Category: Santa Barbara News Press

Santa Barbara High begins to address Latino-white college gap

Santa Barbara High School senior Kimberly Rojas had always assumed that attending a four-year university straight out of high school was out of her league.

But this fall, she received a letter from a high school counselor that was unexpected: “Congratulations!!” it read, in both English and Spanish. “Because of your hard work and good grades, you are eligible to apply to the college or university of your dreams!!”

Despite not knowing a word of English when she arrived in Santa Barbara four years ago, the native of Bolivia has achieved a 3.4 grade-point average. But as the daughter of a single mother of two who struggles to make ends meet as a housekeeper, Kimberly hadn’t started applying to four-year colleges.

“I didn’t think I was capable,” she said. “I’m insecure.”

She’s not alone.

At a high school where more than half of the 2,300 students are Latino, just two students with Spanish surnames from the school’s graduating class of 2005 started attending a University of California school this fall, according to documents provided by the school. (Four others were accepted but didn’t attend.) Most of the 36 other students from that class attending one of the UC system’s 10 schools are white.

Appalled by the low number, two Santa Barbara High administrators began an unprecedented push to shepherd more low-income students — the vast majority of them Latino — through the often confounding process of applying to a four-year school.

This fall, they sent the letter of congratulations to about 55 students with grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher who had slipped through the cracks. For whatever reason, few of the students had taken their SAT tests, visited colleges or initiated the application process.

“Some were daunted by the process,” said Assistant Principal David Hodges, one of the two administrators who combed through the grade book to find the 55 students.

The administrators’ finding shows that the oft-mentioned achievement gap between Latino students and the typically more affluent white students extends beyond grades and test scores. Many of the Latino students are the first in their families to qualify for college. As a result, the parental pressure to apply isn’t always as intense, said Mr. Hodges, who prefers to discuss the gap in terms of class, not race.

“They needed somebody nagging them,” he said. “Middle-class parents will ask, ‘Have you written your essay? Have you gone through the application process?’ ”

The idea for the new program came from school counselor Susan Snyder, whose Santa Barbara High School business card includes the phrase “Hablo Espanol.” This summer, while taking a class at UC San Diego, where the master’s degree holder was earning an additional counseling certificate, she read about the abysmal proportion of so-called underrepresented students in California — mainly black and Latino students — enrolled in four-year universities.

“I’m white, but was definitely a poor kid,” she said.

“Somehow I made it to college. Certain (students) need more support. It’s our duty as counselors to recognize that. . . . It’s my passion.”

The project — which happened so organically that it still doesn’t have a name — caught kids in the nick of time.

It started in September, when Ms. Snyder began handing out the letters. The deadline for applying to colleges is Nov. 30.

Ms. Snyder said her letters surprised most students.

“Most of them were like, ‘Are you sure you have the right person?’ ” she said.

Many hadn’t even thought about the SAT test, and the deadline for taking it was less than a month away. Ms. Snyder knew she had to pull some strings.

She sought, and received, free after-school SAT prep classes from private tutoring company Princeton Review.

She was granted permission to charge the district’s credit card for many of the students’ $90 SAT entry fees, ringing up a $1,000 total. (The SAT waives the fee for students who receive subsidized school lunches, but some who didn’t qualify still said they couldn’t afford it.)

The students took the test on Nov. 5.

No matter how well they performed, it was an important step, because taking the test keeps a student’s options open. In the Cal State system, students need not take the SAT if they graduated with a GPA of at least 3.0. But in the UC system, which will bump up its current 2.8 GPA minimum to 3.0 in fall of 2007, students must take the SAT. (The lower the GPA, the higher the score needs to be.) UC candidates also must write an essay.

In addition, Ms. Snyder has been taking groups of students on school tours — a hallmark of middle-class existence that has yet to be etched into the rite-of-passage routines of many low-income families. Groups have gone to Cal State Northridge, UCSB and Cal State Channel Islands.

Across the UC system, more and more Latino students are getting admitted, despite the board of regents’ ban on affirmative action in 1995, which went into effect for undergraduates in the fall of 1998.

The change caused a quick dip in the proportion of Latino freshman students across the UC system, from 14 percent to 13 percent. (The drops were most pronounced at UC Berkeley and UCLA, where admission offers were cut by up to 50 percent.)

But since then, the systemwide proportion has steadily climbed to 17 percent this fall. At UCSB, it has risen in that time from 14 percent to 21 percent.

At Santa Barbara High, the Latino population seems less squeamish about attending the 23-school Cal State system. This fall, seven 2005 graduates with Spanish surnames started attending various Cal State schools.

The Santa Barbara High administrators say Cal State is a fine system, but they want to reverse the widespread assumption among low-income students that the slightly more prestigious UC system is out of reach.

Apparently others do, too. After Ms. Snyder delivered — by hand — all the letters of encouragement, the project began taking on a life of its own. When an enrollment official at UCSB caught wind of it, he invited the group to tour the campus.

On Monday, a UC Irvine admissions officer drove to Santa Barbara High, where he critiqued 31 essays.

All the while, other Latino students have begun to beat down the doors of the counselors.

“The word is spreading,” Mr. Hodges said. “They are feeling there’s someone that’s going to help them. It’s powerful.”

The administrators say they are encouraging students to apply now and worry about money later.

Many low-income families tend to shun the UC system because of its significantly higher cost than, say, the Cal State system or the virtually free Santa Barbara City College. What they don’t know, administrators say, is how to access scholarships, or that the more expensive schools offer more in financial aid.

Despite the administrators’ successful search for low-income students with good grades, it’s clear that the school — like countless others across the state — has a long way to go to make a dent in the stubborn achievement gap.

Of this year’s 273 Latino seniors, just 71 have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, Ms. Snyder said. (She didn’t give letters to some because they had already applied to colleges.)

Victor Zu|ñ|iga is among the students with the higher GPA who hadn’t applied.

