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.

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.”

Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer

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