Pacific Standard Magazine

What Are American Schools Doing Right?

Amid the hand-wringing over the parlous state of U.S. education, experts suggest that successes demonstrate that lasting reform will require constellations of effort, not just stars.

What Are American Schools Doing Right?

We hear it over and over again: The public education system in the United States is broken. Smart teachers burn out and leave early. The achievement gap between poor minority students and their affluent white peers won’t budge. America is losing ground to other developed nations on test scores.

By now, anyone who has ever read a newspaper — assuming, alarmists may add, that you can read at all — understands that the American public education system is rife with problems. But, surely, some practices work. Isn’t there a way to look at examples of success and replicate them?

With these questions in mind, talked to a handful of leading education experts. Some say the American public education system is ripe for a re-boot and should emulate European countries like Finland, where students don’t take standardized tests, and where local teachers and administrators — not the government — design the curriculum. Others point to the early success of a program in Chicago in which every new teacher receives an instructional coach for two years. Still others argue that while there is always room for improvement, schools in the United States remain the world’s finest and are performing at peak levels.

Whatever the case, there are, of course, plenty of success stories. Often, they center on the innovative efforts of an inspiring, charismatic individual who is able to single-handedly boost the test scores and overall learning experiences of hundreds of students.

Take the story of a 35-year-old teacher in California named Alex Kajitani, now known as “The Rappin’ Mathematician.”

The Rappin’ Mathematician
By 2006, Kajitani had been teaching for a couple years and was on the verge of burnout. It’s a typical scenario: Half of the nation’s new teachers quit the profession by their fifth year.

Raised in Boulder, Colo., Kajitani had landed his first job as an educator teaching eighth-grade algebra in one of the poorest parts of the San Diego metropolitan area. At Mission Middle School in Escondido, 9 in 10 students are Latino, and just as many are categorized as poor. More than half are still learning English, and two-thirds of their parents never finished high school.

What’s more, the neighborhood sees gang activity and violent crime thrive.

Needless to say, it was difficult to get the kids interested in learning their quadratics and polynomials.

“I couldn’t get them to pay attention or remember anything I was teaching,” Kajitani said. “Then I noticed a rap song came out on the radio on Monday, and by Tuesday, they pretty much had the whole thing memorized.”

Kajitani had an epiphany. He would write a rap song based on algebra. That night, he labored away on a song called “Itty Bitty Dot.” It was about decimals.

The next morning, a reinvigorated Kajitani came to school equipped with a large pair of sunglasses. At the beginning of the class, he put them on and performed his rap for the students. Their reaction wasn’t encouraging.

“It was just an absolute disaster,” he said. “I got completely laughed at.”

Kajitani figured he was finished. Dejected, he trudged off to lunch. Then, a funny thing happened. While walking past a table in the cafeteria, he heard kids singing the “Itty Bitty Dot” song. The next day, the students ran into his room, eager to be there, asking if he had plans to appear on MTV.

Kajitani wrote more songs. The test scores of his students soared. He cut a professional CD with the help of a music producer and gave himself a catchy, if endearingly nerdy, moniker: “The Rappin’ Mathematician.”

Later, Kajitani began bringing a boombox into the classroom. His unorthodox method caught the attention of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Kajitani was nominated to become the teacher of the year in the Escondido Union School District. He won, putting him in the running for 2009 teacher of the year in San Diego County. Again, he won, making him a candidate for the California’s Teacher of the Year award.

Once again, the Rappin’ Mathematician prevailed, earning him the praise of California’s superintendent of public instruction, Jack O’Connell.

Now, Kajatani is one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award. (The winner will be announced in April.) His CD is sold to teachers around the country, and his students are scoring “proficient” in all algebraic categories, putting them just above the statewide average.

“Now that I look back on it, it wasn’t really about rapping, it was about connecting,” Kajitani said. “It’s connecting with my students on their level in a way that is actually culturally relevant to them.”

Like Robin Williams’s performance as a spirited, book-destroying teacher in the critically acclaimed movie Dead Poet’s Society, Kajitani’s story is inspiring. Upon hearing it, school districts everywhere might consider purchasing his CD by the dozen. Inner-city teachers might be tempted to write songs around their lessons, or at least figure out ways to become more culturally relevant to their students. Administrators might strive to make room in their budgets for boomboxes and sunglasses.

If only it were that easy.

After spending years researching successful education systems, Boston College professor Andrew Hargreaves likes to issue a warning that, at first blush, seems a little odd: Beware the educational innovators.

Beware of Innovators
It’s not that the results of people like Kajitani aren’t legitimate. It’s just that an innovator’s successes usually cannot be replicated and tend to fizzle in the wake of his or her departure, said Hargreaves, the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.

“You can always point to an interesting example of innovation; they always exist: a teacher here, a school there,” he said. “Our evidence is that most of those collapse over time and are not sustainable — because they are exceptions.”

Does this mean the quest for sustainable reform is fruitless? Absolutely not, says Hargreaves, author of the award-winning book Teaching In The Knowledge Society: Education in the Age of Insecurity.

According to Hargreaves, though educational innovators are beneficial, the best beacons of reform are not individual teachers, principals or schools but entire districts, cities and even nations.

Because every district, city and nation has its own unique history, what works for one might not work for all. In other words, successful system-wide reform comes in many shapes and sizes. But Hargreaves argues that the standouts share several underlying principles. It’s the principles, he says — not any specific practice — that must be internalized.