Like his girlfriend Kimberly, Victor had assumed he was not a candidate for the UC system.

A Mexico City citizen through seventh grade, Victor had planned on getting into the UC system by first completing two years at Santa Barbara City College.

“A lot of my friends just go to City College and stay there,” said Victor, whose non-English-speaking parents work as a house painter and house cleaner.

The City College route to UCSB has been a common path for local students, but stiffer admission requirements are making it more difficult.

UCSB has long allowed local students into the system after two years at Santa Barbara City College and earning a grade point average of 2.4 — a high C. But this fall, the minimum GPA for the City College plan rose to 2.6. By next fall, it will climb to 2.8.

To be sure, the City College route still may prove the most viable for some students. But Kimberly, for one, said it’s nice to know she has other options.

“(The letter) made me feel like I’m capable,” she said.

While she plans to apply to UCLA, the school of her dreams is UCSB.

It’s close to home “and close to the beach,” she said. She wants to study business administration.

A petite girl with black-painted fingernails and a small voice, Kimberly at first comes across as shy. But when she tells her story, her drive shines through the demure exterior.

When she first arrived from Bolivia and started attending class at Santa Barbara Junior High, she was miserable. After three months, “I couldn’t understand anything,” she said. “I was desperate to go back.”

Her mother urged her to try another month. If things didn’t get better, they would return to South America. Kimberly sought out an English tutor, who worked with her during brief spells of spare time: lunch, after school, before class. That month, she started feeling better.

Through her high school years, Kimberly’s mom prohibited her from getting a job to help make ends meet.

“I had to spend 100 percent on my studies,” she said. “That’s why I want to get all A’s and B’s.”

She says she wishes her GPA were 3.6, not 3.4.

“Right now I have two C’s in my grades, and I don’t like them,” she said.

In September, when Kimberly and four other students were pulled out of a Spanish literature class to receive the letter, she thought she was in trouble.

“I was so scared; I was like, ‘What did I do now?’ ” she said. When she looked at the letter, “I was so happy, so excited.”

She couldn’t wait to tell her mother.

“When I got home, I didn’t even say hi,” she said. She showed her mom the letter.

“She was so happy.”

Daily Nexus in Hot Water

The student government at UCSB is trying to punish the campus newspaper financially for selling ad space to a company that the elected student council finds politically offensive.

The Associated Students Legislative Council voted 13-5 this week to withhold the portion of student fees that augment the budget of The Daily Nexus because the paper is running full-page ads for Conquest Student Housing, a property management company that evicted approximately 55 low-income families in the fall.

Although the legality of the student council’s move is still in question, the dispute highlights the unique nature of student-run newspapers, and is providing students real-life lessons in government subsidies, social responsibility and freedom of the press.

The Daily Nexus editor-in-chief, Kaitlin Pike, said the vote sets a troubling precedent: Government censorship of the student-run newspaper.

“That would be like the president of the United States telling The New York Times to stop printing because they are being too mean,” said Ms. Pike, a political science major, who added that she may pursue legal action if the asset freeze is approved by university administrators. “I don’t project my morals onto any advertisers here — it’s not my job. It’s the readers’ job to decide that.”

Jeronimo Saldana, the student council member who authored the resolution, which would take away 7 percent of the paper’s revenues for the winter quarter, countered that the student council is just doing what is socially responsible.

“If the Nazi party wanted to advertise for genocide, would you put that in the newspaper?” said the Chicano/Chicana Studies major. “I know it’s an extreme example, but where do you draw the line? Do you really need to profit from the eviction — from the suffering — of these families?”

He added that the government body has the right to withhold its contribution when the paper breaks the rules.

This fall, in response to how Conquest evicted the families — most Latino — in order to upgrade the units at the Cedarwood Apartments in Isla Vista and lease them at higher rates , the student council unanimously passed a resolution stating that the student government body would pull its funding from any entity that did business with Conquest. Now Conquest is advertising to fill those units.

The Associated Students Legislative Council collects fees paid by students and apportions them to the intended entities. The Daily Nexus receives 85 cents per student every quarter and 55 cents per student during the summer session, amounting to approximately $48,000 a year.

The Daily Nexus, which has a circulation of approximately 11,000, pays its entry-level copy editors minimum wage and reporters $18 a story. Taking away 7 percent of its budget, Ms. Pike argued, would jeopardize some of those jobs, which she views as learning opportunities.

At least one Latino advocacy group that protested the mass eviction at the 55-unit complex in the 6600 block of Picasso Road supports the student government’s decision.

“They are going to try and turn (Isla Vista) into a completely student-only community, and pretty much get rid of the low-income families already there,” said Ana Rizo, executive director of the PUEBLO Education Fund.

Ms. Rizo said she disagrees with the assertion that the decision infringes on the paper’s First Amendment rights, saying she likens what the student council did to pulling an advertisement.

“They get money from the A.S., therefore . . . it is within the right of the legislative council to make that decision. The resolutions actually mean something. They are not just a piece of paper.”

But J.P. Primeau, one of the five council members who voted against the fund freeze, disagrees.

“In a nutshell, the student government is trying to censor the newspaper,” said the pharmacology and business-economics major.

Mr. Primeau said he, too, opposed the eviction of the families. “It was totally a race issue; (Conquest) knew they couldn’t afford it.”

But he said most of the student board members are conflating the issues.

“Now it’s become more of an emotional issue for some people on the board,” he said, but “this is a First Amendment issue.”

Conquest officials did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Meanwhile, UCSB’s 17,000 students will get their say in April when they will vote — as they do every two years — on whether to continue paying the fees for The Daily Nexus and other services, such as the campus yearbook. Ms. Pike said she believes the polls, and not the boardroom, is where the decision should take place.

“If students voted (to drop the fee) I would respect that, because that’s the students’ voice,” she said.

The Associated Students Legislative Council meets again at 5 p.m. Wednesday, in the “Flying A” room of the University Center. The meeting is open to the public.

