Note: To read the sidebar on the students in the photos, go to Class Divide: A Tale of 4 Families
Not long ago, when a Santa Barbara Junior High student missed the bus taking the water polo team to Los Angeles, he simply hopped on the family’s private jet and made the game in time. Another’s family is similarly wealthy – they’re looking at selling their home to Beanie Babies billionaire Ty Warner.
Conversely, a boy at the school lives in a three-bedroom apartment with his mother, five brothers, a couple who sleep in the living room and two men who sublease a bedroom. Last year, another student was among 22 relatives living in the same two-bedroom house.
Santa Barbara Junior High, at 721 E. Cota St., is a campus of contrasts like few others. And, like the city in which it’s located, the school appears to be becoming more so. With its plethora of both wealthy and poor students – and relatively few students in between – the school’s demographics mirror those of the South Coast, which experts say is losing its middle class.
Built in 1932, the campus is an architectural gem: red-tile roofing, soft-ivory facade, tiled walls and cherub-adorned bell tower. Equally striking is its demographic makeup. Located near Milpas Street, the school draws students from two worlds that, in some cases, are mere blocks apart.
About 200 of some 930 students hail from the moneyed hills of Montecito; most could afford their pick of local private schools.
Another 400 are officially poor, meaning they receive subsidized lunches. Most of them live just down the hill, on or around Milpas Street, home to Latino families, many of whom are housekeepers, busboys, gardeners and construction workers.
This leaves less than half in the so-called middle. In Santa Barbara, such kids live in unremarkable million-dollar homes, perhaps in the San Roque neighborhood, or in regular market-rate apartments, perhaps downtown.
Evidence suggests that the unusually large socioeconomic gap at Santa Barbara Junior High – which has long been, and still is, about two-thirds Latino and one-third white – is slowly growing.
A diverse student population can be a boon to a school, adding the benefit of high scores, not to mention eye-popping monetary donations. The generosity of parents at Santa Barbara Junior High is unparalleled: In 2001, led by former “ER” television star Anthony Edwards – who wasn’t a parent but a former student – volunteers raised most of the $3.6 million needed for a majestic renovation of the school’s theater.
But the combination of high wealth and high poverty can lead to stark disparities.
Take test scores.
Stacked against their peers at each of California’s 1,240 middle schools, Santa Barbara Junior High’s white students last year scored in the top 3 percent, or 24th place, according to a report compiled by Santa Barbara school board member Bob Noel. (Schools do not keep track of affluent students.)
But only 16 percent of the school’s poor students, and 11 percent of English learners, demonstrated proficiency – another word for grade-level work – in math. The federal government requires it be more than 25 percent, and has sanctioned the entire school under the No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to have all of the nation’s students passing standardized tests in math and English by 2014.
A closer look at Mr. Noel’s study revealed that, statewide, just one other middle school exhibited such disparities. Of the 23 middle schools across California whose white students scored higher in math and English than Santa Barbara Junior High’s, just one of them – King Middle School in Berkeley – also faces penalties under the No Child Left Behind legislation.
At Santa Barbara Junior High, the socioeconomic disparities are also evident in the classroom: In many high-level classes the students are nearly all white, and in most regular-level courses, nearly all Latino.
Finally, they manifest themselves socially, with white and Latino students eating separately, for the most part, at lunch time.
But as this chasm widens, teachers and students alike are building innovative bridges. Teachers, in keeping with a trend in education that emphasizes helping those who are lagging, have launched a new math program for such students. And kids, with the help of some adults, have begun an organized effort to break through the social barriers keeping the students in separate groups.
For teachers, the clock is ticking.
When it comes to test scores, this is a pivotal year for the school, which is in its second year of federal sanctions. To avoid entering the third year – with stiffer penalties – this year the school started requiring every struggling student to take two math classes.
In the spring, students will take a barrage of tests. How they perform will dictate whether the school begins to climb out of No Child’s punitive quicksand, or sinks deeper into it.