One of the key principles, Hargreaves said, is this: Successful reformers know how to build on the best aspects of their cultural past to take them into a prosperous future.

As an example, Hargreaves and many others point to Finland. The Nordic country of 5 million people is the world’s top performer on a global test called the Programme for International Student Assessment, which is given to students of every developed nation for comparative purposes.

The country’s economy is bustling, owing in large part to its technological creativity and corporate transparency. (Although in recent months, Finland’s economy has taken a hit like nearly all the others in the world.)
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, the country was considered a rural backwater. Its education system went unnoticed by most experts in the field. Through the 1970s and ’80s, Finland’s economy depended on trade with its neighbor, the Soviet Union. But the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 opened up trade to other parts of the world for Russia — Finland had lost its captive market.

A crisis ensued. Unemployment in Finland shot up to nearly 20 percent. The nation’s leaders convened in emergency meetings to brainstorm ways to reinvent themselves. As a small country covered in snow for half the year, Finland does not enjoy the luxury of easily accessible natural resources.

Eventually, the leaders concluded that the country’s most valuable resource was its own people. After all, it’s a creative population: The country boasts more musical composers and orchestras per capita than anywhere else in the world. The leaders decided to build an economy based on knowledge, which required providing its citizens with the finest public education anywhere.

The general idea, Hargreaves said, was to connect its cultural past of creativity to a future of economic innovation.

It worked.

In his research of Finland, Hargreaves made several key observations. There, it is not easy to become a teacher. Only 1 in 10 applicants get the job, which affords the position a certain cachet. In keeping with the country’s creative past, all students take performing and creative arts until they graduate high school. With an eye toward the country’s economic future, students are also exposed to a rigorous math and science curriculum.

On a policy level, the standards and expectations are clear but broad: Local educators enjoy a good deal of professional flexibility. The details of the curricula are decided not by the government but the local teachers themselves, who hammer it out together in a culture of trust and cooperation, Hargreaves said.

“They feel responsible for all the children, not just the ones in their grade or department,” he said. The teachers, in other words, feel like they are a part of something large and important.

Moreover, there is no standardized testing. Every year a random sample of students is assessed but only to decipher how well any given school is performing. This discourages instructors from “teaching to the test,” because they don’t know who will be tested.

Hargreaves notes that critics of looking at Finland as an educational paragon often point out that the small, homogenous country can’t be compared to large, diverse nations such as the United States.

But he said many of the same principles are at play in other miracle-story school systems, with entirely different student populations.

The Story of Tower Hamlets
Hargreaves cites Tower Hamlets, an impoverished borough of London filled with Bangladeshi immigrants.

In 1997, of all the local school districts across England, the district in Tower Hamlets fared dead last based on test scores. By 2007, the district, which includes about 100 schools, was scoring at or above the national average in every subject while the demographics of the system remained the same.
What had changed?

In this case, it started with a strong leader who sought to re-configure the system in a way that would outlast her tenure, Hargreaves said.

As in the United States, the United Kingdom sets the improvement targets for all the nation’s school districts. But the new leader decided that in order to spur reform, new standards and targets had to be crafted for Tower Hamlets that were more ambitious than those given to them by the government.

Similar to what has been done in Finland, the district’s educators were brought in to set the new targets together.

Also, in 1997, teacher quality was often poor. This is because many teachers came from out of the country for the purpose of enjoying London for a couple years before moving on. More energy was devoted to attracting and retaining teachers who either hailed from the community or had designs to stay there.

In addition, in Tower Hamlets, the stronger schools band together to help the weak. A high-performing school may lend a struggling school extra resources — such as teachers or administrators — during tough times. When this occurs, the stronger school is reimbursed by the district.

Finally, Hargreaves said, in Tower Hamlets, the district makes a point to hire assistants for virtually every teacher. The assistants often are residents of the community, meaning many are Bangladeshi parents. In fact, about half of every school’s total number of paid employees are assistants from the community. This accomplishes two things: It frees up time for teachers to focus on instruction, and it fosters a relationship between the school staff and the parents, Hargreaves said.

Despite the radical differences between the Bangladeshi immigrants of the Tower Hamlets district and the largely homogenous population of Finland, Hargreaves argues that the two systems benefited from some of the same underpinning principles.

In both places, the professional educators were called upon to take ownership of an urgent mission, local educators were tasked with the responsibility of crafting their own set of standards, the school systems made conscious attempts to hire good teachers, and, rather than competing against one other, all the schools within each system rallied together, pooling resources and — in the case of Tower Hamlets — devoting extras to the laggards. (Hargreaves said the Finnish system doesn’t really have laggards.)

“What matters are the principles,” Hargreaves said. “What we have in most of America are principles that completely contradict everything I’ve just discussed, except for the sense of urgency.”

One thing Tower Hamlets didn’t do, in the face of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s national program, was farm out schools to the private sector.

One counterintuitive conclusion that Hargreaves touts is that school districts have a better shot at turning around weak schools when they are bigger. This flies in the face of the “smaller is better” ethos of many American public school educators.

“Some people want to put an end to districts, but I don’t think that is realistic,” he said. “Change that and you change one of the foundations in American democracy. But you can open your district up to learning from other districts.”

Hargreaves, however, allows that U.S. school-reform efforts are succeeding on one front: teacher training.