La Conchita: Two-Year Anniversary of Deadly Mudslide Marked with Low-Key Memorial

The disaster sparked a pervasive sense of resentment that has not gone away.

A few weeks ago, a group of residents from La Conchita gathered on the beach across the freeway and built a 15-foot-tall Christmas tree made completely out of driftwood.

True to form for this artistically inclined citizenry, the result was so impressive that the group considered notifying a media outlet. But they quickly decided against it.

The reason: Nearly two years after a 16-day streak of rain set off a mammoth mudslide on the hillside behind La Conchita, demolishing 11 homes and killing 10 people — and triggering an onslaught of local and national media attention — many here are tired of attention.

Unlike last year, when hundreds of residents hosted a somber celebration in memory of the victims on the one-year anniversary of the slide, there will be no public events in La Conchita recognizing the second anniversary on Wednesday.

After the mudslide in 2005, shown below, some La Conchita residents built crosses in memory of the people killed, above. They covered the crosses in pieces of broken mirrors so that when the sun set over the ocean, they captured the fading light and reflected it outward.  MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS FILE
After the mudslide in 2005, shown below, some La Conchita residents built crosses in memory of the people killed, above. They covered the crosses in pieces of broken mirrors so that when the sun set over the ocean, they captured the fading light and reflected it outward. MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS FILE

Partly, it’s because residents of the seaside village just south of Carpinteria want to move forward, not look back.

But also, it’s because the disaster sparked a pervasive sense of resentment that has not gone away. If anything, the resentment — made visible by an extensive, ongoing lawsuit against Ventura County and a ranch atop the bluff — has only hardened, leaving many of La Conchita’s 300 residents not only weary, but wary.

Mike Bell, the man who has emerged as the township’s leader, said he understands why.

In addition to the trauma of the event, “We’ve read too many letters to the editor saying the people in La Conchita should all just move,” he said.

Meanwhile, the town is on tenterhooks, awaiting the answer to the million-dollar question: Has the hillside — which also slid in 1995, destroying homes but claiming no lives — settled down, or is another disaster imminent? In other words, is La Conchita safe?

Shortly after the hillside collapsed, La Conchita resident Juan Reynoso digs a hole in an attempt to rescue victims. STEVE MALONE / NEWS-PRESS FILE
Shortly after the hillside collapsed, La Conchita resident Juan Reynoso digs a hole in an attempt to rescue victims. STEVE MALONE / NEWS-PRESS FILE

Some, like two UCSB scholars who found evidence of a prehistoric megaslide and say other slides at least the size of the most recent one are likely, say no. Others, like Mr. Bell, point to evidence produced by geologists a few years ago that says yes.

But a fresh answer isn’t expected until this fall. That’s when a major study that was ordered by Gov. Schwarzenegger is supposed to be completed. In the meantime, for the better part of a year, the study has progressed steadily, if slowly: In a few weeks, a geology firm will be hired.

Unfortunately, though, it won’t be finished until long after this winter, and some meteorologists are predicting a wet season. So, in the event of any upcoming stretches of rain, La Conchita will have to hold its collective breath.

“I hate it,” said 46-year-old Jodi Renz, of the rain. “I’ve told everybody to say ‘shower’ or ‘precipitation,’ instead of using the R-word.”

Ms. Renz’s house sits across from the crumbled remains of another house that was pulverized by the spilling land two years ago. She vividly remembers hearing screams when the slide gave way, and then seeing her neighbor yank his wife out of the car in their driveway. The pair scrambled out of harm’s way moments before the fast-moving wall of sludge slammed into the car and crushed their home, although he injured his ankle.

Like many in La Conchita, Ms. Renz and her boyfriend, Dennis Anderson, say they aren’t going anywhere.

“I’m not heavily afraid of being killed,” Ms. Renz said. “It would be nice if they would stabilize the hill and make it safe, (but) we’re going to live here anyway.”

If the disaster inspired any defectors, it appears most of them are already gone. Most who left were short-term renters. Mr. Bell said the toll the slide took on real estate was striking, but temporary. One landlord sold a house for $165,000. Mr. Bell figures the house would go for double that amount today — still a low price by the standards of the South Coast.

Due to being in a geological danger zone, the median cost of a home in La Conchita is relatively low: about $400,000, Mr. Bell said, compared to $1 million in Santa Barbara to the north and $700,000 in Ventura to the south. The low prices — which are due largely to the 1995 slide — have attracted many people who could never afford a California coastal home under normal circumstances. Many are loath to leave.

If most La Conchitans are staying put, many are also still fuming over a laundry list of perceived infractions, committed by various offenders: the county of Ventura, the avocado and citrus ranch at the top of the bluff, opinionated residents of neighboring cities, and the media.

When it comes to the war against Ventura County and La Conchita Ranch, the families most affected by the tragedy have taken matters into their own hands, filing the lawsuit almost a year ago. A trial date is set for November, but the county and ranch are trying to get the case thrown out of court.

The plaintiffs include people such as Jimmie Wallet, who became a poster child for the disaster when the slide killed his wife and three of his children while he went to the store to buy ice cream. He and about 35 others — who, like him, lost their loved ones, their homes or their good health — have been advised by attorneys with the Los Angeles-based firm Loeb & Loeb not to talk to the media.

Meanwhile, the battle of public opinion is being fought by Mr. Bell.

Wedged between the hillside and Highway 101, La Conchita is not an official city and thus has no elected representatives. But the disaster thrust Mr. Bell into the role of community spokesman; now, he’s become a sort of de facto mayor.