FINANCIAL GAP WIDENING
By the numbers, the parents of Santa Barbara Junior High’s Montecito students are not only rich, but getting richer faster than others across the state. Meanwhile, the school’s poor students are growing more numerous.
In five years, the proportion of Montecito households earning at least $250,000 annually has jumped from 22 percent to 27 percent, according to the California Economic Forecast. Statewide, since 2000, it has crept up from 2 percent to nearly 3 percent.
On the other hand, the proportion of students getting free or discounted lunches has increased from 30 percent to 43 percent — now nearly twice as high as the district average. (Statewide, the number has held pretty steady in five years, at just under half.)
Yet in recent decades Santa Barbara Junior High has not experienced white flight, as have other local schools. Since 1990, the racial breakdown has remained relatively static: two-thirds Latino, one-third white. (The white population peaked three years ago at 40 percent, but is back to 31 percent.) In a sense, Santa Barbara Junior High is an inner-city school and suburban school wrapped into one.
In contrast, the Westside’s La Cumbre Junior High — another sanctioned school — has seen dramatic white flight. Since 1990, its proportion of white students has dwindled from 35 percent to 11 percent. (La Cumbre has launched a major effort to turn that around.)
Despite its success at retaining students, inside its walls Santa Barbara Junior High appears segregated.
White students make up just one-third of the school’s enrollment, but they constitute three-fourths of its gifted and talented program. Latino students make up two-thirds of the enrollment, but the vast majority are in general education classes, now known as “College Prep.”
Last year, Principal Susan Salcido and the leaders of two other local middle schools tried to blend programs — and their students. But the plan died when affluent parents expressed alarm. Now, and for the foreseeable future, it’s back to the status quo: four academic tracks — GATE, honors, college prep and remedial. As has long been the case, the first group is mostly white; the second is mixed. The third and fourth — college prep and remedial — are nearly entirely Latino. (Many students fall into more than one category.)
“The whole honors thing was an idea,” said Ms. Salcido of the plan to merge the honors and general ed tracks. “That idea can’t work, so, OK, can’t do.”
The gap between the haves and have-nots at Santa Barbara Junior High is not a topic many like discussing. Administrators at the district balked at providing an ethnic breakdown of all the academic tracks besides GATE, saying compiling the information would be too labor intensive.
But Ms. Salcido offered an estimate. The college-prep classes, she said, generally reflect the breakdown of the school — two-thirds Latino, a third white. The honors courses are the other way around. The remedial classes are virtually 100 percent nonwhite, she said.
Many of the Montecito parents say they send their children to Santa Barbara Junior High because it represents the real world. But most of the Montecito families contacted by the News-Press had students enrolled in the GATE courses, which accommodate students only in the top 20 percent bracket.
“It’s a school within a school,” said Montecito parent Barney Berglund, echoing the words of some others.
Such statements cause Ms. Salcido to bristle.
“I really want to make sure everyone knows that all our programs challenge students,” she said.
Although she wasn’t able to provide numbers, Ms. Salcido said not all students from Montecito are enrolled in GATE classes.
Sasha Paskal is one. The eighth-grader, whose father owns a business building sets in Hollywood — including for the movie “Elizabethtown” — takes both honors courses and college-prep classes.
In her honors courses, she can count on one hand the number of Latino students. In college prep, it’s the other way around: She’s in the minority.
“I was kind of upset when I wasn’t accepted in GATE,” she said.
“I felt left out, because so many of my friends were.”
An articulate, easygoing redhead who wears hip eyeglasses with translucent-pink plastic frames, Sasha aims to study fashion design in New York City after she graduates. Math isn’t her strong suit.
While in sixth grade at Montecito Union, she heard rumors that white kids in regular classes are taunted. Not so, she said.
Given her career interests, Sasha says that despite her initial disappointment, she believes everything turned out for the best.
“I’ll understand other people’s cultural experiences,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of people I wouldn’t have.”
