangible.”

Nearly half the district’s student body is enrolled in a career technical education program, Woollard said, just above the state average of 45 percent. Many students take these classes along with college prep classes, he said.

Many go to community college

Community college is also a success story in the region. About 45 percent of high school graduates in Shasta, Tehama, Trinity, Modoc and Siskiyou counties go on to community college, mostly to Shasta Community College in Redding, according to college data.

But most students from rural areas who attend community colleges do not transfer to a college or university, EdSource analysis reveals.

In Shasta County, relatively few — only 20 percent — of Shasta Community College students go on to complete bachelor’s degrees. Many of those who do get to four-year colleges tend to drop out for financial reasons, or they have trouble adjusting to crowded, diverse campuses or they lack encouragement from their families, said Becky Love, counseling coordinator at the Shasta County Office of Education.

‘We need to look at the big picture’

To boost the number of students who go to — and graduate from — four-year colleges, educators and community leaders in five northern counties have formed North State Together, an ambitious effort to promote college readiness. The three-year-old project, funded by a $10 million grant from the McConnell Foundation, a Redding-based foundation that promotes education, health and environment, is aimed at encouraging young people of all ages to challenge themselves academically and earn college degrees.

The result, they said, could elevate the quality of life in the entire 20,000-square-mile region. And it’s not just about encouraging students to take the SAT or ACT. The coalition is looking at the entire mindset: why more young people don’t see college as a good option, and how that affects the entire community, said Kevin O’Rorke, the coalition’s director.

Rural California: An Education Divide

This article is part of an EdSource special report on the challenges facing schools and students in California’s rural communities. Read about efforts in Shasta County and the San Joaquin Valley to get more students to seek bachelor’s degrees and search a map to find out what percentage of a high school’s seniors qualify to enroll in UC/CSU.

Produced by EdSource: Carolyn Jones, reporter; Julie Leopo, photographer; Jennifer Molina, videographer; Yuxuan Xie, data visualization specialist; Daniel J. Willis, data analyst; Rose Ciotta, project editor; Denise Zapata, co-editor; Justin Allen, web designer; Andrew Reed, social media.

Shasta County has higher rates of poverty, child abuse, obesity and tobacco use, children in foster care, domestic violence and drug abuse than the rest of California, according to the county’s demographic survey.

“We realized that the problem is so complex, we really need to start thinking about it differently,” O’Rorke said. “Maybe we need to look at the big picture, find out why we have all these other problems — high rates of incarceration, addiction, sexual assault, domestic violence. We need to be investing upriver. Rather than pulling someone out of the water and resuscitating them, how about we not let them fall into the water in the first place.”

In Shasta County, the North State Together initiative has paid off for Emiliano Alanis, a senior at Anderson New Technology High School who applied to four UC schools this fall. The son of Mexican immigrants, he and his sisters are the first members of the family to go beyond 6th grade. Emiliano’s dream is to go to UC Irvine and enroll in its math teacher education program.

Still, he’s nervous about leaving Anderson, and its population of about 10,000. Aside from a few trips to Mexico to visit family and a college tour to Portland, he hasn’t seen much of the world beyond Shasta County.

“But my mom’s always pushed me to go to college, to have the life she never got to have,” he said, adding that his mother, who is single, works as a housekeeper to support the family of five. “So I’ve tried to study hard and maintain my grades.”

Emiliano Alanis, a senior at Anderson New Technology High School, applied to four UC schools this fall.

Some students are happy to skip college and go directly from high school to career. Arys Hardee, a classmate of Emiliano’s, plans to get a firefighting job after graduation. In some ways, she says, her CTE firefighting classes are equivalent to college. She’s learning responsibility and a range of skills, meeting new people and will be eligible for a rewarding, stable job after she graduates high school.

Others opt to go directly to work.

Thirty miles south of Redding in Red Bluff, Morgan Snively, who graduated a few years ago from Red Bluff High said he had a great education and had planned to pursue a career in carpentry, inspired by the school’s woodshop program. But a bike injury after graduation quashed his plan to apprentice as a cabinet maker. Instead he got a job managing a smoke shop on Main Street.

“For how small our town is, I feel our high school is pretty good,” he said. “But no, I don’t want to go to college. I’m doing this instead. This is good.”

College initiatives tailored to each community

Each county and school in the North State Together region is undertaking its own initiatives, based on local needs. Trinity County is tackling kindergarten readiness by working with parents of young children to ensure they’re receiving any services they need, and know what their children need to be ready for school. Modoc County has set up internships with local businesses for every high school student. In many districts, high school counselors now go directly to classrooms to talk to students about college entrance requirements, financial aid and career planning, instead of waiting for motivated students to drop in during office hours. High schools have also changed their graduation requirements to include more college-prep classes, adding additional math and science requirements.

At Shasta College, expanded counseling services helps ensure students are taking the right courses to transfer to a UC or CSU. The college has also opened classrooms with Internet access in remote towns such as Weaverville, so students in areas with limited Internet access can take online courses.

Results have been promising so far. In 2011, Shasta College graduated 350 students with certificates or associate degrees. By 2018 that number had more than doubled, and half of the students graduated with honors.

Those that finished two-year vocational certificate programs also had positive results. Nearly all students in the health and information technology fields found jobs locally after graduating, and more than 70 percent of all other fields, including agriculture and business management, found nearby work in their chosen field.

Joe Wyse is president of Shasta College, which is playing a leading role in improving college readiness in the region.

Improving education outcomes doesn’t just benefit individual students, said Sue Huizinga, a student support director at Shasta College. It can lift an entire family and, over time, transform the community.

“For me, it’s about opportunity,” said Huizinga, her eyes filling with tears as she spoke. Huizinga works in the local office of the federal TRIO program, which helps low-income students with college readiness.

“I want every young person to have the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families, to get the best education they can, to live good, happy, healthy lives,” she said. “If they’re not getting those opportunities, we need to do everything possible to give it to them.”

O’Rorke said the message is beginning to sink in, even at the elementary schools.

“We have one school where they now ask parents on registration day where they want to send their kids to college. Not if, but where,” he said. “I was stunned when I heard that. That’s so cool.”

Meanwhile, in Anderson, McWilliams said she’s confident the North State Together efforts will change the college-going culture in her hometown. The stakes are too high to fail, she said.

“This is about access and equity for all. I believe that with all my heart,” she said. “Education is the great equalizer. I don’t care who you are or where you came from, you deserve a chance to get an education.”

Story originally published by EdSource.