Building Trust and True Family Engagement to Support Del Norte County and Tribal Lands Students

By Ryan Kober & Amy Campbell-Blair

Community engagement can be an intimidating process for school districts: they hold meetings, print promotional materials, and email surveys, and are perplexed when people don’t show up. And often, it seems they are afraid of facing community members’ frustrations and criticism. But cracking the code to authentic and productive community engagement has become a priority under California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which mandates community engagement in the development of equitable school funding plans called Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs). 

Authentic community engagement does not have to be a painful process – it truly can be an opportunity to build trust and relationships with the people we serve. Del Norte Unified School District (DNUSD), True North Organizing Network, the Yurok Education Department, and Del Norte and Tribal Lands’ Building Healthy Communities (Del Norte & Tribal Lands BHC) have been working together to model this new way to engage in our rural school district over the past year and a half.

On the far north coast of California, bordering Oregon, Del Norte County spans 1,230 square miles with a population of 28,000. We are world-renowned for the beauty of our old growth redwood trees, rocky coastline and wild rivers. Del Norte occupies the land of the Yurok and Tolowa people, the majority of whom continue to live, work, and attend schools in this area. Families in this area face high poverty and trauma rates, with 69% of DNUSD students identified as socio-economically disadvantaged and 15% identified as Native American.

In this context, we face unique barriers to community engagement

  • Many community members do not have reliable access to the internet, making social media and online outreach difficult. 
  • The geographic distance and lack of public transportation make it extremely challenging for families in outlying areas to attend meetings in urban centers, especially with main roads prone to landslides and flooding. 
  • Finally, there is a long history of distrust of the education system from the boarding school era, when many native children in the area were forcibly removed from their families and placed in schools where they suffered widespread abuse and neglect. 

Families in DNUSD have been asking for better parent engagement processes for years since the passage of the new funding law. After sending a joint letter to the school district in June 2018 to express concerns about transparency and community engagement efforts in their Local Control Accountability Plan, representatives of the Yurok Tribe, True North Organizing Network and the ACLU Foundation of Northern California teamed with the Del Norte & Tribal Lands BHC to meet with the District. We proposed ways to  work together to create a more inclusive process for community engagement for the 2018-2019 school year. This included forming a family engagement team comprised of parents, teachers and district staff.

In an area with a deep history of distrust of formalized education systems, the District first had to reach out and make it as easy as possible for groups who have been historically marginalized to participate in these community conversations.

We knew that we couldn’t ask families in remote areas to come to us; we had to go to them.

PHOTO CAPTION ABOVE: Families and students at Community Day School. Photo Credit: DNUSD 2018

Instead of only meeting at District headquarters in the city, we also held meetings in outlying communities like Smith River and Klamath.

So working parents could attend, we provided childcare and dinner at each meeting, along with translation services. 

We moved from a culture of surveys with narrow, predetermined responses to surveys developed by parents themselves.

Most importantly, we focused on creating space for real conversations, allowing community members to speak directly with District administration – to ask hard questions and work together towards solutions.

Not only was this powerful for families; building relationships between community members and district representatives helped break down fears and anxiety over community engagement.

We found two different formats for meetings that were effective: 

  • First, we used a Global Café Model in the fall, where participants rotated to multiple small group discussions about district LCAP goals and gave their feedback on students services. \
  • District administration used this feedback to develop new programs and services for the 2019-2020 LCAP that were presented as proposals to the community in the spring. At these meetings, community members had the opportunity to prioritize programs and identify gaps in services.
LCAP feedback from Margaret Keating session with families. Photo Credit: Tedde Simon 2018.

Out of this process, one clear priority for families was the desire for more counselors, to address social-emotional needs, including for elementary students. Given the high rates of poverty and multi-generational trauma experienced by students and families in this community, the demand for more counselors made a lot of sense. Indeed, the desire for more counseling support has been a common theme for many years among families in the District. A fuller description of the engagement process is available in this report.

Families and students at Community Day School. Photo Credit: DNUSD 2018

To reach families who might not come to District meetings, we also visited after school programs.

As staff for True North and Del Norte & Tribal Lands BHC, we coordinated directly with District programs serving our most vulnerable students and families. We worked with after-school site coordinator Denise Doyle-Schnacker, who builds community engagement into program infrastructure. Through one-on-one conversations with students and families, she gains a better understanding of their unique needs and stories. Families often feel more accepted in these spaces because of these personal relationships with staff creating a more welcoming environment very different from the negative experiences that parents and caretakers remember from their own time spent in school.

At after school programs across the District, we put up community “message boards,” encouraging families to write their thoughts and opinions on sticky notes. Many families were surprised to be asked to help plan district funding goals. They’d never been asked to do anything like that before. But people quickly began developing innovative ideas for solving some of our community’s biggest issues. They said they wished that this type of engagement had happened much, much sooner.

Message board from after school session in the Hmong Cultural Center at Bess Maxwell Elementary in Crescent City. Photo Credit: Ryan Kober 2018

Engaging families in spaces, like after school programs, where they already feel connected and accepted creates more opportunities for open expression and discussion. As Denise says,

These meetings don’t have to be so formal. We just need to make sure we focus on how we can capture data in a way that makes people feel heard. The more often you engage with people the more they trust you.”

By working with after school programs, we were able to engage with many foster, low-income, unhoused and English Language learner students and families, the very population that brings more money into the District under the new funding law and whose needs are supposed to be served with those additional dollars (called supplemental and concentration funds).

Because of the passionate advocacy of families, the District agreed to hire three new counseling positions:

One full-time counselor and two counseling technicians. This new investment in counseling support has meant that a school like Margaret Keating Elementary in Klamath — the only district school located on a reservation, which serves nearly 90% socioeconomically disadvantaged students and 68% native students — now has a dedicated full-time counselor five days a week.

Through this collaboration, we have made great progress in creating opportunities for all families to contribute to the LCAP planning process. We are all seeing that trust, relationships, accountability, and consistency are key pieces to cracking the code to community engagement in Del Norte and Tribal Lands.  We have a long way to go, but we are building the path and walking it together. 

For more details about this engagement, check out the 2019 Del Norte USD Community Engagement Data Report.

Sign up to learn more about how families and students are making the promise of engagement and equity in the Local Control Funding Formula real by visiting

Amy Campbell-Blair is the Del Norte & Adjacent Tribal Lands Organizer for True North Organizing Network, a community-led, grassroots organizng effort for North Coast communities and an affiliate of the PICO National Network. True North is working to carve out space in the political process for those who have historically not been heard or included. We believe that human dignity is the heart of justice and progress, and that for a true and honest democracy to thrive, every person needs the opportunity to be heard and respected.

Ryan Kober is the former Collaborative Facilitator with Building Healthy Communities Del Norte and Tribal Lands (BHC DNATL). Building Healthy Communities is a 10-year initiative of The California Endowment focused on creating place-based strategies and systems changes focused on improving health equity. Del Norte and Tribal Lands was one of 14 communities across California selected by TCE as a site of investment. BHC DNATL is a part of the Wild Rivers Community Foundation, an affiliate of the Humboldt Area Foundation, who supports community initiatives that create long-term solutions across Del Norte and Curry County.


PHOTO CAPTIONS BELOW: Margaret Keating LCAP session with families. Photo Credit: Tedde Simon 2018.

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