“When they told me, I cried,” said Claudia Lopez about learning her high school is closing at the end of the year. “My first reaction was that I was mad. My second reaction was, why my school? I felt like my life was spiraling out of control again.”
A sophomore, Lopez was referred to El Puente Community School/Santa Barbara by the county probation office after she was busted for petty theft. Since then she has gotten off probation and, most importantly, stopped using drugs. Of the school staff, she said, “They made me see me for who I was, they helped me build self-esteem, and they helped me grow. They were always there for me whenever I needed somebody to talk to.”
Run by the S.B. County Education Office (SBCEO), the school serves children who have been suspended or expelled from Santa Barbara and Carpinteria high schools, who have excessive truancies, or who would just like a more structured environment. With locked doors and hawk-eyed staff that stand sentinel at the end of every school day until all of the students have dispersed, the school isn’t for everybody. Activists have decried it as a link in the “schools-to-prison pipeline,” but for many a South Coast student, it has been a lifesaver.
Marsha Wright, who runs Extended Opportunity Programs and Services at SBCC, has seen plenty of El Puente alums walk through her door on their way to becoming successful collegians. “This is a population who, given the right environment, have proven to be successful,” she said. Probation officer Steve DeLira said, “I couldn’t imagine our county without the El Puentes.” (There is another in Lompoc and a similar school in Santa Maria. Both will remain open.)
Probation recommends students who need to catch up on credits or may be transitioning from Los Prietos Boys Camp or other out-of-home placements back to high school. “El Puente” is Spanish for “The Bridge.” A probation deputy chief estimated that currently about 17 of their referrals are at the school.
The school has served 133 children this year, but the current population is 66 — including four from Carpinteria — because not all students remain for an entire year. This is down from 328 students served two years ago, as the Santa Barbara district has made a concerted effort to remove fewer students from its campuses. With such a low enrollment, the County Education Office found the cost of running the school had become untenable.
Spokesperson Wendy Shelton said that it costs close to $1 million annually to operate the campus in a nondescript building on East Gutierrez Street leased from SIMA Management Corporation. The lease and maintenance fees add up to $214,000 annually. The SBCEO estimates that the state contributes about $640,000 to the school, although that number is tied to enrollment.
Students were notified last Friday by SBCEO administrator Fred Razo that El Puente would close for good at the end of the year. Although they had heard rumors to that effect, the news surprised them, as well as their parents, community members, and school board trustees.
The decision apparently came on the heels of a meeting between County Superintendent Bill Cirone and Santa Barbara Unified Superintendent David Cash last Wednesday. While the SBCEO maintains that the two agreed on the need to close El Puente and that Cash would like his district to be responsible for all of its students, Cash told The Santa Barbara Independent, “It is not my decision to close El Puente, and I don’t want it closed.”
He said the district would meet with all non-graduating students individually to help them determine what their best option will be next year. The trickiest question will be what to do with expelled students who currently have no school to attend within the Santa Barbara district. Six of the students currently at El Puente are expelled.
In an email to this newspaper, Shelton said, “In our letters to Dave Cash, we have reiterated that if he would like us to run a smaller program at a different site, for fewer students, we are open to that conversation as well.” Cirone surmised that the discussion about post–El Puente options may have been where the two supes miscommunicated. School Board President Monique Limón said, “It doesn’t matter how this was prompted. We have to figure out how to serve our students.”
As for Lopez, she does not feel as if she is ready to return to a regular high school with thousands of students. An aspiring psychologist, she was planning on taking dual enrollment courses at City College in the fall. Before attending El Puente, she said, “I thought I was just gonna be a high school dropout, and I wasn’t going to amount to much.” Now, she feels as though her school has dropped out on her. “It’s a hard thing to accept,” she said, “because that’s what I’m used to and that’s all I know.”