Sunday, February 25 , 2018, 1:43 am | Fair 51º


La Cumbre Principal Jo Ann Caines Works for Change on Santa Barbara’s Westside

She has guided the school through a turnaround and developed the PEAC program during her 10 years as leader

La Cumbre Junior High Principal Jo Ann Caines is in her 10th year leading the Westside school.
La Cumbre Junior High Principal Jo Ann Caines is in her 10th year leading the Westside school.  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

When it comes to school principals, La Cumbre Junior High Principal Jo Ann Caines believes there are two types: Principals are either maintainers or changers, and Caines surely falls squarely in the latter category.

During her tenure with the Santa Barbara Unified School District, she’s never been afraid to shake things up, if that’s what it takes to bring equal access to education for all of her students.

Caines is now in her 10th year as principal of the Westside junior high, which was was struggling and on the verge of failure when she was brought in a decade.

Noozhawk caught up with Caines on the last day of school for the year, as students were taking tests and wrapping up for the Christmas holiday.

The halls outside of Caines’ office were quiet, and the upcoming break had caused the principal to have the neighborhood’s lack of services on her mind.

The Westside lacks a neighborhood library and public gym for children to go to during their downtime, and Caines said that if the school had the funding, the campus would stay open through school holidays and the summer time.

These times — when more affluent families can afford activities like science camp and when poorer families have few options for kids while they work — are when the income gap comes sharply into focus for Caines.

“There are no options” for most of her students when school is out, she said.

Doggedly working to give her students options for their lives through the lens of education could sum up Caines’ career. 

The principal is about as local as they come, born and raised in Santa Barbara and a graduate of Peabody, Santa Barbara Junior and Santa Barbara High schools.

After discovering a passion for linguistics and languages, Caines took a break from her studies at UCLA to teach English in Madrid, Spain.

From there, she traveled Europe and at one point spoke five languages through her work there as an English teacher.

While the young woman in her early 20s continued to enjoy travel, her father continued to impress upon her the value of completing her degree.

She ultimately came back and finished her English linguistics and Spanish degrees at UCLA.

After meeting her husband, the pair moved to the Virgin Islands where they started a family and Caines earned her masters in education.

Moving back to Santa Barbara so her children could grow up around their grandparents appealed to Caines, and she and her children have lived her ever since.

She began working for Santa Barbara Unified School Districts in 1987 as an English as a second language teacher at La Cumbre.

That time was a tempestuous one for education, Caines said.

A large number of people were immigrating to the United States, and the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a decision several years earlier that stated that children must have equal access to public education, regardless of citizenship status.

Caines recalls an attitude from some in the education community that treated those who couldn’t speak English as outsiders.

Though officially the law of the land, prejudice lingered, including the idea that a language deficit was equal to an intelligence gap, Caines said.

Her first mission at La Cumbre was to work with the staff to make those kids feel more included.

“I’m impatient when it comes to social justice and education,”  she said. “The system was not wanting to educate them.”

An inner barometer that Caines has used throughout her career comes down to one question: is the education La Cumbre is offering good enough for her own children?

“It’s as simple as that,” she said. In fact, both of her children did attend La Cumbre.

Over the next six years at the school, Caines worked her way up to assistant principal, a role she worked in from 1993 to 1995.

In 1995, she was offered the job as principal at Adams School, which at the time was struggling.

During her 10-year tenure there, she helped bring that school from failing status into recognition as a California Distinguished School.

In 2005, the district’s then-superintendent approached Caines about returning to La Cumbre.

The school was failing and on the verge of shutting down, she recalled.

It wasn’t just white flight taking place from the school’s area —​ Caines called it an “anybody-who-had-a-car-flight.”

The school was struggling, and Caines said she consulted both of her kids as she considered taking the job.

Investing in the long hours that the school desperately needed would require her to basically live out of her office as she helped to right the ship, but both of her children encouraged her to do it.

“They said, ‘Mom, you have to do it. You owe it to La Cumbre,’” she recalled.

She knew the school had to be her first priority.

“We needed to turn school education here into what Westside children are entitled to,” she said.

That vision has paid off and the school is thriving today.

Another of Caine’s visions come to life is the PEAC program, which encourages high school students to aim for college by taking advanced level courses.

That program has been in place for five years, and many for La Cumbre students who attended local high schools are now enrolled in college as a result.

Because junior high is such a tough age for many students, Caines and her staff don’t always get to see their successes later in life.

So she tells her former students to write letters.

Caines will get them periodically, from former students who had a tough time in junior high but are now succeeding in their careers and lives.

She will read them to the staff during their meetings, a rewarding boost for teachers and administrators who sometimes don’t know where their students ended up.

But even after they graduate from the school, former students return to say hello and thank Caines and her staff for their work in their lives.

“They come back and they come back,” she said.

“I want them to know they can always come here for support.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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