Katrina Johnson León headshot

from the field

by Katrina Johnson León

Rural America

Where geographic isolation enforces disparity

s a former leader in a large, urban district, I did not know what I was stepping into when I entered the world of education in rural America. I thought I knew what to expect, as I had graduated from San Pasqual Valley Unified School District.

The area was familiar, I would know some of the people, and my greatest excitement would be seeing the faces of those I attended school with in the faces of our current students. Really though — I had no idea. San Pasqual Valley is situated on the borders of Arizona and Mexico and encircled by the Quechan (Kwat-san) Indian Reservation, globally known as the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation. We are located in Winterhaven, where the Colorado River separates Arizona and California. Land donation from the Quechan Tribe in the 1950s allowed San Pasqual Valley USD to be formed. San Pasqual Valley now serves 602 PK-12 students as well as an adult school.

The reality of rural districts is that we must make sure we are serving all populations while adjusting for service scarcity due to geographic isolation and policies, rules or regulations.

The impacts of geographic isolation

Our district lacks access to high-speed and reliable internet. Instead, we constructed a communications monopole (tower) in 2022 to link to another monopole operated by the Imperial Valley Telecommunications Authority through the county office. As increased opportunities for technological access are available, local dynamics can impact acquisition. For example, shortly after I arrived, the local phone company building burned down. Because some of our systems utilize landlines, we had to quickly purchase cell phones, sharing the new phone lines on our webpage and through social media, but those families not online had to wait for information until it was sent through the mail. With the upgrades to our monopole, San Pasqual Valley is now more web- and cloud-based.

three yellow school buses driving away on a long road going through mountainous grass fields

On the California side of the border, there is a critical shortage of housing and more than 95 percent of the district’s employees, including myself, live in Arizona. Most of the applications for both classified and certificated staff we receive are from Arizona and significant time is spent by human resources helping certificated staff navigate the credentialing process in California.

Student enrollment has decreased in San Pasqual Valley by 17 percent since 2015. We are limited by infrastructure in and around our community and desperately need additional housing. Many of our students live in alternative housing like motorhomes, travel trailers and fifth wheels at some of the local trailer parks, much like I did as a student many years ago.

State policies lack insight

Policies created for all generally do not consider the nuances of rural district realities. Rural communities must be considered when policymakers designate subgroups that receive extra support or flexibility. Transportation is one such policy issue and the push to convert to all-electric fleets is unreasonable for rural districts. San Pasqual Valley transports nearly 100 percent of our students, with routes requiring bus drivers to drive 45 minutes one way. The idea that the district will eventually be forced to use an electric bus is short-sighted and dangerous and does not account for the unplanned realities of rural life, especially in the desert where temperatures can reach 120 degrees. Athletic programs also compete against teams in Arizona, and I cannot have my students or staff stranded on the side of the road because of the uncertainty of battery life.

Unforeseen natural disasters also affect transportation. My second year in the superintendent’s seat, there were monsoon-like storms that knocked down over 100 power poles, damaged homes and school buildings, and impacted the local tribal community the hardest. Families were displaced, some temporarily housed in Arizona, and our bus routes were quickly redesigned to meet the needs of our students and families. San Pasqual Valley picked up students in Arizona, in hotels and from homes where families were doubled-up for several weeks. The community was without electricity for over two weeks. This legislation does not account for the practical realities of living in geographically isolated areas.

Special education is another challenging area in rural districts. While telehealth has been extremely helpful in meeting our requirements, we prefer to have in-person service providers. San Pasqual has not been able to fill its speech language pathology position in years. So, we contract services. We have one child who travels to and from El Centro, over two hours round trip per day for specialized programming. The program is great for this student; however, these services would be more easily reached in Arizona, and we are working on a waiver to allow programming to occur there. Ideally, policies would be in place to support utilizing the bordering state’s educational resources when it is in the best interest of the student. I cannot imagine San Pasqual is unusual in this regard, as California borders Nevada and Oregon.

The idea that the United States is a first-world country is difficult to reconcile when I am part of a community where basic services are unavailable to the families and students we serve. Over 10 years ago, we had 11 departments housed in our Family Resource Center (FRC), including the Department of Social Services, America’s Job Center, Juvenile Probation and the Employment Development Department. These agencies were in-district from one to five times per week. Five years ago, the FRC hosted seven agencies from one to three times per week. Presently, San Pasqual Valley has five agencies, most visiting two times per week.

The reason for these dwindling service partners? Location. Most of the employees of these agencies live about one hour from San Pasqual Valley. It is challenging to consistently provide services when agencies are not consistent in showing up. Just one example is that our Native families can redeem their Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) services in Arizona, as the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation is considered an Arizona tribe. However, our non-Native families must qualify through California and there are no grocery stores in the area that accept the WIC debit card. The drive to the nearest store is 45 minutes and requires transportation. This situation is a travesty as our state and county service providers do not make rural communities a priority.

San Pasqual Valley is an amazing, rural district with individuals who work diligently to provide services to our children and families. Our community thrives when it comes to resiliency. We are literally battling monsoons, heat, inadequate infrastructure and socioeconomic obstacles, including food and housing insecurity. As many challenges as we have in our community, I am awed by the strength of our families, the trust our students have in us and the dedication of our staff. If the services provided in urban areas were available to children in rural communities, who knows what would be possible for our youth.

Dr. Katrina Johnson León is the superintendent of San Pasqual Valley USD and a passionate educator with over two decades of experience in both urban and rural districts. Her commitment to excellence is evident in her desire to unravel disparities in the educational system in order to reshape students’ access to future opportunities