Rescuers pulled a man from the wreckage of his La Conchita home several hours after it was destroyed by the slide. Two years later, many of the collapsed homes remain on their lots, reduced to crumpled heaps with broken windows, serving as a daily reminder of the menacing potential of the cliff behind the town. STEVE MALONE / NEWS-PRESS FILE
Rescuers pulled a man from the wreckage of his La Conchita home several hours after it was destroyed by the slide. Two years later, many of the collapsed homes remain on their lots, reduced to crumpled heaps with broken windows, serving as a daily reminder of the menacing potential of the cliff behind the town. STEVE MALONE / NEWS-PRESS FILE

Mr. Bell is a fitting leader for La Conchita. As a retired safety coordinator with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, he is well-versed in public policy and knows how to get multiple parties working together. But he’s no square. The 59-year-old bears a resemblance to the comedian George Carlin — even down to the gray ponytail — smokes cigarettes inside his tastefully decorated home and is given to using words such as “bitchin’.”

Officially the “chairperson” of the La Conchita Community Organization, Mr. Bell has absorbed the community’s myriad grievances like a sponge, and he doesn’t hesitate to articulate them.

“Since the event in 2005, there have been at least 30 people in the opinion section or the editorial section (of various newspapers) that have said, ‘Those people should just get out of there,’ ” he said, sitting in his home office.

Some, like an op-ed piece in the Ventura County Star titled “Knowing when to retreat: Disaster zone residents could learn from history,” question the taxpayer expense involved with trying to save the community. (The governor’s study cost $667,000.)

In response, Mr. Bell counters that very few places in California are safe. As an example, he cites the Oxnard flood plain, which, after being re-evaluated by FEMA a few months ago, was vastly expanded.

“Those people should just get out of there,” he said, sarcastically. “If they think we should, then we think they should. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Exacerbating the “blame-the-victim” mindset, he said, is the media’s widespread portrayal of La Conchita as a place filled primarily with the kind of people who don’t always sit well with the public.

“We’re described (as) ‘bucolic,’ a group of ‘musicians and hippies’ — all these terms that do not describe 95 percent of our blue-collar folk,” he said. “People think we are flakes and derelicts.”

But most galling to Mr. Bell is the UCSB study.

“It was picked up, run with, and now nobody will let it go,” he said.

Released nearly a year after the slide, the hypothesis holds that a prehistoric megaslide 30,000 to 40,000 years ago dwarfed the scope of the more recent slides. Although the scholars are not suggesting that the megaslide will recur, they say more slides in the La Conchita area are almost inevitable, leaving no part of town completely safe.

“I wouldn’t live there,” said UCSB earth science professor Ed Keller, who wrote the paper with the geologist, Larry Gurrola, who discovered the megaslide as a UCSB grad student. “Any geologist will tell you it’s not if it’s going to happen, but when .”

Mr. Bell likes to challenge the hypothesis by citing evidence, collected by geologists in the years following the 1995 slide, showing absolutely no movement on the cliff for about eight years, until the big slide in 2005.

La Conchita mudslide  MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS FILE
La Conchita mudslide MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS FILE

“They’ll tell you, ‘Someday that mountain is going to be in the ocean,’ ” Mr. Bell said. “OK, I believe that, but when? Are my grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren going to see that? They say, ‘Well, I don’t know; we’re talking geological time.’ ”

He sat forward in his chair.

“In geological time, this hill has been active — as has been the whole coastline of California,” he said. “Well I’m talking realistic time, not the geological time. . . . That’s the goal of the (ongoing) study.”

He added: “My feeling is that the slide is basically stable.”

Some residents aren’t so sure.

Aaron Ready, 32, said he feels like he’s in a predicament.

On the one hand, he loves the small-town feel of La Conchita. “I love driving home, and having had four or five people wave to me,” he said.

But on the other, he has a wife and small child, and often worries about them while he is at work. “Whenever I’m away from them, I’m concerned that I’m in a safe office building and they’re there, where anything could happen.”

Larry MacDonough, the tenant of a trailer located a couple of lots away from the menacing cliff, isn’t taking any chances. “When it rains, I go to a friend’s house,” he said. “What else can you do?”

Like many, though, Mr. MacDonough seems more angry than fearful. For him, the major rub has been the ranch’s response to a memorial he helped build for the victims.

After the mudslide, he and a friend started building an 8-foot-tall cross for each of the 10 people killed. The men covered the wooden crosses in broken mirrors, then stuck them into the dirt high up on the hill, so that when the sun set over the ocean, the crosses captured the gloaming and reflected it outward for all the passing cars on the freeway to see.

“When the sun set, they glowed,” marveled Mr. MacDonough, a former dishwasher repairman in his 50s. “The crosses turned to gold. It was like a miracle, man.”

But his face crumpled bitterly when describing what happened shortly after the crosses were erected. About three weeks ago, all but two of them were removed by La Conchita Ranch, because they were on the company’s property.

“That’s like desecrating a graveyard,” he said, wiping away a tear.

Reached at his home by phone, the wife of the man who runs the ranch, David Orr, said he is not taking calls from the press, citing concerns about the lawsuit.

Among other things, the lawsuit filed against the ranch and the county alleges wrongful death, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and dangerous condition of public property.

It accuses La Conchita Ranch of failing to meet its legal obligation to take reasonable steps to protect the residents below from harm. It accuses the county of worsening the scope of the disaster by erecting, and failing to remove, what the residents say was supposed to be a temporary wall put up to ease the process of cleaning a road a few years after the 1995 slide. The residents’ lawyers claim that, on the fateful day — Jan. 10, 2005 — the wall acted as a dam, and diverted the slide down the path that led to the 11 homes.

“Doctors say, ‘First, do no harm,’ ” said Anthony Murray, an attorney representing the residents. “That should have been the motto of the county. But instead, they put the wall up, completely ignoring the advice of their expert geologist, who opposed it from the beginning.”

The county’s legal counsel denies that Ventura County is responsible, saying experts have concluded that the wall was not a factor.

“As a matter of law, we cannot be held liable for what was in effect an act of God,” said Assistant County Counsel Alberto Boada.

In another twist, the county has countersued several La Conchita residents who owned multiple homes and rented them out.

The owners, “to the extent that (they) were aware the area was a danger, may have had the duty to inform their tenants,” Mr. Boada said.

