United for Equity: Central Coast K-16 Regional Collaborative launch event celebrates a groundbreaking collaboration

K16 Regional Collaborative leaders holding a ceremonial check
Leaders from the Central Coast K-16 Regional Collaborative receive an $18.1 million check from California’s Community Economic Resilience Fund.
Central Coast K-16 Regional Collaborative tri-chairs speaking
Central Coast K-16 Regional Collaborative tri-chairs: Rio School District Assistant Superintendent Oscar Hernandez, UC Santa Cruz Assistant Vice Chancellor of Educational Partnerships and Chief Campus Outreach Officer Maria Rocha-Ruiz, and Cabrillo College President Matt Wetstein.
Central Coast K-16 Regional Collaborative Launch Event participants mingle
Rio School District Assistant Superintendent Oscar Hernandez and UC Santa Cruz Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Success and Equity Ebonée Williams shake hands.

Educational equity remains a persistent challenge in California and across the nation, as disparities in educational access and opportunity have made it difficult for some students to achieve academic and economic success. For many students, especially those from communities traditionally underrepresented in higher education, navigating the transition from high school to postsecondary education and into the workforce can be challenging.

On Feb. 9, leaders from the Central Coast K-16 Regional Collaborative, representing 30-plus educational institutions and industry partners spanning the Central Coast, gathered to launch an initiative aimed at addressing long-standing inequities and streamlining educational and career pathways.

Held at California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo, the event, titled “United for Equity,” marked the beginning of a groundbreaking three-year initiative supported by an $18.1 million grant from California’s Community Economic Resilience Fund.

"Never before have institutions from throughout the Central Coast come together to help historically marginalized students achieve their goals within K-16 education and local industry," UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive said. “What we are doing is a potential game-changer — for California students, for the institutions and industry partners that seek to educate and employ them, and for communities throughout our region.”

The collaborative spans six counties — Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo College, UC Santa Barbara, and the Santa Cruz County Office of Education are providing leadership and functioning as the operational backbone for the collaborative.

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong underscored the importance of partnership and collaboration in driving positive change and acknowledged the efforts of elected officials in securing the funding that made the collaboration possible.

Clint Weirick, senior district representative, San Luis Obispo County, representing state Sen. John Laird, was on hand to help mark the historic moment. Weirick presented an $18.1 million ceremonial check to the collaborative organizers, symbolizing a significant investment in the region's educational future.

After the ceremony, the Central Coast K-16 Regional Collaborative tri-chairs — Cabrillo College President Matt Wetstein, Rio School District Assistant Superintendent Oscar Hernandez; and UC Santa Cruz Assistant Vice Chancellor of Educational Partnerships and Chief Campus Outreach Officer Maria Rocha-Ruiz — outlined a roadmap for the coming years, setting ambitious goals to reshape the educational landscape and empower historically marginalized students.

At the heart of the initiative is a shared commitment to align pathways from kindergarten through higher education, dismantle inequitable systems, and harness student strengths.

Rocha-Ruiz, a first-generation college graduate from a family of migrant farmworkers, emphasized the transformative power of education. "Education opens doors of opportunity and can have a positive ripple effect on an entire family and community,” she said. “It’s so important to be able to show students all the possibilities that are available to them. We need to show them the future they may not be able to envision and give them role models they can relate to."

Hernandez shared insights from his personal journey, sharing his upbringing in a village in Mexico and the challenges he faced as an immigrant in the United States. "My parents saw education as the key to a successful life, and my experiences confirmed that," he said. "Education has the power to transform lives, regardless of one's background or circumstances."

He said his limited exposure to diverse career paths while growing up fuels his determination to expand opportunities for the students he now serves. “I had really only known teachers and didn’t understand there were other career opportunities available to me,” Hernandez said. “These initiatives will play a crucial role in helping students see a huge range of possibilities for all they can be and do.”

After the tri-chair presentations, attendees participated in roundtable discussions centered on expanding partnerships and achieving regional alignment across multiple counties. Participants emphasized the importance of internships and training programs to prepare students for future success and bringing families into discussions about college programs and career education.

Wetstein emphasized the engagement and enthusiasm that was evident throughout the event, stemming from a shared belief and passion for the Central Coast K-16 Regional Collaborative’s impactful mission: “The launch event was successful in marking an unprecedented collaboration. Together, we will make sure every student in our region reaches their full potential."