TEACHERS BUILD A BRIDGE
Meanwhile, just because the school’s educators have backed off from changing the academic tracks doesn’t mean they’ve stopped refining their efforts to close the achievement gap. The two-math-classes-for-every-struggling-student approach is less controversial.
But even here there is a hitch: Having more back-to-the-basics courses leaves less room for electives, like band and foreign languages.
Eighth-grader Angie Solis was among the roughly 100 students who were assigned the extra math class. Its appearance on her class schedule was an unwelcome surprise.
“I was like, ‘What?’ ” she said. “It meant no elective. . . . I wanted to take Spanish or journalism.”
Now, though, she says she’s glad it happened. Her grades have gone from B’s to A’s. Another student said her grades have improved from D’s to a B-minus.
Math co-chair Marc Fidel said such students still can take electives by going to school for an optional extra period.
“If they really want it, it’s there,” he said.
Mr. Fidel is excited — and nervous — about the program he and his colleagues devised.
“I don’t want to just plug the dam,” he said. “I want this to work.”
The “extra” class is really a lab at which teachers, with full knowledge of what kids will learn on any given day in the regular class, bolster students’ understanding of the day’s lesson.
The idea is to use re-teaching and pre-teaching to ward off the dazed sense of hopelessness that can befall a kid when, say, first setting eyes on a symbols-laden quadratic equation.
“You see that stuff and you sort of make a decision before you attempt it whether you’re going to get it or not,” he said.
Mr. Fidel acknowledges he has no data on how the dual-math program is working, but says he can sense the students’ increased confidence. For instance, some of the students who were slackers last year are eagerly raising their hands this year.
“Once a kid feels hopeless or helpless, it’s really difficult to get them to jump that hurdle,” he said. “As long as they’re willing, they’re hopeful.”
But the real test will come this spring, when all students take a barrage of proficiency exams. If too few make the mark, the school will experience more sanctions.
In its first two years of sanctions, Santa Barbara Junior High — one of four of the South Coast’s 42 public schools to be marked thus far — has had to send letters to all parents telling them they may send their children to another school. It also had to offer each of its poor families $900 worth of free private tutoring.
According to the way the law is written, the penalties steepen every year.
Third-year sanctions include: “Decrease management authority at school level.” Fourth-year penalties include “reopening the school as a charter,” “replacing all or most staff, including the principal” or the most likely: “Any other major restructuring.”
But the 32-year-old Ms. Salcido, who inherited the sanctions when she accepted the principal’s post in the fall of 2004-05, seems undaunted by the pressure.
Asked to describe the most difficult challenge of heading up such a polarized school, she said: “I don’t think of it that way. This is what we do — it’s wonderful that we have the diversity.”
STUDENTS BUILD A BRIDGE
Students say the gap between rich and poor plays out socially. At lunchtime, in general, white students tend to hang out in the quad — a grassy square of trees, tables and benches — while many Latino students gather behind the school, near the outdoor volleyball and basketball courts.
In November, the school launched an approach to breaking down social barriers between cliques, which at Santa Barbara Junior High tend to form along ethnic lines. Administrators have culled 38 student ambassadors — each a perceived leader in a group of friends — and trained them to mediate conflicts among students.
The program has inspired a few students to lead the way in mixing it up.
For instance, Montecito resident Andrew Adams, one of the ambassadors, and a couple of his friends one day joined a group of Latino kids on the basketball court.
“It’s really weird and wrong how separated we are based on if you’re white or Mexican,” he said. “It’s getting better.”
At first, it was awkward.
“We were like, ‘um, alright,’ ” said Irene Ricardo-Valle, an eighth-grader. “We weren’t used to it.”
The white kids, she said, were so rule-conscious, a style she termed “YMCA.”
“If you double-dribble, you have to do a free shot or something like that,” she said. But “it was cool.”
The ambassador program kicked off with an assembly, led by a trainer.
In addition to the usual jocks and theater students, the participants included the rich kids — perjoratively dubbed the Montecito Millionaires — and wannabe gangbangers. In one exercise, the trainer situated all the students side-by-side in a long line outside.