All things considered, one thing is clear: Sorting out the complexities of who, if anyone, is to blame, and whether or not the town can be made safe, will be on the minds of La Conchitans for many months to come.

And many residents here say they would prefer to ponder these painful matters in the privacy of their homes, neighborhood and lawyers’ offices and out of the public eye.

Midland Boarding School: Rugged Responsibility Meets Rigorous Coursework

Located on the winding Figueroa Mountain Road, five miles north of Los Olivos, Midland has always exclusively admitted boarding students, leaving no room for families in the Santa Ynez Valley disinclined to pony up the annual tuition, now at $31,500.
Since opening 74 years ago, Midland School has been largely off-limits to the people living next door. But that's about to change.

DOWN TO THE BASICS: Midland School’s emphasis is on sustainable living, self-reliance and teamwork

Midland boarding school in Los Olivos isn’t for everyone.

In fact, it’s safe to say most high schoolers probably wouldn’t much care for a campus in the mountains, surrounded by rolling fields, grazing cows, fuzzy tarantulas and wild packs of pigs and coyotes.

And most probably aren’t so hip to the rugged responsibilities of the Midland student: chopping wood for the purpose of heating water for their own daily showers, feeding the horses for the school’s equestrian program, acting as the school’s custodians and plumbers, and going to class every Saturday.

But for those who buy into the college-prep school’s three-pronged mission — sustainable living, environmental stewardship and self-reliance — Midland is more than just a school: It’s a way of life.

However, since the school opened 74 years ago, it has been largely off-limits to the people living next door.

Located on the winding Figueroa Mountain Road, five miles north of Los Olivos, Midland has always exclusively admitted boarding students, leaving no room for families in the Santa Ynez Valley disinclined to pony up the annual tuition, now at $31,500.

That’s about to change.

Right now, about 60 percent of the school's students hail from California; about 35 percent are from the South Coast. Others come from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and New York City.
Right now, about 60 percent of the school's students hail from California; about 35 percent are from the South Coast. Others come from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and New York City.

Last week, Midland officials announced that, beginning next fall, they will open the doors to so-called “day students,” for a reduced tuition of $19,500 a year.

The administrators, though, are careful to add that by no means does this mean the campus will soon be flooded with day students from the valley or beyond. Midland, which enrolls a total of 80 students in grades nine through 12, will admit no more than five day students a year, and no more than 15 total. All new day-school admissions must be freshmen, and must become boarders by their senior year if they wish to stay.

“We’ll be a boarding school with a day component,” clarified Admissions Director Derek Svennungsen — not a school for equal numbers of boarders and day students.

The day students, he added, will have to “get their hands dirty,” just like the rest.

If the administrators sound a little cautious when talking about the new policy, it’s partly because the culture of the school has long been fiercely, even proudly, resistant to change. Oddly, the most vehement advocates of maintaining the old ways have often been the students themselves, many of whom hail from either the Los Angeles or San Francisco areas.

A few years ago, for instance, administrators placed on the chopping block the long-standing practice of using fire to heat water for showers. The logic was that burning wood releases carbons into the atmosphere, and so is a pollutant. Maybe so, students said, but chopping the wood and preparing the fires also instills the values of self-reliance and teamwork, and has been a large part of what makes the school unique. The administration relented.

Right now, about 60 percent of the school’s students hail from California; about 35 percent are from the South Coast.

Others come from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and New York City. The school enrolls as many international students — a handful, all from South Korea — as it does students from within a 20-mile radius.

Most of the students cherish the values the school instills; administrators try to weed out applicants being sent to the six-day-a-week school by their parents to improve their behavior or attitude.

One student, San Francisco native Jasper Jackson-Gleich, said he was skeptical at first, having come from a big city, although he applied to the school of his own volition. But now the senior says he can’t imagine going anywhere else.

When Jasper first arrived, he couldn’t even run a mile. Now, he’s the captain of the cross-country team, and is training for an ultra marathon — which goes for 50 kilometers, or about 30 miles.

“It sort of takes the best part that everyone has to give . . . and sort of cuts away everything else,” said Jasper, whose parents are sound engineers who have worked on such movies as “Apocalypse Now,” “Godfather II” and “A Bug’s Life.” “When I first came, I was sort of moody, and wasn’t in good shape. I got here, and it was like, ‘OK, I can’t do soccer because I’m not quick, but I can run a long time because I’m stubborn.’ ”

Administrators say they are not admitting day students out of concern for the school’s financial solvency. Enrollment is close to the school’s maximum capacity of 90 students. Rather, they say, the school — located next to pop star Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch — has long fielded inquiries from interested families in the area.

“Over the last five years, we’ve probably had to say ‘no’ to 30 or 40 families wishing we had a day program,” communications director Karen Readey said. “We were feeling like maybe we weren’t being the best neighbors. . . . We have a great program here and want to make sure the local folks can benefit from it.”

Also, the new head of school, Will Graham, is at ease with a day student component, having come from a similar school in Maine enrolling both boarders and day students. Mr. Graham, who started his new job in July, said the school’s central tenets will be the same for all students.

“It’s rustic and simple living, it’s ‘needs not wants,’ and the third, and probably most central (tenet), self-reliance,” said Mr. Graham, who teaches English, coaches lacrosse, and — like the majority of the school’s 18 full-time teachers — lives on campus. “Between getting up and taking care of the horses, cleaning a classroom, washing dishes, serving a meal and being prepared for class — all that to me is summed up in the mission to explore and understand the nature of self-reliance.”

Much of the school’s mission is manifested in the way the students eat.

The students harvest their own organic crops, using the pinto beans, squashes and tomatoes as ingredients for their meals. In turn, the uneaten waste goes back out to the garden, in the form of compost, to keep the soil rich in nutrients.

Their meat is organic, too. Midland raises a handful of cattle, feeding them grass for about nine months before sending them off to slaughter. The cows come back in the form of steaks and hamburgers.

