Thursday, October 18 , 2018, 8:00 am | Fair 50º


La Cumbre Junior High School Makes a Comeback

Principal and staff are making headway on saving a school that was half-sunk

When Principal Jo Ann Caines took the helm at La Cumbre Junior High School two-and-a-half years ago, she — like her predecessor — promised to save a school that was half-sunk in the quicksand of federal punishments.

But Caines has delivered big time, unlike her predecessor, whose inability to improve the Westside school’s abysmal test scores contributed to her abrupt mid-year retirement, according to Superintendent Brian Sarvis.

Last week, the Santa Barbara school district released test scores showing that La Cumbre, once the city’s poster child for white flight and low morale, posted the largest gains of the district’s 20 public schools, and third-largest of the county’s 100.

"La Cumbre is not going to be derailed," Caines said. "We’re on a mission."

The success story has some officials giving credit not only to the school, but also the federal government’s much-maligned No Child Left Behind law, which singled out La Cumbre as a poor performing school five years ago.

"I hate to say it, but we have to give some credit to No Child Left Behind for requiring schools to really focus on some of the most difficult students," said Santa Barbara school board member Kate Parker. She added, however, that President Bush’s signature education initiative has also caused some problems locally.

Not least, its policy of allowing parents to pull their children out of under-performing schools tends to exacerbate segregation, she said.

"The upper-middle-class families are the ones who leave," she said. "It’s the kids who are struggling who stay behind."

Indeed, for years the La Cumbre staff grappled with a vicious cycle of losing top-tier students because of test scores, and losing ground on test scores because it was losing its best students.

In 2003, La Cumbre, located at 2255 Modoc Road, became the first school on the South Coast to be sanctioned by the feds for not meeting the benchmarks. (Over the years, the number has grown to eight.) In education parlance, this meant the school entered "Year One" of the penalties.

Right off the bat, La Cumbre — like any school that has been sanctioned — was forced to send letters to all the neighbors informing them that, due to the school’s low test scores, parents were free to send their children to higher-performing schools. A bus even stopped at the school to shuttle kids across town.

Each additional year of failure came with additional sanctions: mandatory tutoring, forced curriculum changes, principal and teacher re-assignments.

From 2003 to 2006, the school’s enrollment sank from 650 to 400. Nearly all of its middle class families left. The percentage of students who were considered low-income jumped in five years from about half to three-quarters.

Since Caines arrived, total enrollment has bounced back by 110 students. And now, the test-score tide appears to be turning.

According to the newly released results, La Cumbre, for the first time since 2001, met all of its No Child requirements last year. This means that its steady slide toward the law’s severest consequences — such as forced conversion to a charter school or even a wholesale shutdown — has been halted, at least temporarily.

The surprising boost in test scores means that, instead of entering Year Five of the sanctions — at which point the school can either be taken over by the state, converted into a charter school, or stripped of most of its staff — La Cumbre will remain in Year Four.

If the school does it again this year, Caines and her staff will have successfully pulled La Cumbre out of the federal sanctions. (It takes two consecutive years of successful testing to get off the list.) It has only happened once before in Santa Barbara County — at Isla Vista Elementary in Goleta – and about 160 times throughout the state of California.

To be sure, La Cumbre still has a long way to go.

Of the 18 kingergarten-through-12th-grade schools in Santa Barbara that received valid test scores in September, La Cumbre’s students ranked No. 14. More important, this year the feds are raising the bar significantly, so the students must perform much better just to maintain their good standing.{mosimage}

Still, Caines and her staff are ecstatic. To celebrate, Caines has given every eighth-grade student and teacher a T-shirt inscribed with the phrase "We did it!"

"When I first went to La Cumbre there was a culture of failure: If you did well on a test, kids made fun of you," she said. "Now it’s the opposite. There’s a culture of success."

Upon arrival, Caines was quick to introduce bold reforms, which remain in place. Perhaps the most noteworthy was her unilateral decision — without direction from the school board or Superintendent Brian Sarvis — to replace remedial reading classes for English-learners with grade-level literature courses. Those who need extra help in English attend at least two English courses daily.

Also, students who consistently fail to complete their homework must join an after-school homework club, overseen by a teacher, where they stay until the work is finished.

To reward good grades, the school offers prizes, ranging from free ice cream to a new iPod.

In addition, Caines and her staff have embarked on a successful campaign to lure back affluent families. They’ve added a host of advanced classes — such as geometry — and marketed the school’s unusually small class sizes.

At a school board meeting in mid-September, about a dozen teachers from La Cumbre showed up, proudly wearing their "We did it" T-shirts. When school officials praised the school, they cheered.

"All of us are walking around with our cheeks sore because we’ve been smiling the whole week," teacher Laura Baker said.

School board member Bob Noel was impressed with the results.

"I’m wanting to ask Dr. Sarvis now if we (members of the school board) are all going over to La Cumbre and asking how they did it," he said at the meeting.

The teachers cheered.

Caines summed up their feelings this way.

"If somebody from the state were looking at the demographics of La Cumbre, they would think this is a school that is going to be low achieving: it’s a high-minority school, a high-poverty school," she said. "The common profile is this would be an under-achieving school. And we’re not. The truth is, we are proud."

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.