Santa Barbara Unified School District

O U R   H I S T O R Y

Lincoln School, Home Unit, Grade 2, 1936; Collection: Community Development and Conservation Collection; Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara


Historical timeline of education and public schools in Santa Barbara
Written from various sources by Camie Barnwell, Chief of District Communications, SB Unified 


The Chumash tribe first settles along the Santa Barbara coast more than 13,000 years ago. Their culture consists of basketry, boat making, hunting, fishing, herbalism, bead making and trading. Although there were no formalized schools, the Chumash live in well-organized villages where children learn by observing and doing. Their parents and family members are their first teachers.


Spanish maritime explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno gives the name "Santa Barbara" to the Channel on December 3, the eve of the feast day of Saint Barbara.

While explorers frequent the Alta California region over many decades, it is not until 1782 that a force of soldiers settle in Santa Barbara to build the Presidio, the last in a chain of four military fortresses built by the Spanish along the coast of Alta California.


Education in the remote Western frontier is limited, inconsistent and substandard. Literate settlers teach their own children. In addition, a woman called an amiga could open her home where she “instructed not only her own children but those of her neighbors.” Those with financial means hire tutors or send their children to schools abroad.

Washington School, corner of Arrellaga and Anapamu Streets; Collection: Community Development and Conservation Collection; Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Junior High School band, early 1950s; Santa Barbara Unified School District


Jefferson School; Miss Evarts’ fifth grade class, May, 1913; Walker A. Tompkins Collection; Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara


Records show one of the first public schools in Alta California opens in San Jose and another in San Diego. A need for a school in Santa Barbara is also felt.

State Governor Diego de Borica asks each town to donate one peso per person for the purpose of building a school.

Following suit, Don Felipe Antonio de Goicoechea, commander of the Santa Barbara Presidio from 1784-1802, asks Santa Barbara residents to donate one peso each to bring education to the Presidio.


The first school on record in Santa Barbara opens at the Presidio. Qualified teachers who can read and write are hard to come by. Commandante Goicoechea hires Jose Manuel Toca, a grumette or “ship boy” from a Spanish transport in the harbor who can barely read or write. The town of Santa Barbara is ordered to pay Toca $125 for instruction of the children. Each Presidio soldier is required to pay him one dollar for their own instruction, as literacy is required for promotion in rank.

Classes are taught in Spanish. Learning is based upon the three educational necessities of the time, prescribed by the governor’s orders: reading, writing and the teaching of the Christian doctrine.

Toca leads the modest school for two years before returning to his duties as a ship boy. By 1796, there are 32 students enrolled in the Presidio school.


Another sailor, José Medina, becomes the teacher of the Presidio school, followed by Manual Varga in 1798. Education for girls includes dancing, music, religion and amiability and for boys, expert horsemanship and gentlemanly ways.

Early 1800s

Education at the Presidio disintegrates as formal schooling is not generally deemed a high priority and children are often needed for chores. The wealthy continue to send their children abroad or hire tutors.


One of the largest earthquakes in California history completely destroys the first Mission along with most of Santa Barbara. With an estimated magnitude of 7.2, and a hypothesized epicenter near Santa Cruz Island, the quake also produces a tsunami which carries water all the way to modern-day Anapamu Street, and carries a ship a half-mile up Refugio Canyon.

Santa Barbara High School Olive and Gold Girls’ Basketball Squad, 1911; Walker A. Tompkins Collection; Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara


The Spanish flag is lowered, and the Mexican flag is raised over Santa Barbara. Records show the existence of two schools at that time: one at the Presidio serving 67 students, and one at the mission serving 44. Schools continue to struggle and decline during this period, and are not often operating due to the lack of qualified teachers. 


Governor Jose Figueroa reports that the school situation has deteriorated to such a state that only three primary schools are operating in Alta California, including one poorly-functioning school in Santa Barbara led by “ill-qualified, inexperienced men, and attended by few children. These schools were for boys, none for girls existed, not for several years had any attempt been made in connection with female education.” (Owen H. O’Neill)


Records show a school of sorts is operating in Santa Barbara. One student around that time later related that “she went to school in an adobe house in Santa Barbara, where a Spaniard taught them many new things, but when he said the earth was round, they all laughed out loud.”