Students — about half of whom qualify for financial aid — also learn about energy conservation.

In the last couple of years, they started the long process of switching the school to solar power. Sophomores have installed a solar panel about the size of five ping-pong tables in the gravel parking lot. Now, about 5 percent of the school’s power comes from the sun. As a solar project, they’re shooting for the stars — 100 percent — although that would take a panel the size of a football field.

As freshmen, every student is required to take, along with the requisite English and math courses, a class called Midland 101, which includes the use of a map and compass and the history of the Chumash Indians. The class also has students play a real-life version of Risk, in which the sprawling 3,000-acre campus is divided into 100-acre parcels that the students farm, buy and sell in a game that mimics the way California was settled by Mexicans.

The school also offers rigorous coursework, such as calculus and honors physics. In any given year, at least 80 percent of the graduates go on to a four-year college, usually to their first or second choice, Mr. Svennungsen said. In the last three years, a handful of students have gone on to the Ivy Leagues.

The list of Midland alums includes a few heavy hitters, local and otherwise, including the likes of Barry Schuyler, prominent donor to the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, and Charles Webb, author of the novel on which the movie “The Graduate” was based.

But the school’s main aim is not to churn out Ivy Leaguers or famous achievers, administrators say.

“You don’t come here if you are just trying to make sure you get into Harvard,” Ms. Readey said. “What we really want is for kids to come here and work hard, and feel really good about working hard.”

Attorneys Want State to Investigate Boy’s Drowning

The attorneys for the family of a 4-year-old boy who drowned last year at a Goleta athletic club are urging the state attorney general to launch a criminal investigation, saying earlier probes by the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office, finding no criminal wrongdoing, were deeply flawed.

Also, in a report released Monday, attorney Barry Cappello disclosed new details that he believes show the negligence of the lifeguards and camp counselor in the pool with the children at the Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club.

It has long been known that the horrific events during the summer program’s pool activities on Aug. 15, 2005, were captured on video, which showed young Jonathan Gottesman floating face down in the pool for eight minutes before anyone took notice in the roomful of 13 children and at least five adults.

But the attorneys’ report said closer inspection of the video shows a counselor “dunking” kids and “roughhousing” with them in the pool, one of whom was apparently the boy, nicknamed “Yoni,” just before he died.

“He raised them well up out of the water into the air, and would dunk them back head first, face first, into the water,” said Mr. Cappello’s partner, Leila Noel. “It never should have been happening. The DA (Tom Sneddon) not only took no notice, he actually said dunking is no big deal and that he even dunks his own kids.’ ”

Mr. Sneddon could not be reached for comment Monday because he was out of town, a secretary at the District Attorney’s Office said.

As a group of children swam away following a round of dunking, one “form” — apparently Yoni — flailed in the water for a while before going prone, the report said. The report also disclosed new details about the on-duty lifeguards, both college-aged, whom the Gottesman family hope will be charged with criminal negligence alongside the club.

The report said that one lifeguard sat motionless as the child died a few feet away, and that a second guard from the far end of the pool did nothing to save Yoni for the first six minutes, and then walked past the child to get a soda.

“It is only after a (child) notices Yoni floating in the pool and calls for help that anything happens,” the report said. The owner of the club, Richard Berti, said he feels terrible about the incident, but said he believes it was an accident that does not warrant criminal prosecution, as the District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department have concluded.

“It was a horrible accident,” he said Monday. “I feel great pain from it. I do pray quite a bit about it.”

Yoni’s father, 44-year-old Oded Gottesman, said he has been living a nightmare since the incident at the club on Cathedral Oaks Road.

“He was dying and the counselor (kept) dunking other children, and the lifeguard was not doing anything,” said Mr. Gottesman, who, with his wife, Anat, has one other child. “They are still inviting families and children to their activities like nothing happened.”

The family’s attorneys are asking that the Attorney General’s Office convene a grand jury for the purpose of “issuing indictments for child endangerment and involuntary manslaughter against those persons and entities found to be responsible for Yoni’s death.”

The family’s attorneys are arguing that the incident rises to the level of criminal negligence, in part because the club was operating without the required license. Also, they say, the lifeguards were not adequately trained.

“Lifeguards are supposed to scan the pool every 10 seconds and at a minimum every 15 seconds,” Mrs. Noel said. “For lifeguards not to be scanning their zone of responsibility . . . that’s negligence on its face.”

Mr. Berti has said his staff was adequately trained.

The family’s attorneys accuse the Sheriff’s Department — which conducted the initial investigation — of having a conflict of interest because Mr. Berti was a prominent financial donor to the Sheriff’s Department. Since 2004, he had given at least $50,000 to charities raising money for safety equipment for the law enforcement agency.

Responding Monday, Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Erik Raney said the department stands by the findings of its investigation.

“We welcome any other investigations, and plan to cooperate fully with any investigations the attorney general may bring into this matter,” said Sgt. Raney, adding that he doesn’t remember hearing anything about dunking.

The attorneys also accuse Mr. Sneddon of “whitewashing” the sheriff’s investigation. The report called the district attorney’s investigation “sloppy, inadequate and incomplete.” Although he couldn’t be reached Monday, Mr. Sneddon has said his investigation was extensive and included more than 56 interviews. He said his team also reviewed the videotape of the drowning, coroner’s and law enforcement reports, and documents submitted by the boy’s family and Mr. Cappello.

The attorneys also say that similar drowning cases have resulted in charges being filed in Riverside, Sonoma and San Jose counties.

The Attorney General’s Office typically gets involved in local law enforcement matters only when there is a disabling conflict-of-interest concern or, much more rarely, an abuse of discretion of authority, said attorney general spokesman Nathan Barankin, who hadn’t yet seen the attorneys’ request.

He gave a couple of examples of viable conflict-of-interest issues.

“Sometimes the alleged perpetrator is a relative of the sheriff or an employee of the DA’s office,” he said.

