Teaching assistant Sonia Manzo worked with students this week at El Puente school.
Paul Wellman

Students and parents learned Friday that El Puente Santa Barbara Community School will be shutting its doors for good at the end of the school year. Run by the County Education Office, the school serves children who have been suspended or expelled from Santa Barbara district high schools. Students can also attend by choice.

Over the years, El Puente has received criticism from activists who see it as a part of the “schools-to-prison pipeline,” but it also provides a highly controlled and regimented alternative setting for kids who struggle in a typical school atmosphere.

Judette Montoya’s son Jacob Escobar began El Puente as a freshman coping with the divorce of his parents, attention deficit disorder, and a learning disability. He was eligible to return to Santa Barbara High School after the year, but he was thriving, so Montoya re-enrolled him. He is now a junior and February’s student of the month. His mother is not sure where he will go next year.

County Superintendent Bill Cirone said that Santa Barbara Unified is making a greater effort to keep its students within the district and that referrals have plummeted since David Cash took over nearly two years ago. In the 2010-2011 school year, 328 students attended the school. So far this year 133 students have been served by El Puente. The current enrollment is 66. There are two teachers and three aides on staff.

With such a small enrollment, the county found it harder to justify the cost of running the school, located in an unmarked building on East Gutierrez Street. Trustee Ed Heron said he heard yesterday that the county wanted to charge the district more money for the kids they sent there. Neither he nor Board President Monique Limón knew that the county had officially decided to close the school when contacted for comment.

Cirone said that he believes the demise of El Puente will be “a good thing” in the long run and that the decision to close it ties in with Governor Jerry Brown’s desire for individual districts to exercise more control over their schools. “I’ve always been a strong believer in local control. I’m a strong believer in the district taking care of all its kids,” he told The Santa Barbara Independent. The precipitous closing of the school puts the district in a short-term bind, however, as it will have to figure out where its expelled students will attend school next year.

As for students like Escobar, “It’s very hard for them to go back to an environment of 2,000 kids,” said Heron. Montoya agreed. “I don’t think [Escobar] is mature enough to handle that situation; I think he needs a way more structured situation.” She noted that through El Puente, he has been provided opportunities such as the chance to attend surf camp and to secure his current job at a law firm. “Some of those kids in there have gone through some really bad stuff … but they’re graduating,” said Montoya.

Santa Barbara district officials could not be reached for comment Friday evening. Superintendent David Cash did not return phone calls. Meanwhile, said Montoya, “I’m hearing a lot of the kids are devastated.”


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