About a year after a spate of teen-on-teen killings prompted the Santa Barbara School District to hire a street-savvy gang outreach worker to work directly with students, a UCSB study has concluded that so far, the program appears to be paying off.

And so far, even the program’s most vocal skeptic on the school board — Bob Noel — is impressed.

The report — compiled during the past six months and presented Tuesday night to the school board by Victor Rios, an associate professor of sociology at UCSB — was based on two sets of surveys filled out by the at-risk students.

Fifty-nine students took the first survey in May 2009 — three months into the gang outreach program — and 84 took the second survey six months later, in late October.

The study found that the 110 targeted students — who are all thought to have some involvement with local gangs — were much more likely in the second survey to report taking an interest in their grades and the prospect of attending college.

The report did pinpoint one potential weakness: the students’ relationship with teachers. On this measure, the surveys were largely stagnant, and actually revealed a negative change on at least one survey statement: “Teachers are not interested in people like me.” 

All told, though, Rios’ evaluation was positive.

“It’s a unique program, a unique approach,” he told the school board Tuesday night. “Overall, we found some pretty interesting changes in the students’ attitudes and perceptions.”

Rios’ positive evaluation for the $45,000-a-year program was welcome news to school officials, who have struggled to address the growing issue of gangs, whose members’ obsession over turf wars have led to the stabbing deaths of at least three teens in as many years, as well as several serious injuries.

“Initially, I had concerns about the undefined nature of it,” school board member Susan Deacon said. “But I think the organic approach has really worked.”

Noel, who in 2008 criticized a more expensive version of the program for its emphasis on intervention and suppression over prevention, on Tuesday described the report as “excellent.”

Despite the encouraging report, the program comes at a dark financial time for the district, which, like many across California, is preparing for an unusually bloody round of budget cuts. To keep the program afloat for another year, the schools are expecting to receive a grant from the city of Santa Barbara, which has indicated that the money will come through.

Rios’ study also credited the outreach worker, Ismael Huerta, a soft-spoken man with braided hair who himself has a history with gangs, for his ability to connect with the targeted students.

In one telling anecdote, Rios’ report recounted how, a day after Huerta took a group of students on a field trip to Los Angeles — where they visited professors and students at USC and UCLA — he and Huerta counted nine students wearing UCLA sweaters.

“When we asked them, ‘Why did you wear this sweater today?’ One of them responded, ‘Because we are going to be students there one day,’” he said.

After the meeting, Huerta told Noozhawk he is doing his best not only to help the students understand the consequences of the gang lifestyle, but to introduce them to inspiring people, such as an English professor at USC who used to live the street life.

“It just blows them away, because they’d never met professors that were in their shoes like that,” he said. 

The toughest part of the job, he added, is leaving work at work.

“You try not to take it home. Because a lot of these kids have some really horrible stories, unfortunately to the point where you can’t help everybody,” Huerta said. “This problem was here before, and it’s going to be here after. But you try to just reduce it.”

Among the survey’s main findings:

» 71 percent of the students in the second survey reported that “grades are very important to me,” compared with 57.6 percent in the first survey.

» 54.2 percent of the students in the second survey reported a desire to earn a bachelor’s degree, compared with 35.7 percent in the first survey.

» Nearly 90 percent of the students in the second survey said Huerta helped them feel better about school, up from 61 percent in the first survey.

» On the statement, “Teachers are not interested in people like me,” 21.5 percent of the students in the second survey reported this as “almost always true,” up from 10 percent in the first survey.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.

Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.