Tired of busing: Huron community puts pressure on school district to build a high school
Parents and students speak up about the hardships of the hour-long commute to the nearest high school in Coalinga
This story is featured in the Huron episode of The Other California, KVPR’s podcast all about small towns in the San Joaquin Valley.
For 31 years, Dolores Silva taught elementary school in Huron and Avenal. The second graders were her favorite, she says.
“And even so many years have passed and sometimes a parent will come say, 'Oh my son, or my daughter just love being in your class,’ and I say, ‘well thank you for telling me,” says Silva.
The 85-year-old is in her home in Huron, where she lives with her youngest son, Ben. She’s lived here most of her life. “We just love our little town,” she says laughing.
Sitting on a bright yellow couch in her living room, Dolores’ face lights up with laughter. “We have a lot of good people, a lot of good people. And they're all hard working people, you know,” she says.
Dolores is one of them. In 2004, two years after retiring from teaching, Dolores returned to education at the age of 67, this time as a member of the Coalinga-Huron Unified school board. The biggest request from residents in her district: build a new high school in Huron.
The city has one elementary school and one middle school. There’s a continuation school in Huron, but the main high school is 20 miles away in Coalinga. Almost 100 percent of the students take a bus. And it was that way when Dolores was a teacher. “It was so hard for them, getting up early in the morning to catch the bus to go to Coalinga,” she says.
Hard getting up, and hard staying awake at night. “When they got home, they still had to do their homework and they were exhausted,” she says. Dolores was also bused to Coalinga until she graduated high school in 1956.
As a board member in 2004, she led the effort to build a new high school by galvanizing the community. In 2012, a petition was started to split the school district into two separate districts. Five years later, the state department of education shot down the plan. The district’s superintendent says Huron failed eligibility tests for funding and diversity.
Most recently, the effort has been dedicated to building a new high school but not a separate district. And Dolores says she’s still motivated to help in any way she can. “So I'm old, but I feel good and I don't give up,” she says laughing. “I don't know when the good lord is going to take me, but I am here trying to stay alive and do as much as I can,” she says.
Her son Ben is now driving the push, organizing community meetings and speaking with district officials. He says building a high school in the city is about more than just quality of education. “It's about community pride. that's why the school needs to be called Huron High School,” he says.
An Outspoken Community
Just last month, families in Huron packed a Coalinga-Huron Unified School Board meeting. It was standing room only as parents and community members lined up to speak.
One by one, speakers took turns at the podium, turning to face the board members as they explained how their children must get up before sunrise to catch the bus.
“When I wake up to go to work, 5 in the morning, there's kids out here, kids out here cold,” says one father with school-aged children.
One woman was concerned about her children who would enter the same busing schedule. “The only thing I want is quality for my kids because I still have a young child and I don't want to continue to go through this with him,” she said with the help of a Spanish interpreter.
A high school student who attended the meeting spoke of feeling tired and not getting enough sleep. That’s why she’s not playing soccer. “I like sports, but at the same time, getting home late and then not having time to do work,” the student says. “I'm kind of getting used to it, now that I've been there for three years.”
According to the Coalinga-Huron Unified School district, out of about 1200 students at Coalinga High School, just over 400 are bused from Huron. The district says commute times are as long as an hour.
Whether they spoke at the meeting or just attended, different generations of Huron residents identified the same challenges of being bused to Coalinga.
Jocelyn Distancia graduated from Coalinga High School in 2011. “I came here to the meeting because you know, it would be nice for Huron to have a high school. Just because a lot of people are sharing the same experience that I've had,” she says.
Distancia now lives and works in Huron, but she says she’s reminded every day of what that experience was like. “Sometimes when I'm awake and I'm not going to work, I hear the bus. It reminds me, 'Oh the bus used to pass by my house,' and I remember that sound,” she says.
Overcoming The Education Barrier
Rosa Moreno also attended the highly anticipated board meeting. She took the bus from Huron to Coalinga as a middle school student in the early 1980s.
She was born in Tijuana and moved to Huron at 7 years old, speaking very little English, even when she started school. As one of seven kids, Rosa says she, like most of her siblings, left school to support the family. The long bus ride only made attending school worse. “I guess at the beginning, right after I dropped out, I was too busy working in the fields, helping my mother and then I had kids, so my priority was them,” she says.
She got her GED and attended a community college after she realized she needed to help her own six children succeed. “Once they started growing and asking me about algebra and other things, I'm like, I need to go to college,” she says with a laugh. “Yeah that's what made me, my children.”
Now the 53-year-old volunteers for Huron’s social service programs. That includes helping students apply for grants and find a way to get to college. “They're so smart. All they need is a little help, a little guidance,” she says.
Moreno has made it her mission to help other families in Huron that don’t know how to find resources because of cultural and language barriers. She recalls asking her mother when she was young, why she chose to stay in Huron. “‘Why are you here? There's nothing here, you know. There's no pharmacy, there's no dentist, why do you want to be here?’ And she would say, 'Because work is here.' And there is a lot of work in Huron for farm workers,” Moreno agrees. “And so they have to make sacrifices and sometimes parents don't realize that their children's education is being sacrificed because of all that they have to go through just to get graduated.”
The District’s Plan
At the board meeting, trustees voted unanimously to move forward with a feasibility study to look into building a high school. By mid-May, the school board will hold a special meeting to interview the top applicants that will spearhead the study, which will include determining funding sources and staffing needs for a new high school.
At her district office in Coalinga, Superintendent Lori Villanueva says funding remains the issue. “It's always been in our sights the question is having the eligibility, having access to the funding.”
Lori says the district would have to meet certain eligibility requirements, like overcrowding which hasn’t happened yet, to get more state funding to build a high school.
“It would be awesome if I could just put up a brick and mortar building and just get going from there," says Villanueva. But she believes the process may have to start incrementally. “Whatever funding I can achieve through this feasibility report, I suspect that it will be starting with portables,” she says.
Villanueva says early estimates based on valuations are anywhere from $39 to $42 million, which she says would be enough to get some brick and mortar buildings started, but not fund a comprehensive high school. She referenced the path that other school districts have taken when building a new high school. “They usually start the first year with the 9th grade, then build up to the 10th, 11th, 12th,” she says. Villanueva predicts this may be the route that Huron begins with.
Villanueva says right now, there are enough students to populate a freshman class. But the process to fund and build out a school will take time. “We want to do what is absolutely right for the kids and so finding that pathway and then being able to navigate that pathway over time because like I say, it's not something I can just do tomorrow,” she says.
For Huron native, Ben Silva who’s leading the community effort to build a high school in Huron, he says change can and needs to happen faster. Until a new high school is built, he says parents will continue to speak up at school board meetings. “They're fighting for their children's future and that's our goal.”
This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit calhum.org.