Chicago New Teacher Center
Over the past decade or so, a movement to pair new teachers with coaches or mentors has been growing in America. One such program, called the Chicago New Teacher Center, started three years ago. There, every new teacher in the schools serving the roughest areas of the city receives a coach for two years. The neighborhoods include some of the most violent in the country, including the one where the mother, brother and nephew of actress and singer Jennifer Hudson were killed in October.

As part of the program, the coach — typically a seasoned teacher, yet many years away from retirement — visits the classroom a couple times a week to act, at first, as a kind of assistant, helping to set up bulletin boards and decorate the classroom. As the weeks wear on, the coach assumes the role of confidant, asking the new teacher to talk about the most difficult aspects of the job.

Eventually, the coach provides feedback, which is expected to be non-threatening because the coaches are employed by the nonprofit New Teacher Center, not the school district. The idea is to objectively gauge how well a teacher is preparing his or her students to meet the state standards.

The coaches may offer pointers on handling some of the more delicate aspects of the job, such as parent-teacher conferences.

“Start with something positive,” advises Tamiko Clark, who taught elementary- and pre-school-aged kids in the Chicago area for 18 years before being recruited by the New Teacher Center. “Then you might get some information from the parents — ask what their concerns are.”

Only after making these efforts, she said, should teachers delve into their concerns about the child.

During the first two and a half years of the Chicago program, the retention rate of the roughly 90 teachers who received a coach the first year is 83 percent. So far, at least, the retention rate is on pace to significantly surpass the dismal national rate of 50 percent by the fifth year.

Also, early evidence suggests the test scores of the students are on the rise.

“School districts across America are starting to pay attention to this aspect of the work,” said Ellen Moir, executive director of the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which helped spearhead the Chicago project. “In the last few years, we’ve seen greater emphasis on teacher quality, instead of just letting them sink or swim.”

Middle School Success
Effective educational practices are especially vital when it comes to teaching what may be the most challenging age group: middle-schoolers. It’s an interesting and even difficult age as students learn to think abstractly.

Middle-school students, in their study of social-justice issues, develop an intellectual understanding of the concepts of fairness and egalitarianism. Yet when the bell rings, they don’t think twice about tormenting someone in the hallway.

“They can think about how, ‘Yeah, I know that’s the right thing to do,’ but they can’t always put it into practice,” said Debby Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform.

Since 1999, the forum has identified nearly 200 exceptional middle schools and summarized the highlights of each school on its Web site.

Unlike the gold-star schools that have come to characterize the perennial lists of U.S. News & World Report, the forum’s exemplars tend to post test scores that are average. But average scores are often a major achievement for schools serving disadvantaged populations.

Take Torch Middle School in Los Angeles County’s City of Industry. Ninety-four percent of the students are Latino — a third are still learning English, and 86 percent are considered poor.

Torch’s test scores have skyrocketed in three years, and now not only hover around the state average but also fare in the top 10 percent when stacked against schools across California with similar demographics.

At Torch, students are required to wear uniforms, thereby discouraging social competition. To ease the transition from the elementary grades to high school, movement from class to class in minimized: Sixth-graders leave their classroom only for their elective and P.E., and seventh- and eighth-graders split their day into two main 104-minute periods.

As with many of the schools deemed successful by the forum, teachers at Torch meet with each other frequently and are good at sharing information on individual students. The students’ writing portfolios, for instance, are passed from one grade level to the next.

“Another thing we find is that the teachers and the administrators love being at these schools,” Kasak said. “They are great places to work. Over time, the culture has been built up.”

United States Still No. 1?
Not all education experts agree that American schools are on the wrong path.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that contrary to what we always hear, American schools have never been better.

“I happen to be one of those people that very much is convinced that in spite of the issues we have in public education in America, it’s still the best school system in the world,” he said. “We are the standard.”

Domenech said that partly due to the American education system’s constant push for improvement, it’s easy to view the data pessimistically.

“Yes, we can point to the fact that the graduation rate is only 70 percent and we should be doing better,” he said. But “it’s not like we dropped from 80 percent. The graduation rate continues to grow year after year. Fifty years ago, the percentage of kids graduating from high school was maybe 30 or 40 percent.”

Domenech concedes that the test scores of some countries have surpassed those of the United States, such as Singapore, New Zealand and, yes, Finland.

But these countries are small and homogenous, he said.

“Do we want to compare Finland to one of our rich suburbs? … Let’s face it, some of the finest schools in the world are in our suburbs.”

As an example, Domenech cites Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, Va., where he once served as superintendent. In December, for the second year in a row, U.S. News & World Report listed Jefferson High as the nation’s No. 1 public high school.

“Does Finland have a better high school than Thomas Jefferson? I doubt it,” he said.

What separates America from the rest of the world, Domenech said, is diversity.

“In Japan, all the students are Japanese,” he said. “In Fairfax, we had over 140 languages that were spoken. I didn’t even know that there were that many languages spoken in the world.”

Domenech said America’s educational success comes down largely to the country’s abundance of money.

With money, he said, American schools have been able to reduce class size, hire teachers at higher salaries, purchase sophisticated grading and attendance software and furnish classrooms with good computers.

Invariably, he said, the schools that fall behind are the ones filled with students who are poor.

“This isn’t brain surgery here,” he said. “The more wealth, the better the kids are going to do in school. If we want to close the achievement gap, we need to drive the money and the resources.”