A decree by Mexican Governor of California Manuel Micheltorena makes education obligatory for children over
the age of six, with provisions to exclude those who could be tutored privately or who were needed at home.


The Mexican flag is lowered, and the United States flag is raised, in Santa Barbara.


California is admitted as the 31st state. Immediately after, Santa Barbara becomes a city. The county of Santa Barbara also is formed.


The Santa Barbara Gazette prints editorials pressing for school improvements, including the need for teachers qualified to instruct in English.


Despite economic troubles, plans move forward to build a new school house in Santa Barbara under the supervision of County Superintendent Pablo de la Guerra. The new school opens in 1863 at a cost of $2,074.

La Cumbre Junior High

La Cumbre Junior High School; Community Development and Conservation Collection; Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara

June 6, 1866

The Santa Barbara School District is formed. 

At the time, there were three districts in the region: San Buenaventura, Montecito, and Santa Barabra. Census reports show that there were 1,243 children between the ages of five and 15 residing in the county, with 325 enrolled in public plus another 41 in private schools. Each district has two schools, with the length of the school year varying from three to five months. The teachers’ salaries range from $30 to $50 per month.


U.S. Congress creates the Department of Education.


Census shows that the Santa Barbara district has a total of 785 children.


Agitation increases for the improvement of school facilities. A letter to the editor published in the Santa Barbara Post in May 1869, reads “On four sides a dusty street; within forty yards an institution emitting an effluvia daily that would knock down a well-bred hog, with a water closet near the door without anything to screen it from the public gaze; old adobe walls, moist at all seasons, and you have an object sufficient to disgust the minds of your children and it ought to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of any and every school officer who insists on a school being kept in any place so entirely inappropriate.”


Local voters approve .70 cents per $100 to raise $5,000 to build a new schoolhouse.


A watershed event in the history of local public education, Lincoln School opens at Cota and Anacapa streets. The City grants school trustees permission to establish the city’s first playground.


The second floor of Lincoln School becomes Santa Barbara High School, home of the Dons.


Kindergartens are integrated into the district.


On June 3 of this year, 11 seniors from Santa Barbara High School are celebrated in a standing-room-only graduation ceremony at Lobero’s Opera House. The Lobero was lavishly decorated with flags and bunting and a large floral banner proclaiming “Class of ‘87” spelled out with marigolds set against a background of evergreens.

Early 1890s

The Sloyd School - consisting of manual training and household arts - opens to serve the district’s elementary children, a first of its kind on the Pacific Coast. Founded by wealthy Bostonian Anna S. C. Blake, the school is located at 814 De La Guerra, at the site of the current Anacapa School. The Sloyd School is the foundation for what later becomes UCSB and Santa Barbara City College.


Sloyd manual training and household arts classes are added to the district’s school curriculum.


The new Board of Education, under the leadership of Superintendent William A. Wilson, publishes the Rules and Regulations of the Board of Education of the City of Santa Barbara. This establishes the first fully realized statement of philosophy and organization of the city schools.

Lincoln School; Santa Barbara Unified School District

Santa Barbara High girl’s basketball team circa 1904. Captain, coach, player: Pearl Chase, center, holding the basketball above her head. Source: Cheri Rae


In addition to Lincoln School, Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Garfield and McKinley elementary schools are established. Later, school health and hot lunch programs are initiated.

  • Franklin Elementary (1899)
  • Washington School (1901) located at the time near the corner of Anacapa and Arrellaga streets. It was torn down in 1959.
  • Garfield and McKinley schools (1906) A new McKinley School was built at its current site in 1932.
  • Wilson School (1922)

1900-01 School Year

There are 1,312 children attending Santa Barbara elementary schools, with 28 total teachers and principals.


Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce declares: “The character of any community is exactly measured by the quality of its schools…. Thoroughly awake to the importance of having the best in all things, Santa Barbara has taken hold of her school problems with a vigor and a breadth of view that is rapidly advancing her system to a foremost place among leaders—East or West.”