He declined to comment on the likelihood that the Santa Barbara case would qualify.

He added: “Many more things flunk the smell test more quickly than they ripen into a legal problem.”

Plan to Fingerprint Students Buying Cafeteria Meals

A new lunchtime procedure in the Hope School District requiring kids to be fingerprinted every time they buy food has some parents raising concerns about privacy rights and sanitary health.

The practice, set to begin sometime this month, will have every student in the three upper State Street-area schools pressing an index finger to a scanner before he or she pays for cafeteria food.

The scan will call up the student’s name and student ID, his or her teacher’s name, and how much the student owes for lunch. The amounts vary, because some students qualify for government assistance.

Two weeks ago, the district office sent a letter to parents informing them of the pending change at Monte Vista, Vieja Valley and Hope elementary schools.

“It raises sanitary issues, privacy issues — it is kind of Orwellian,” said Tina Dabby, a parent of two at Monte Vista Elementary, who added that she is reserving judgment until learning more. But so far, “it just sounds kind of creepy.”

School administrators say one purpose of the scanner is to stream kids through the line more quickly — not unlike the computer touch-screens at airports that dispense boarding passes. They also say that having kids touch the computer mouse-sized scanners will allow schools to keep tighter tabs on the cafeteria budget.

It is the latest example of how school cafeterias, characterized in popular imagination by kindly ladies who take the money and serve the helpings, are becoming not only more nutrition-conscious, but also technologically wired.

In the Santa Barbara School Districts, for instance, students already punch into a keypad a six-digit number, which calls up each child’s name, photo and whether he or she qualifies for a free or reduced-price meal.

Santa Barbara’s system also calls up any food-related medical problems, such as an allergy to peanuts — which can be deadly — or being unable to process lactose.

“So when the (cafeteria employee) who’s sitting (at the computer) sees a student is lactose intolerant, they will say, ‘Uh, you need to put that milk back,’ ” said Frank Lihn, food services director in Santa Barbara’s schools.

By law, he said, any information on the screen must stay between the student and the person at the computer.

But “nutrition services personnel are held accountable for a lot of information,” he said. “It just makes sense from a manpower standpoint that we computerize as much as possible.”

In the Hope district, though, some parents seem to prefer the old-fashioned method: a lunch lady equipped with a pencil and paper.

“The children are going to have germs on their hands, then touch the finger pad, then go eat right away,” said Teri Swanson, a parent at Monte Vista Elementary. “I wouldn’t say I’m a germophobic parent or anything, but I know children are going to get sick, and it can spread rampant in schools. This is going to make it that much worse.”

Hope schools Superintendent Gerrie Fausett said parents need not worry about the germs.

Before touching the scanner, she said, students will be required to stick their hands beneath an automated hand sanitizer, which will spray out a poof of cleaning agent.

“There are germs in classrooms, there are germs in homes, there are germs on doorknobs,” Ms. Fausett said. The scanner, she said, is a “very small little pad.

“I don’t think that it is a dangerous situation.”

Joel Rothman, a UCSB professor in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, agrees.

“Even if their hands aren’t sanitized, I would think the number of germs that are floating around between them would far exceed anything they’d experience through this procedure,” he said.

He added that the trillions and trillions of bacterial organisms in and on our bodies actually exceeds the number of human cells.

“I would never say there is no chance a disease could be transmitted that way, but of all the other things kids are exposed to, I would think that it is almost insignificant,” he said.

Not all parent complaints center on germs and privacy. Ann Pizzinat, a parent at Vieja Valley Elementary, has a beef with the sanitizer.

“That stuff is actually my biggest concern,” she said.

Ms. Pizzinat said she has written a letter to the superintendent asking that her children be exempted from the process.

“I don’t want that gross stuff on their hands,” she said. “It just has a lot of alcohol, and anti-bacteria.”

She worries that the smell could spoil their appetites.

“I would rather they went to the bathroom and use soap and water.”

The total cost of the new equipment is about $3,000 — or $1,000 per school, Ms. Fausett said. It will not replace anyone’s job, she added; it will simply streamline it.

The Hope school board did not formally vote for the new procedure but gave tacit approval during a recent presentation, she said.

Ms. Fausett declined to venture a guess on how much money the scanning process might save, but said it will save plenty of time for the lunch aides. Until now, they have had to transfer the information from notepad to computer at the end of every year.

The prices students pay for lunch fall into three categories, depending on a family’s income level: the full price, $2; the reduced price, 70 cents; and free.

The annual reports are sent to the state and federal governments, which in turn reimburse school districts for the amount of subsidized lunches served.

“It’s so archaic to transfer something from a sheet of paper to a computer day by day,” Ms. Fausett said.

Affordable Housing Plan is News to Some Teachers

In expensive Santa Barbara, baby-boomer teachers own homes on land whose value skyrocketed in the 90s, while for younger teachers, home ownership is an out-of-reach fantasy.

Les Benson, a teacher of 35 years, says he feels lucky to have bought his home on the Mesa in the 1970s for $54,000. Relaxing in his modest house, now worth $1 million, he plays a song he likes to sing with his students. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS
Les Benson, a teacher of 35 years, says he feels lucky to have bought his home on the Mesa in the 1970s for $54,000. Relaxing in his modest house, now worth $1 million, he plays a song he likes to sing with his students. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS

Fifty-seven-year-old Les Benson, a veteran teacher at Cleveland Elementary, lives in a house he purchased with his wife in the 1970s for $54,000. Today, the humble home on the Mesa is worth about $1 million.

Twenty-seven-year-old Becky Lane, a history teacher at Santa Barbara High, lives in a rented house with two roommates — a UCSB student and recent graduate.

Each represents a large cohort of public school teachers in Santa Barbara: those who purchased a home when the gettin’ was good, and those for whom ownership is an out-of-reach fantasy.