Pacific Standard Magazine

The Trouble With Genius

Students diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, perform as well as or better than their peers academically but, despite their large vocabularies, struggle with social interaction. The Koegel Autism Center, long a world leader on autism research, hopes to teach the students the art of conversation.

The Trouble With Genius

In many ways, Paul Griffin is typical of a talented college freshman.

A gifted artist, perceptive reader and nimble athlete who jumps horses competitively, Paul graduated from high school with a 3.8 grade-point average. He wants to join a fraternity and relishes — only half-jokingly — the thought of “girls and beer.”

Yet, if you talk to him for less than a minute, you realize something is amiss. Paul is one of eight freshmen at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism characterized by difficulties in social communication.

It is no accident that he and most of the others attend UCSB. Long a world leader on research for autism, the university is expanding its focus into the largely uncharted waters of Asperger’s.

For people with the disorder, the key to reducing suffering in later life is early intervention, researchers say. Research on the topic remains limited, however, and in many states, people with Asperger’s — unlike those with autism — do not qualify for government assistance to pay for home visits or behavioral therapy.

“It’s considered a more mild disability,” said Dr. Lynn Koegel, who, with her husband Bob, runs the UCSB Koegel Autism Center. “But it can be as big of an issue as any other disability. If a person can’t get a job or interact socially with other people, their choices are pretty limited.”

Last year, UCSB’s autism center received a nearly $1 million grant to create one of the first research centers for Asperger’s in the nation. In the past year, the center joined a handful of institutions — such as the Asperger’s Study Group at New Hampshire’s Keene State College — in the forefront of a neglected area of study.

In recent years, psychologists and public schools have gotten better at identifying children with autism. But Asperger’s remains elusive, as those who exhibit the traits tend to perform on par with or better than their peers academically. Their struggles tend to be strictly social, and as children, they tend to be quiet.

“It’s so common to see them walking around the playground, sitting alone in the library — anything that’s anti-social,” said Koegel. “The kids that are troublemakers — they have whole teams working on them. But the kids with Asperger’s, who don’t do any talking, often slip through the cracks.”

Sometimes, such people thrive, perhaps owing to their intense single-minded focus. Indeed, several famous people, alive and dead, are widely believed to be part of the Asperger’s club, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates; Craig Nicholls, frontman of the band The Vines; Andy Warhol; and Albert Einstein.

For most people with the disorder, however, the solitude over time can exact a toll. Adults with Asperger’s syndrome tend to suffer from loneliness or depression. Many never marry, and some never date, even though they’d like to.

With this in mind, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation asked the UCSB center to develop new treatment models that can eventually be used to help Asperger’s clients of all ages around the world.

In meeting Paul and his father, the first thing that stood out was Paul’s inflection, even in a downtown restaurant. Asked about the length of the drive from their home near the greater Los Angeles city of Thousand Oaks to Santa Barbara, Paul provided a monotone answer that everyone in the restaurant could hear: “Oh, I’d say about an hour or so!”

An amiable 19-year-old with an intense gaze, Paul clutched a little bag filled with shiny rocks as he talked. Occasionally he’d take one out and rub it — for good luck, he said. Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, his eyes would drift dreamily toward a window. When this happened, his dad would gently bring him back into the discussion.

Although Paul can hold his own in a conversation, at times he veers onto strange tangents. While talking about his hopes and fears about college, for instance, Paul at one point got on the topic of world travel. He listed some of the places he’s visited with his family: Australia, England, Hong Kong, South Africa, Singapore.

“London is very clean,” he said. “Singapore also. In Singapore, if you do road rage, you get caned — which I like.”

Paul, who has his driver’s license, went on to describe an unpleasant experience in his hometown in which a motorist yelled at him at an intersection. “If that man had been in Singapore, he’d be caned, and he’d be crying like a little schoolgirl,” he said, loudly.

His dad interjected, in a soothing tone. “Paul, calm down. All you have to do is drive away — say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and just ride on.”

Paul responded, “Yeah, yeah. That’s what the nice thing about Singapore is.

Society Slow to Understand Asperger’s Syndrome
Asperger’s syndrome is named after the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who in the 1940s wrote a paper describing the “odd” behavior of four boys whom he referred to as “little professors.” In 1981, the term Asperger’s syndrome was coined by an English psychiatrist named Lorna Wing. Professionals, however, didn’t recognize it as an official neuropsychiatric disorder until 1994.

Over the years, many people with the disorder have been misdiagnosed as having depression, schizophrenia or attention-deficit disorder. Due to the past obscurity of Asperger’s, many of the newly diagnosed are adults.

A study of Finnish youth in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that about one in 400 children are diagnosed with Asperger’s. The majority are male.

Asperger’s clients tend to be flummoxed by the nuances of social interaction. While most have an average to above-average vocabulary, they often struggle with things like eye contact, facial expressions, slang and humor.

In addition to crippling their love lives, the disorder can ruin their careers (although the focus that accompanies the syndrome has proven positive in areas like information technology). A couple times a year, Koegel said, she receives a call from the county jail on behalf of a client with Asperger’s.

“Some adult that has Asperger’s will get antagonized at work and explode,” she said. “And just as bad are the calls from people who are saying they don’t have any friends or are having trouble getting jobs because they don’t come across well in the interview. They don’t understand what they are doing wrong.”

