Throughout her career, Jo Ann Caines had a lot of names attesting to her ferocity and formidability. “Mamma Bear” and “Tiger Mom” were just two. But at La Cumbre Junior High School — where Caines ruled the roost with undisputed authority — she was known simply as “La Jefa,” meaning The Boss. Last week, La Cumbre lost La Jefa as Caines succumbed to an unspecified illness, surrounded by members of her immediate family, at age 70. Although Caines had been on medical leave since April, news of her death last week came as both a shock and a surprise to those in the Santa Barbara Unified School District community.
When Caines took over as principal at La Cumbre in 2005, district officials were on the verge of pulling the plug on what was then a very troubled school. Enrollments were plummeting; test scores likewise. La Cumbre had become Santa Barbara’s poster child for a white-flight school. “It was basically out of control,” said school boardmember Kate Parker. “Students were walking around the school grounds; they were walking in the hallways. They were everywhere except where they needed to be.”
Caines was brought in as a mid-semester Hail Mary, the previous principal having suffered a nervous breakdown. She prowled the hallways, both greeting and confronting students and shooing them into classrooms. She instilled on the campus a semblance of discipline. Students who acted out quickly got invited to her office for lunch — not an offer to be lightly declined. While sitting at a round table in her office, Caines would share a meal with students as well as her thoughts on what was happening in their lives.
Caines didn’t talk particularly softly; she was the big stick personified. “She wasn’t obviously warm and fuzzy,” recounted Parker. “But when it was all said and done, she really cared about the kids. She wanted them to do well. It mattered.”
Under Caines’s leadership, enrollment at La Cumbre jumped from 404 to 535. Reading proficiency scores increased by 20 percent. And for all Caines’s determination, white flight has remained an issue, and La Cumbre has remained about 85 percent Hispanic. Caines set out to make the campus an epicenter of the Westside community, opening the doors at 7 a.m. and shutting off the lights 12-14 hours later. In addition to all the usual after-school programs, Caines and La Cumbre offered free dinner, late-night tutorial services, and free classes for parents, such as yoga and woodshop. Even on weekends, the Modoc Road campus pops with various dance, sports, and music events.
According to Parker, Caines was shrewd and canny about leveraging state education funds. Along the way, Caines used whatever tools were at her disposal to push performance. “She raises the bar. She holds it there. You will succeed,” said Michael Baker, director of the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County. When Baker first took over a few years ago, one of his first visits was to Caines. “She was very direct. She was very blunt,” he recounted. “She told me she wouldn’t send any of her kids to [the Westside] club. I couldn’t believe it. I begged her.” Caines said the club was not safe; there was too much gang influence, she said, and not enough supervision. Two months later, Caines agreed to a visit. Impressed by the changes, she agreed to green-light the club for La Cumbre families. For Baker, that was a life changer for the Westside hub.
Caines worried about what happened to La Cumbre students when they moved on to San Marcos High School. Or as Parker put it, “She thought big; she thought vertically.” Translated, Caines figured La Cumbre students would do better in high school if they transitioned in cohorts or posses. “People do better in groups,” Parker said, especially students from underperforming schools like La Cumbre. Caines worked it out with San Marcos administrators. She also made space available at La Cumbre for evening tutorials so that “her” San Marcos students could get the help they might need to keep abreast with San Marcos peers. By any metric, the program was a significant success.
Caines may seem an unlikely champion of the educational underdog. She herself had been a child of significant wealth and privilege. Her father, Frederic Slavin, owned one of Santa Barbara’s premier department stores. Her mother’s family helped found the Santa Barbara Scholarship Foundation. Caines grew up in a house designed by Richard Neutra, one of Southern California’s defining architects of the 1950s. As a young girl, she had a rebellious streak and chip on her shoulder. She got into more than her fair share of trouble, famously ditching French class by climbing out the windows when she attended Santa Barbara Junior High.
Caines, it would turn out, had a great ear for languages, learning at one point to speak five. She regularly spent summers in Mexico. She was also a hell of a shot with a rifle, winning state honors on the Santa Barbara High School shooting team. She attended UCLA and then taught English as a second language in the Virgin Islands. There she met the man she would marry and have two children with. While the children remained central to Caines’s life, the marriage did not last. In 1987, Caines got her first job with the district, teaching English as a second language. In 1995, she would become principal of the then-struggling Adams Elementary. By the time Caines left, she had helped turn it around.
For fun, Caines liked to go to Vegas. But mostly she liked to bet on her students. “She’d say, ‘If these kids don’t succeed, it’s not their fault; it’s ours,” recounted Jon Clark, president of the James S. Bower Foundation. “She would not hold back about racism and about people she didn’t think should work for the district, he added. “That perspective didn’t always make the district comfortable.”
Caines leaves behind shoes sufficiently huge that the district won’t think of filling them for another year. In the meantime, the school will be run by a team that includes assistant principal Mike Alvarez along with former La Cumbre math teacher Janet Hollister, who now runs a district-wide program on math instruction.
A memorial celebration of Caines’s life will be held on Saturday, June 16, at the La Cumbre campus, starting at 1 p.m.
Correction: It was Santa Barbara Junior High School that Caines attended as a teenager, not La Cumbre Junior High.