Approximately 35 miles west of Fresno is the agricultural town of Mendota with a population of 11,000. There’s no bank, no pharmacy, and most of the rural students lack technology and internet access.
Although it is ranked at the top of the 50 worst cities to live in the country, it’s home to one of the most innovative and successful methods of delivering education.
Learn4Life has been serving students through its personalized learning model the past 10 years and helping rural students graduate through its one-on-one support and flexible schedule.
Davina C. 18, best describes her town as “friendly but limited because there aren’t many jobs available other than harvest work.” It’s not surprising since California is the largest producer of fruits, vegetables and nuts, contributing to more than $50 billion in revenue to the state. It takes millions of people to work the 25.3 million acres of farms and ranches – including rural teen students who struggle to attend high school.
“I was attending a traditional high school outside of Mendota. I couldn’t always get to school, and my teachers didn’t try to engage or encourage me. I thought that if the adults in my life didn’t care, then why should I? I rarely went to class and ended up dropping out with 15 credits and a 0.2 GPA at the end of my freshman year, noted Davina C., Learn4Life student.
“Fortunately, my mom and cousins convinced me to try Learn4Life in Mendota. The people welcomed and encouraged me. I was able to make my own schedule and keep working to help my family with expenses. After my first semester, I got a 3.48 GPA!”
Learn4Life, a network of nonprofit charter high schools that focuses on at-risk students and former dropouts, started serving students in Mendota to help reduce the high dropout rate. Many families depend on their older children to either babysit while the parents are harvesting or work the fields alongside them and contribute to the family income. Flexibility, therefore, is a key component to learning in rural communities like Mendota.
“Ten years ago, we began at the Westside Youth Center but moved to the Mendota Library two years later. We have to travel with our material, set up and break down at the end of each day, but it’s worth it when we see the number of students succeeding. In the last four years we had almost 80 graduates, just from this small classroom,” said Gary Simmons, Learn4Life teacher in Mendota. “Many need one-on-one support due to seasonal harvesting constraints, English learning challenges and limited wrap-around services. We essentially provide ‘school on wheels’ to Mendota students and it’s working. When schools went to remote learning, we handed out laptops and hotspots so our students could continue their education,” Simmons added.
“It shows how important it is to have someone care about you and encourage you,” Davina said. “Next month, I will be graduating and I’m proud that I have a job and a car at age 17. Until I found Learn4Life, no one challenged me to do this. I thank the support of my teacher, my mom and sister. I want to be a nurse, so I’m applying to colleges in California and Arizona.”
Another piece of good news, this Central California town will soon have a permanent classroom for its rural students, thanks to the new AMOR Wellness Center. It is a novel concept that brings a host of community wraparound services under one roof. The new 20,000-sq.-ft. center opens next month and will house much needed community benefit organizations, agencies and nonprofits – including Learn4Life – that will provide essential services including medical, dental, mental, social, family and youth services.
There are 36 out of 58 rural California counties, and approximately 6.2 million or 4.5% students attend rural schools throughout the state. Research indicates that rural students between 12 and 17 have the highest level of drug use in this age group and suffer from poverty and mental health – all which contribute to high dropout rates.
“Just as the pandemic is shining a light on educational challenges in urban communities, we need to take a deeper look at how we’re serving our rural communities that struggle with a one-size-fits-all delivery of education – like Mendota,” stated Michelle Harvey, who is helping Learn4Life expand its schools throughout the state to serve the most vulnerable students. “We have schools in 10 rural communities in California to address a huge need – pandemic or not – and our delivery model of education is a proven model that can help change it.”