The Center
Founded in the early 1970s by Bob Koegel, the UCSB Koegel Autism Center marks the spot of the nation’s first special-education classroom for students with autism. (Lynn Koegel started working there in the late 1970s.) In the 1980s, actor Dustin Hoffman visited the center in his quest to nail down the lead part in the movie Rain Man, for which he earned an Academy Award. The movie is widely credited for introducing the concept of autism to mainstream America.

At the time of the center’s inception, most clinicians in the United States attributed the cause of the disorder to bad parenting and sent the vast majority of children with autism to mental institutions. Koegel, however, was convinced that those children could learn and therefore created the classroom.

The Koegels’ research gained steam and exposure as the number of children diagnosed with a form of autism mushroomed over 20 years from one in 10,000 children to the current one in 150.

Having developed a widely used technique called “pivotal response” treatment, in which children with autism are offered incentives, such as colored candy, to talk about certain things, such as their favorite color, the Koegels are now setting out to make similar advances on treating Asperger’s.

The students they are working with tend to be bright; many have aced their SATs. Still, they clearly will not be able to figure out on their own how to talk to people.

To help them, the Koegels this year began videotaping the students conversing with peers in a living room-type setting with couches and chairs.

Afterward, the students watch the tapes with researchers, who help highlight their strengths and gaffes, which range from being argumentative to consistently failing to fill long pauses. One young man was pleased to see that he scored well on being cordial (“I love Italian food,” “Hey, I do too”) but winced at the awkward silences that resulted from his failure to ever ask a question (“So, what’s your favorite restaurant?”). He also realized that he spoke in a monotonic voice.

For the next step, the Koegels will observe the students in a live social setting — in this case, a series of bowling outings. Ultimately, they hope to get the students to a point at which they have real friends and are dating.

For many, going from a laboratory setting to a budding relationship is a slow process, but some have already arrived.

One such student had tried to commit suicide several times before meeting with Lynn Koegel. Like many with Asperger’s, the student had no trouble with academics: He earned straight As but was virtually incapable of talking about anything besides his favorite movie.

As part of his therapy, Koegel began teaching the student how to hold a normal conversation. “If I said, ‘Oh, I had such a good lunch today,’ he had to say, ‘What did you have for lunch?’” she explained.

To be sure, his transformation was far from instantaneous. At one point, he seemed to have become a perfect conversationalist, but it turned out he only thrived in a clinical setting. This limitation became awkwardly apparent when Koegel commended his skills.

“He replied, ‘Yeah, but it’s easy with you, because you’re old,’” she said, laughing. “This happens a lot with people with Asperger’s. They might comment on skin color when it’s not appropriate, or weight. My feeling, or theory, is that they haven’t been socializing for that long, and the only way you learn to socialize is by socializing.”

Still, the student wound up putting his skills to good use: By the end of the year, he was dating.

A Little Professor
The program will also focus on younger children, who, to this day, are still often referred to by experts as “little professors.”

At a university summer camp, Koegel introduced Liam, a precocious 7-year-old with high-functioning autism. (Scientists debate whether high-functioning autism and Asperger’s are really the same thing.) Instead of saying “Hi,” Liam turned his hands into a telescope, closed one eye and began slowly scanning the clouds. Koegel coaxed him into saying hello. He complied, without making eye contact, and then informed me that, while Uranus has only 11 rings, Saturn has 10,000 or more.

He added, in a slow, meticulous cadence, that the rings of Uranus are vertical, not horizontal, as one might expect. “Some scientists believe that something hit (Uranus) that tipped it sideways,” he said, spreading his arms out and turning — like an airplane — to illustrate the tipping planet.

Did he like coming to the summer camp?

“Yes,” he said, “but there are nine planets in our solar system, not eight.” He was referring to the ongoing scientific argument about whether Pluto is a planet or just a moon.

How did he get to know so much about planets?

“Actually,” he answered, “I read a small book about each planet and different areas in space — even far out of our solar system.”

Then, abruptly, he turned around and ambled over to his mother without saying goodbye.
As he walked away, Koegel whispered, “Most kids going into second grade don’t start sentences with the word ‘actually.’”

Liam’s case seems to show how the line between Asperger’s syndrome and autism can be fuzzy.

Like many children with Asperger’s, Liam started reading extremely early, at age 2 or 3. (Most children don’t learn to read until, at the earliest, first or second grade.). In fact, at age 2, Liam could recite Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Still, when it came to practical communication, his language development was delayed — a key sign of autism.

“He had a big vocabulary; he could recite poetry,” said his mother, Kelley, who asked that her last name not be used. “But he couldn’t ask for a glass of juice.”

Meanwhile, as is the case with many Asperger’s patients, Liam’s interests are intensely narrow. Lately, he’s immersed himself in astronomy. Last year, geography: Liam could locate every country on a globe.

“He’s a little genius — that’s one of the problems,” Koegel said. “A lot of the kids aren’t interested in ancient Egypt.”

Santa Barbara News Press

‘Why aren’t you in school?’

To find out why homeless kids are missing classes, county education liaison Ernie Rodriguez takes on the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective

Ernie Rodriguez knocks on the door of an old RV parked near Old Town Goleta. He’s checking up on a fourth-grade girl who, by the county’s definition, is homeless, and who didn’t show up to La Patera Elementary School on this day.