The trainer fired questions at the group. If the answer to any question was “yes,” students were to take a step forward. The questions started easy, but worked their way to the profound: “Have any of you had a relative die violently?”
After a pause, one student stepped forward. Then two. In all, to everyone’s shock, at least two-thirds of the students, most of them from lower-income families, took a step.
“My aunt was riding in a car in San Diego,” said Corena Herrera, an eighth-grader whose chipper demeanor belies some of the tragedies her family has endured.
“It was a nice car, so they thought she had money, but it was a rental. They shot her.”
“He got stabbed,” said Esly Dubon, of her cousin, Henry Sanchez, a former Santa Barbara High School football player who was murdered at a party five years ago. It was a gang-related killing.
For some of the Montecito students, the lesson was an eye-opener about the other sphere.
Other questions, though, underscored the kind of adolescent pain that is blind to class and race.
When the trainer asked how many students had been called a name, such as “slut” or “fag,” nearly all crossed the line.
Now, the 38 ambassadors meet regularly with mentor teachers to discuss conflicts on campus. No names are used, because the idea is to get advice on how to resolve problems, not to impose disciplinary measures.
For Irene, also one of the ambassadors, the program has given her the tools to deal with everyday conflicts between students.
Sometimes the confrontations have a racial edge.
One day, after school, she saw a white girl chiding a Latina, telling her, “Why do you think you’re all bad? You’re not a gangster.” The situation escalated, with the Latina rounding up some friends. The white girl started walking away, saying her ride had arrived. Irene, who is friends with both girls, tried to ease the tension, bidding a friendly “goodbye” to the white girl.
Irene said her Latina friend responded.
“She’s all, ‘Why are you saying bye to her?’ I said, ‘She’s my friend.’ ” Then, Irene said, she helped defuse her Latina friend’s anger. “I said, ‘Do you even consider yourself a gangster?’ ” The girl thought about it, Irene said. No, she didn’t.
“That happens almost every day,” Irene said. “Just little changes here and there. It makes a big difference.”
For all the talk of the gap between the rich and the poor, both academically and socially, there are encouraging exceptions. Like Jose Cruz.
He, too, has a relative who has died violently — an uncle in a shooting over drugs and money in Mexico. He wears gold chains and baggy pants, and his peach-fuzz mustache and ruddy complexion make him seem older than his 14 years.
But looks are deceiving.
Jose is enrolled in honors courses for English, math and history. His mother, a house cleaner, has a good relationship with his teachers. His stepfather is a mechanic who owns Automotive Clinic in Oxnard, much to the admiration of his son.
“I would like to do that,” he said.
But going against the grain can be difficult, especially in the middle-school environment. For Latino students especially, the pressure to be like their peers is demanding.
Last year, Olivia G. Rodriguez’s daughter, Andriana, was enrolled exclusively in GATE classes at Santa Barbara Junior High, but hated it.
“She said, ‘Mom, I’m the only Mexican kid in GATE,’ ” said Ms. Rodriguez at a recent meeting for parents of secondary students in GATE.
“I said, ‘That should be an honor.’ ”
Andriana didn’t see it that way. Her Latina friends teased her, and she felt intimidated by all of the “rich kids” surrounding her. Now, as a freshman at Santa Barbara High School, she doesn’t take a single GATE class. However, she is taking a high-level physics course.
“The teachers wanted to push her up, and here she’s trying to push back,” Ms. Rodriguez said, incredulous. At home, Ms. Rodriguez said, she could always tell whether the friend her daughter was talking to on the phone was white or Latina. When she talked like an adult, it was a white student. When she peppered her diction with the words “like” and “you know,” it was a Latina.
The situation was all the more vexing to Ms. Rodriguez because she struggled all her life to be recognized for her skills, “and here (Andriana) is, trying to cover it up.” Ms. Rodriguez’s struggle paid off: She’s now an attorney.
She hopes her daughter finds a similar path.