If you caught this summer’s blockbuster hit, Barbie, you saw what most of the world imagines when they think of California: Beach. (Or, “just beach,” as Ryan Gosling’s Ken would say.)

California is hardly just beach. Rural areas comprise about 60% of the state’s landmass, and when it comes to developing new programs that will reduce educational and economic inequities, these communities are hotbeds of innovation.

Jamie Spielmann, Director of Planning & Development, North State Together (NST)

North State Together (NST) serves 10 county-level collective impact networks in the rural north of the state, providing backbone services and support to these organizations, which create cradle-to-career learning opportunities for residents.

“We’re unique in the cradle-to-career space in that we support not just one, but 10 counties, each with unique needs,” says Jamie Spielmann who, with Amy Speakman, serves as NST’s co-director of planning and development. “Our hub-and-spoke model breaks down silos by offering a shared vision, collaboration opportunities, financial and data support, staffing, and infrastructure to communities that want to scale learning opportunities for residents.”

Founded in 2016 with support from the McConnell Foundation and in partnership with Shasta College, NST is a designated Talent Hub, which means it has met rigorous standards for creating environments that attract, retain, and cultivate talent, particularly among students who are the first in their families to go to college or who are from low-income households.

Forging close alliances despite miles of separation 

In the 10 counties NST serves, there is one public four-year university — it is at the edge of the region — one private four-year college, and just five community colleges.

“Generally, you need to move if you want to continue your education after high school,” says Spielmann. Online education is an option, Spielmann says, but many jobs in California’s rural northern counties will never be remote. Learning has to be more hands-on.

While their rural nature may mean northern California counties are often forgotten by Hollywood, Spielmann thinks the region’s resilience comes from the community networks forged over the nearly 32,000 square miles that make up the 10 counties NST serves.

“In rural America, it’s all about relationships — the ethic that says, let’s just sit down and work together,” says Spielmann. “I can go directly to John or Jane to discuss a problem and we can pretty easily identify the stakeholders who could contribute to the solution. And since we’re all going to see each other at the grocery store, we’ve got to figure out a way to collaborate!”

This spirit has resulted in creative cradle to career learning solutions.

Chronic absenteeism plagues north state elementary and high schools. If a child is lucky, they may live across the street from the elementary school in town, but many have to ride the bus for up to 45 minutes. There are also unique cultural considerations that draw students away from school. To prevent children from Native American communities from suffering unnecessary unexcused absences, Reach Higher Shasta works with tribal leaders to develop a legislative proposal to excuse absences for tribal events. The policy was enacted two years ago.

In a county without a community college, Advancing Modoc developed a co-op where learners can take classes, work with career navigators, learn about financial aid, and sign up for state and federal housing and food programs. The center, whose partners include Reach University and Western Governors University, currently offers learning pathways that will lead to jobs in education, human services and social work, and healthcare. The co-op will soon add an entrepreneurship pathway.

Advancing Modoc also connects students with job opportunities. In 2019, it paired every one of one high school’s graduating class with an internship. Similarly, Trinity Together runs the Career Experience Program, a collaboration between Trinity High School, Trinity Together, and local businesses that provides students with work experience. These jobs allow teens to explore career options based on their likes, develop skills that will lead to future employment, earn college credit, and decide on an education pathway after high school.

“This work is transformational,” says Spielmann.

The commitment to working together across miles of separation caught the attention of state leaders. In 2022, Shasta College and NST were awarded an $18 million K-16 Educational Collaborative Grant from the state to expand NST’s regional framework across California’s entire north state region. Butte, Glenn, Lassen, Plumas, and Sierra counties were added to NST’s original five-county network of Modoc, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama, and Trinity counties.

Spielmann says the amount of money pouring into northern California communities for education because of NST partners’ success is “unprecedented.”

CivicLab: A partner for the long-haul

In rural areas, national organizations — and their advice — are sometimes met with skepticism. When the U.S. media refers to less densely populated regions as “flyover country,” the suspicion might be well earned, but, generally, community members wonder if these national partners really want deep, lasting relationships.

CivicLab quickly erased that skepticism.

“In rural communities, you can’t just bring in any organization to tell people how to improve things,” says Spielmann. “But you can bring in a partner that’s committed to establishing personal relationships and to getting to know a community’s unique challenges. A lot of organizations can bring in a tool, but because CivicLab is relational and clearly here for the long-haul, they’ve been successful in the north state.”

CivicLab acknowledges every community has a unique process to solving problems. Through conversations and collaboration, CivicLab helped NST and its county collective impact networks map their processes and identify ways to improve them. By helping community teams redesign the way they relate to one another and work together, and by providing an accurate map of the full ecosystem of community stakeholders, CivicLab has helped NST refine its existing social systems (and build new ones) that better serve all of the region’s residents.

Spielmann explains that CivicLab not only works with NST as North State’s backbone organization, but also works directly with their county networks.

“The CivicLab team gets into the nitty gritty of our county level cradle to career work,” says Spielmann. “As we’ve onboarded these five new counties as part of our state grant, CivicLab has been right there offering support, data, and best practices in what makes community collaboration work at its best. And the feedback I get from our partners is, ‘how can we do even more with CivicLab?’”

Demystifying data and using it for good

For organizations like CivicLab and NST, data is essential. But for rural educational partners, data capacity is limited.

As part of its partnership with its 10 collective impact networks, NST has data sharing agreements with the local school systems in its five original counties. (It is working on agreements with the five expansion counties.) These agreements help NST and its partner organizations measure everything from kindergarten readiness to postsecondary education completion rates.

“It took time and trust to get where we are today, but right now what we have in terms of data sharing agreements is unprecedented in the state,” says Spielmann. CivicLab played a huge part in explaining the good that communities can do with access to robust data sets.

Learning providers in NST’s 10 counties need ongoing assistance with data, and staff from either NST or one of the 10 county collective impact networks often travel to provide technical expertise and staff capacity. Early in her tenure with NST, Spielmann supported a community that had never submitted high graduation data to National Student Clearinghouse in order to track for the first time whether their students pursued college after high school, which institution(s) they attended, their persistence rates, and if they obtained a degree. With a school secretary, Spielmann went through years of hard copy binders and hand typed in the graduate data so the county would have a baseline from which to work.

In the school year after NST launched (2017-18), the high school graduation rate was 82.9%. It was 87% by the 2021-22 school year. Postsecondary education completion has improved and early grade reading and middle grade math scores were improving before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning. (Research indicates pandemic-related reading loss was more profound in rural areas of the United States. Rural students still lost ground in math, but they actually did better than their counterparts in urban and suburban areas.)

This progress would not have been possible without the shared vision, tools, and frameworks — the backbone — that NST and CivicLab provide to the now 10 county collective impact networks.

Spielmann says, “People now realize the power of our rural region coming together, and that makes our communities more resilient.”