Mr. Rodriguez’s job is making sure homeless kids attend school. It’s a tricky proposition, and the 35-year-old Santa Barbara native often finds himself in the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective.

His rounds take him to homeless shelters, run-down motels and squalid apartments shared by multiple families, but this day he steps into the RV parked in a quiet residential neighborhood. The inside is tidy, but full of supplies such as canned food, toiletries and a spare tire.

Elizabeth is a fourth-grader who, by the county's definition, is homeless. On the heels of three evictions, she and her mother, Marina, live in an RV. Photos: MIKE ELIASON
Elizabeth is a fourth-grader who, by the county's definition, is homeless. On the heels of three evictions, she and her mother, Marina, live in an RV. Photos: MIKE ELIASON

It turns out the girl, Elizabeth, is sick with a head cold. The family has been evicted from three apartments in the past year, and must move the RV every three days.

On this particular afternoon, the mother, Marina, an undocumented immigrant, needs to run some errands, but because the RV doesn’t run very well her only option is a bicycle. Her husband, a gardener, is at work. Mr. Rodriguez offers to give Elizabeth a lift a few miles away to the house of a trusted friend, who can watch her. As Marina pedals down the street, a neighbor jogs out to the street to intercept her.

“When are you going to move that RV?” he asks.

“Tomorrow,” she says, before turning the corner.

For Mr. Rodriguez, it’s just another day on the job.

David is a seventh-grader whose homeless father, Lee Haralson, is dying at a hospice. David, who also sleeps at the hospice, often stays up late at night playing videogames and is tired for school the next day. 'It's harder for me to learn when I got my dad on my mind,' he says. The pair also used to live in an RV.
David is a seventh-grader whose homeless father, Lee Haralson, is dying at a hospice. David, who also sleeps at the hospice, often stays up late at night playing videogames and is tired for school the next day. 'It's harder for me to learn when I got my dad on my mind,' he says. The pair also used to live in an RV.

He is a “school liaison” for the Santa Barbara County Education Office homeless education department, which serves about 1,050 children countywide. By necessity, he knows many families intimately in his bid to keep kids in the classroom. He’s been doing this for seven years, and colleagues say he’s good. But he’s not certain he will have a job next year.

After a 20-year run, the agency is facing the possibility of losing between 30 percent and 60 percent of its $300,000 annual budget. The county’s homeless program relies largely on a $180,000 federal grant that lasts three years. In mid-June, officials will learn how much money – if any – they’ll receive for the next round.

In addition to bankrolling Mr. Rodriguez’s $63,000 salary, the program covers an after-school program for homeless children at shelters such as Transition House in downtown Santa Barbara.

But for Mr. Rodriguez – who grew up wanting to be a police detective – the day-to-day, case-by-case struggles are more than enough to keep his mind off budgetary concerns. A day spent on the job with Mr. Rodriguez recently illustrated his many challenges.

To find out why homeless kids are missing classes, county education liaison Ernie Rodriguez takes on the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective.
To find out why homeless kids are missing classes, county education liaison Ernie Rodriguez takes on the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective.


In addition to dealing with the girl in the RV, Mr. Rodriguez visited a filthy, two-bedroom apartment housing 13 people to visit a boy who is missing too many high school classes.

The teenager is a sophomore at a local alternative high school for students unsuccessful in traditional settings. The tiny place near downtown is so stuffed with people that the kitchen’s pantry has been converted into a bedroom.

The teen’s father is currently not living in the home. His mother doesn’t know how to read or write in English or Spanish. Still, somehow, she recently landed a job as a hotel maid. The family is so poor Mr. Rodriguez sometimes brings them food – nonperishable items such as peanut butter, rice, juice, chips, tomatoes and beans.

Mr. Rodriguez pulled his Honda Accord into the driveway of the dilapidated complex, strewn with beer bottles, toys and mounting garbage near the Dumpster. “West side” was scrawled onto the side of the building.

Mr. Rodriguez knocked on the door.

After a couple of minutes, it opened – in slow motion. A face with a shy smile appeared: It was the kid.

Mr. Rodriguez greeted him heartily by name. “Why aren’t you in school?”

“I’m sick,” the student answered, in Spanish. “Come in.”

It didn’t take long for Mr. Rodriguez to discern that the teenager – a former student at Santa Barbara High School – wasn’t sick; he was baby-sitting his 2-year-old cousin. Mr. Rodriguez tried to talk to the toddler, who was drinking from a 12-ounce soda bottle that came up to his kneecaps.

“What’s your name?” he asked in Spanish.


“What did you eat for breakfast today?”

The little boy covered his face with a sock he was holding.

“Did you eat eggs?”

The boy nodded.


The boy nodded.


The boy nodded.

Mr. Rodriguez and the teen laughed. Clearly the 2-year-old didn’t eat all – or even any – of those things.

“Do you guys need food?” Mr. Rodriguez asked.

The student was noncommittal. Mr. Rodriguez knew that the mother was too proud to get free food at the local homeless shelter – Casa Esperanza – so he told the teen where it was, and when he could go there.

“Four o’clock?” repeated the student, in English. “Sounds good.”

The visit underscored the depth of the problem: Getting a kid to go to school is a tall order when a family can’t even afford food, let alone a baby sitter.