The High school board splits from the elementary school district board, only to reunify almost 100 years later. (On January 12, 2011, the elementary and secondary districts became unified once again).

November 27, 1924

Santa Barbara High’s Peabody Stadium dedicated.

1925 (June 29): A massive, 6.5-6.8 earthquake hits Santa Barbara, destroying many buildings. The quake causes 13 casualties and destroys the historic center of the city, with damage estimated at $8 million (about $111 million by today’s standard) At the time, the district has 3,022 students (and 73 teachers and principals).

Early photo of the Santa Barbara High School campus, established in 1924; Santa Barbara Unified School District


Lincoln and Franklin elementary schools are torn down and rebuilt. Wilson, Roosevelt, Harding (1927), Peabody, McKinley, Garfield, La Cumbre Junior, Santa Barbara Junior, Santa Barbara High and new administration buildings are constructed (1922).


More schools are built due to the baby boom: Adams, Monroe and Cleveland elementary schools, La Colina Junior, Goleta Valley Junior, San Marcos High, and Dos Pueblos High are constructed.


Congress passes a law, the Bilingual Education Act, encouraging schools to educate immigrant students in their native languages while they worked toward English proficiency. The idea of bilingual education is strengthened in 1974 in the Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols, which found it discriminatory for the San Francisco school system to fail to properly educate students who spoke Chinese.


Open Alternative School is established.


The State of California grants Peabody School a “charter.”


Santa Barbara Charter School established.


California voters approve Proposition 227, dramatically shrinking the scope of bilingual education in the state. Santa Barbara moves to an English-only model at the elementary level.


Santa Barbara Community Academy established.


Adelante Charter School established as the César Estrada Chávez Dual Language Immersion Charter School, becoming Adelante Charter School in 2010. 


The Board of Education unanimously approves a resolution to reorganize the Santa Barbara Elementary and Secondary School Districts into a single unified school district.


California voters pass Proposition 58, repealing the 1998 “English-only” initiative.The vote sets the stage for  the state Department of Education’s Global California 2030, an initiative  challenging California schools to develop opportunities for multilingual pathways.


Santa Barbara Unified School District serves nearly 14,000 students in grades pre-K through 12.

March 13, 2020

The COVID-19 Pandemic forces Santa Barbara Unified to shut down schools and move to distance learning - transforming the way we approach teaching and learning.

March, 2021

COVID rates decline sufficiently enough to allow elementary school campuses to reopen with in-person instruction on March 1, 2021. Junior High and High School campuses permitted to reopen on March 18, 2021.

Special acknowledgment  of the resources provided by:

  • The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation
  • The Santa Barbara Historical Museum, Gledhill Library
  • The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

Additional resources & writings referenced in the compiling of this timeline:

  • Bancroft, Hubert Howe.  History of California. Vol I. 1886 . Santa Barbara: Wallace Hebberd, 1963
  • Noticias, a quarterly magazine of the Santa Barbara Historical Society. Vol. 1 LII. No. 1
  • Christian, Robert Nelson, “A Study of the Historical Development of the Santa Barbara School District” (M.A. these, University of Southern California, 1963)
  • Ebenstein, Dr. Alan “Lanny”, former Santa Barbara School Board Trustee and Santa Barbara High School graduate, author and historian: "Noticias, the Rise of UCSB" Vol. LIV No. 3. as well as his "Noticias" devoted to the history of Santa Barbara High School.
  • Owen H. O'Neill (Editor) History of Santa Barbara County, State of California, Its People and Its Resources. Published by Santa Barbara: Harold McLean Meier., 1939
  • Perissinotto, Giorgio, UCSB Professor Emeritus (2016 lecture celebrating the 150th anniversary of SBUSD)

A special thank you to Helen Murdoch for her edits and suggestions, and to Barbara Keyani, former SBUnified Public Information Officer, for her work honoring the history of Santa Barbara Unified School District, particularly during its 150th anniversary in 2016.