The vast majority of the homeowners club consists of teachers on the verge of retirement, and it’s a sizable group: About 45 percent of Santa Barbara’s K-12 teachers are over 50.

“Back then, seven years of a teacher’s salary would buy you a house,” Mr. Benson said. “Today, you need more than 100 years.”

As a result, district officials worry that the Santa Barbara public school system is about to enter a new era of low teacher retention, when young hires use the local schools as a training ground and decamp for more affordable pastures.

To avoid that fate, they’ve proposed a plan to build California’s first for-sale affordable-housing project for teachers and staff members. The proposal could offer a range of options that include detached three-bedroom homes for $490,000, well below the stratospheric local median price of $1.3 million.

The plan has drawn fierce opposition from neighborhood groups.

But, oddly, as the Sept. 30 deadline looms for sending written comments to the district on the matter, teachers’ interest seems tepid.

Becky Lane, left, a 27-year-old teacher at Santa Barbara High School, pitches in with some dishwashing as her roommates, 23-year-old Mary Derby, center, and 20-year-old Allison Low, look on.
Becky Lane, left, a 27-year-old teacher at Santa Barbara High School, pitches in with some dishwashing as her roommates, 23-year-old Mary Derby, center, and 20-year-old Allison Low, look on.

So far, no teachers have spoken in support of the project at any of the handful of school board meetings addressing it. None has submitted letters for the public comment period. The teachers union hasn’t even taken an official stance.

Superintendent Brian Sarvis has urged teachers union president Linda Mitchell to weigh in. But she said she hasn’t the time: The union is focused on the more immediate task of negotiating salaries and benefits with the district.

“I would say we’re pretty neutral,” she said.

The teachers’ silence stands in stark contrast to the impassioned opposition expressed by neighborhood groups. On several occasions, they have packed the house at school board meetings to voice their displeasure.

If developed, the work force housing units would go on one or both of two undeveloped plots of land owned by the district. One, known as the Hidden Valley site, is in Santa Barbara, at the end of Palermo Drive. The other, known as the Tatum property, is in the Goleta Valley, between San Marcos High School and El Camino Elementary.

Christina Aguirre-Kolb, 27, one of two psychologists at Santa Barbara High School, lives with her mother and stepfather in the home in which she was raised. "I really appreciate how the district is looking for housing for my co-workers and people like myself," she said after finding out about proposed affordable housing units for teachers.
Christina Aguirre-Kolb, 27, one of two psychologists at Santa Barbara High School, lives with her mother and stepfather in the home in which she was raised.

Both groups, from the neighborhoods near each vacant plot, say they support affordable housing for teachers. But they oppose any plan to “upzone” — that is, allow for more dwellings or units than is currently zoned — on district-owned vacant land.

The neighbors also believe that UniDev, the company hired by the district to do the ongoing feasibility study, has a conflict of interest. East Coast-based UniDev is a work force housing developer, and would likely develop the project if it’s deemed feasible.

“I’m all for teachers — how could you be against teachers?” said Maeda Palius, president of the Hidden Valley Residents Association. “I don’t fault the school district for trying to find a way. But to shove twice the density down a small neighborhood’s throat is ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, district and UniDev officials are puzzled by the teachers’ apparent indifference.

“I have to say, it surprised me a bit,” said Pat Saley, a land-use consultant who is working for the district on the project. “If I were a teacher, I think I would have weighed in.”

UniDev Vice President Suzanne Parmet said she believes the teachers want the project, pointing to a survey teachers took last year in which 95 percent said they would stay on the South Coast indefinitely if their cost-of-living problems were eased.

Still, she said, “I think it’s unfortunate they haven’t come out to the meetings to let the public know how they feel.”

Some of the possible deals teachers and staff members could get on a home are outlined in the draft feasibility study completed by UniDev. In addition to the detached home for $490,000, options include a $200,000 one-bedroom flat or a $350,000 two-bedroom townhouse.

The catch, however, is that they’d have to sell the home shortly after retirement at a below-market price, and share some of the profit with the school district.

The report also lays out the estimated profit for the public school district. For instance, if the district put 98 units on the Hidden Valley site — which is twice the number for which it is zoned — the schools would bring in roughly $13 million over 35 years. That’s an average of about $370,000 annually, for a school system with a budget of about $100 million.

Meanwhile, it appears that younger teachers are becoming more numerous. The public school system hired 77 teachers this fall, up from 57 two years ago. The K-12 system currently employs about 800 full-time teachers.

Teachers and staff members interviewed by the News-Press for this story seemed to appreciate the proposal, but were only vaguely aware of it.

Twenty-seven-year-old Christina Aguirre-Kolb, one of two psychologists at Santa Barbara High, lives with her mother and stepfather in the home in which she was raised.

“I really appreciate how the district is looking for housing for my co-workers and people like myself,” she said. “It is really hard to make ends meet.”

Miss Lane, whose family is here largely because her grandfather had the foresight to snatch up four houses long ago, said she would consider purchasing one of the work force housing units.

But “it depends on how many loopholes come with it,” she added.

One teacher who left the district this summer because of the high cost of living said he wished someone had told him about the proposal.

“I think it is a great idea,” said Steve Ryan, a former science teacher at Santa Barbara High School who now teaches at Pioneer Valley High in Santa Maria.

When living in Santa Barbara, Mr. Ryan, 41, rented a two-bedroom apartment with his wife and toddler for $1,625 a month. Now he pays $1,300 for a three-bedroom house with a garage and a yard in Santa Maria.

He said he has no regrets.

“To see the face of my daughter while playing in the sprinkler in the backyard — that wrapped up the deal right there,” he said. “I really feel we’re in the next chapter of our lives.”

Naked Man Nabbed After Roll in the Dirt

A 69-year-old man who stripped naked, rolled around in the dirt within a sheep compound, and then covered himself in olive oil and oats so nearby horses would "lick him clean," according to a police report, was arrested just after the witching hour early Wednesday morning by sheriff deputies in Lompoc.

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