Still, that didn’t stop Mr. Rodriguez from trying other avenues to coax the boy to school. Several weeks earlier he had offered a new bicycle, which Mr. Rodriguez purchased out of pocket. All that Mr. Rodriguez had asked in return was that the boy do three things: Use it to go to school, demonstrate initiative by purchasing a lock, and show maturity by agreeing to treat his mother better.

It had been three weeks since Mr. Rodriguez first extended the offer, and he wasn’t happy with the student.

“I want that lock,” Mr. Rodriguez said, affecting a stern tone. “And be sure to respect your mother.”

Asked why he hadn’t held up his end of the deal by purchasing a $12 lock, the teen chuckled.

“No money,” he said.

A couple of days later, Mr. Rodriguez bought the lock and gave the boy the bike.

For Mr. Rodriguez, offering the bicycle was more complicated than it sounds.

Marina needs do some errands, but because the RV doesn't run very well her only viable mode of transportation is a bicycle. Her husband is at work. Ernie Rodriguez offers to give Elizabeth a lift a few miles away so she can be watched by a trusted friend.
Marina needs do some errands, but because the RV doesn't run very well her only viable mode of transportation is a bicycle. Her husband is at work. Ernie Rodriguez offers to give Elizabeth a lift a few miles away so she can be watched by a trusted friend.

It required delving into the family’s interpersonal history. The teen’s parents hail from the mountains of rural Mexico, where, Mr. Rodriguez said, women have less status than men. An only son, the boy was treated by his father like royalty compared to all his sisters. His father bought him CDs, a watch, bicycles, shoes. Now that his father is away, the kid views himself as the man of the house. He’s learned that this means disrespecting his mother: questioning her about where she’s been, talking back, refusing to clean up.

Not wanting to overstep his bounds, Mr. Rodriguez was careful to call the boy’s mother before offering the bicycle. Her only request was that Mr. Rodriguez provide the bike on condition that her son promise to stop mistreating her.

Asked about his attitude toward school, the teen said he is changing for the better.

“I used to be really bad, but now I behave,” he said. “I used to ditch, talk back to teachers. . . . But now I listen to my teachers.”


If the number of children served by Mr. Rodriguez’s department seems high, it’s because the county’s definition of homeless doesn’t just include the stereotypical street-roaming transients who sleep in the bushes. In fact, few children in Santa Barbara County – maybe 15 – live this way, according to the department. The highest number – about 500 over the course of a year – live in shelters such as the Transition House in Santa Barbara, or the Good Samaritan Shelter in Santa Maria. Another 300 live like the teenager: “doubled up,” meaning they shack with multiple families in the same house or apartment. About 130 fall under a similar category: transitional settings, meaning they could be on the move, or living with relatives for a few weeks after an eviction. Roughly 100 live in motels, mostly in Lompoc and Santa Maria.

The number of children served – 1,050 – has increased gradually from 840 over the past eight years, though it has dipped slightly since last year. About half the kids reside in Santa Maria, and a third are in Santa Barbara. The balance live in Lompoc.

A graduate of San Marcos High School, Mr. Rodriguez never intended to become a social worker. He attended California State University, Northridge, where, with the idea of becoming a police detective, he earned a degree in sociology. His father had worked as a professional baseball player in Mexico before moving to California in the 1960s to become a custom cabinet maker.

Mr. Rodriguez, who is married with two boys, the eldest a stepson, tried police work for a while but in 1999 he saw an ad in a local newspaper for his current job, and decided to apply. Now his day begins by checking his phone messages, many from local principals asking him to check on certain students whose school attendance has fallen off.

Marina, Elizabeth's mother, is working with the INS to become a documented citizen.
Marina, Elizabeth's mother, is working with the INS to become a documented citizen.

He has many stories.

“One student missed an entire year’s worth of school between kindergarten and fourth grade,” he recounted, while searching for a subsidized apartment complex near Harding Elementary School.

Clean-cut but casual in a button-up shirt, unzipped spring jacket and blue jeans, the easygoing Mr. Rodriguez has a disarming, “good cop” quality.

It is perhaps for this reason that some people actually open the door when he knocks.

Such was the case when he drove to an apartment complex on Victoria Street near San Pascual Street. Harding Elementary’s principal, Sally Kingston, had recently organized a meeting for parents of habitual no-shows, and this particular mother – named Gloria – neglected to attend. Mr. Rodriguez found her unit, and knocked. Two minutes passed. He knocked again. This time, Gloria answered and flashed him a nervous smile of recognition.

Speaking in Spanish, she said she tried to go; she had asked a secretary about the event, but the secretary didn’t know about it. Unlike the high school student, she did not ask Mr. Rodriguez inside. Today, she explained, her youngest daughter was sick. Meanwhile, another daughter, who attends La Cuesta High School, peered around her mother at the visitor. She too, apparently, had skipped school.

“A lot of these people who migrated to the U.S. many years ago – especially with the women, the girls – once they start going to school, (the parents) notice that they are getting smarter than them,” he said. “The parents get scared that the kids think they are getting better than them. They try to keep them down. They say, ‘Why do you go to school? You should go to work.’ ”

Not all of the houses he goes to are rundown or subsidized.

At a later stop in the 800 block of Victoria Street, the bungalow house has a tree swing in the front yard. The yard is neatly manicured.

