Mary Barlow’s family moved a lot during her childhood. By high school graduation, she had lived in eight cities in five different states. But through that transition, there was one place where she felt comfortable and included: school.
“Our family moved often, and, as a result, I attended many different schools,” said Barlow, MEd ’00, EdD ’14.
“But because of the care, concern, and compassion of people I encountered, I had someone who believed in me. School was a safe haven. It was a place where I could focus and be myself.”
Soon after she and her husband Steve set roots in Kernville, California, in 1989, Barlow enrolled at the University of La Verne’s Bakersfield Campus to begin working on a teaching credential.
Now 30 years later, Barlow is making a major impact as the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. The position, to which she was elected in 2018, oversees the county’s educational programs and supports 47 school districts serving 190,000 students.
Eager to Learn
From first-grade teacher to county superintendent, University of La Verne helped prepare her for every step in her career. Barlow is a multiple alumna, having earned a Multiple Subject Teaching Credential, a Master of Education in Educational Leadership, a Preliminary Administrative Services Credential, and a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership all while working and raising three sons with her husband.
“The University of La Verne worked for me,” said Barlow. “The professors, practitioners in the field, could give us real examples of how a scenario might play
out. We discussed things to consider when leading an organization, or making decisions on behalf of children. It wasn’t just theory. The practical application was so valuable, as was the connection with other people in the program.”
Barlow completed her teaching credential in 1996 and was hired to the South Fork Union School District. There, she taught for a couple of years before moving into the role of director of children and family services for Kernville Union School District, writing grants to help fund programs at local schools.
In 1997, she led the formation of the Kern River Valley Collaborative (KRVC), a network of county, private, and nonprofit agencies that provide support services to at-risk families.
“I saw kids coming to school with shoes kept together with duct-tape and wearing T-shirts instead of winter coats,” she said. “As an educator, I knew that families struggled, and yet I also saw the potential in each and every student. We did research about the needs of the Kern River Valley, and issues around poverty, domestic violence, incarceration, and childhood stress and trauma that we wanted to be able to address as a community.”
In four years, the KRVC grew to employ more than 40 staff members who worked directly with families through home visits, parenting classes, and after-school programs. In 2002, Barlow was hired as superintendent at Kernville Union School District, where she oversaw the modernization of two elementary schools, the construction of a middle school, and an increase in student achievement.
In 2009, Barlow was tapped by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools to serve as deputy administrative officer for the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT). The state agency provides fiscal intervention for California schools and districts.
A Leader in the Making
The appointment was a formative experience in Barlow’s career, and coincided with her enrollment in University of La Verne’s doctoral program in organizational leadership.
“It was important to advance the work I felt most motivated me: helping students and families succeed through the power of education,” she said. “The research for the doctoral program helped with the studies we were conducting at FCMAT and the issues I was concerned about as a leader in my community.”
In 2012, Barlow was appointed to assistant superintendent of administration, finance, and accountability for Kern County Superintendent of Schools. Five years later, she was selected to lead the county office of education.
In It Together
As county superintendent, Barlow continues to advocate for families and work to close the achievement gap in the region. To that end, Barlow spearheaded a partnership between the county’s public schools, charter schools, community colleges, and universities to help students succeed from the moment they enter preschool to the time they graduate.
The Kern Education Pledge launched in December 2018 with the goal of improving collaboration across educational institutions, formalizing data sharing, and generating systemic change.
The pledge has driven excitement and innovation among the school districts in an era of increased accountability, according to John Mendiburu, EdD ’10, superintendent for the Rosedale Union School District.
“The Kern Pledge was Dr. Barlow’s vision that we truly are all in this together. She took down the barriers between districts and organizations and asked ‘What is our commitment from pre-K all the way through college? What do we have in our control to make our students successful?’,” said Mendiburu, who also earned a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership from University of La Verne’s Bakersfield Campus. “That pledge, the collaboration, and the data-sharing project validates who she is as a leader: A person who has never forgotten where she started from as a classroom teacher and a parent — and that we’re all here for the students.”
While she harnesses the collective support of the community, Barlow remains focused on ensuring that the schools in Kern County are places where all students can find the kind of care that she experienced as a child.
“Education is the great equalizer and I strongly believe that every student can succeed in school and life,” she said. “It is our mission to harness the power of data and continuous improvement to make sure that the education of our students remains our top priority and that we invest in results.”