When Mr. Rodriguez knocked, it took nearly five minutes for a man to answer. He eventually opened the door, reluctantly, and said the first-grade girl Mr. Rodriguez was looking for no longer lived there. Later, when Mr. Rodriguez visited the office of Harding School to explain his findings, the secretaries were puzzled. They had just talked to the girl’s mother less than half an hour earlier, and she had confirmed the address.


Later in the day, Mr. Rodriguez switched gears, morphing from private eye to surrogate parent.

At a local hospice called the Serenity House, he visited a boy, David, and his homeless father, Lee Haralson, who is dying of a brain tumor and has less than three weeks to live, hospice workers say. David – who sleeps in a recliner by his father’s side – has a tendency to stay up all night playing video games at the hospice, and has been falling asleep in class.

“It’s harder for me to learn in class when I got my dad on my mind,” he said while sitting at the edge of his dad’s bed, playing Star Wars. “You all right, Dad?”

His father issued an inaudible moan and slowly lifted his arm. Just three months ago, Mr. Haralson was able-bodied and lucid when he recounted how he took a couple of bullets in Vietnam, had lived in South America until David was old enough for kindergarten, and walked David to Franklin Elementary every day. At the time, he wore at least two homemade rings on every finger. Last week his fingers were so thin the rings slid right off, but he insisted on wearing them.

Mr. Rodriguez went outside the room and asked the director of the hospice to make sure David turned off the video games at 8 p.m. on school nights.

“I don’t mind him playing the Play Station,” he said. “Just not at 1 in the morning.”

As with the teenager, Mr. Rodriguez at one point found himself digging into his own pockets to keep David going to school – to the tune of $200.

The story highlights not only the difficulty of getting homeless kids to school, but also the unpredictability and instability of the homeless population, and how the odds are stacked against their children.

It was almost a year ago, shortly after Mr. Haralson was diagnosed with terminal cancer and preparing to die. His brother, Anthony – himself intermittently homeless – drove over from his home in Colorado with the idea of bringing David all the way back to Michigan, home of the brothers’ father, David’s grandfather.

Mr. Rodriguez helped Franklin Elementary School send David’s file – birth certificate, immunization records and test scores – to enroll in a school in Michigan. But the drive to Michigan hit a snag, and Mr. Rodriguez ended up providing $200 toward David’s plane ticket to his grandfather’s home.

Then, in an unexpected twist around September, Mr. Haralson – already weak from cancer – and a friend drove a broken-down Thunderbird all the way to Michigan to fetch his child. He missed David. This fall, Mr. Rodriguez was surprised to get a phone call from Mr. Haralson, asking how to enroll David into Santa Barbara Junior High School.

Last week, Lee’s brother, Anthony, was back in town, working like mad to fill out the paperwork necessary to gain custody of his nephew, and trying to figure out what to do with the RV in which his brother and nephew had lived. It’s been a race against time: If Anthony doesn’t get the paperwork done before his brother dies, his nephew will become a ward of the state. It’s a fate that even Mr. Rodriguez fears, because he believes David would bolt from a foster home. He also believes Anthony will be a loving parent – the man is already the grandfather of two healthy children.

So, apparently, does David’s father. Despite the two tumors in his head, he is stubbornly refusing to die, making sure to eat and drink just a little bit, Mr. Rodriguez said. The day he called in the fall, Mr. Rodriguez said, “That was the first thing he said to me; ‘I’m not going anywhere till all this is settled.’ ”

Santa Barbara News Press Shifting Paradigms

Rich Kid, Poor Kid – and Few in Between

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.

Shane is an aspiring golfer who lives in Montecito and has a swimming pool, chipping green and a sand trap in his backyard.
Shane is an aspiring golfer who lives in Montecito and has a swimming pool, chipping green and a sand trap in his backyard.

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.

David is among just a handful of the school’s students who are homeless. He and his father, Lee Haralson, share a tarp-covered RV in a parking lot at Dwight Murphy Field.
David is among just a handful of the school’s students who are homeless. He and his father, Lee Haralson, share a tarp-covered RV in a parking lot at Dwight Murphy Field.

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.

Erika's family has lived all over the world: New York, Colorado, Sweden, Denmark.Through their professions and avocations, her parents have exposed her to a healthy mix of arts, sciences, athletics and languages.
Erika’s family has lived all over the world: New York, Colorado, Sweden, Denmark.Through their professions and avocations, her parents have exposed her to a healthy mix of arts, sciences, athletics and languages.

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.

Eduardo, a seventh-grader, has lived his entire life in a subsidized housing unit on Soledad Street. But his days at the apartment could be numbered: His older brother, a senior at Santa Barbara High, was recently involved in a gang brawl and was sent to Los Prietos Boys Camp, his family said. Now, the Santa Barbara Housing Authority, which does not tolerate drug use or gang involvement among tenants, is deciding whether to evict the family. (See his story in "Tale of 4 Families" sidebar)
Eduardo, a seventh-grader, has lived his entire life in a subsidized housing unit on Soledad Street. But his days at the apartment could be numbered: His older brother, a senior at Santa Barbara High, was recently involved in a gang brawl and was sent to Los Prietos Boys Camp, his family said. Now, the Santa Barbara Housing Authority, which does not tolerate drug use or gang involvement among tenants, is deciding whether to evict the family.

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.


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.

Built in 1932, Santa Barbara Junior High School 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.
Built in 1932, Santa Barbara Junior High School 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.

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.”


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 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.