Video: How to find a middle school
Video: A guide to private schools
By Brad Munson
High Expectations and Harsh Reality
When Stan and Erica J. came to Pasadena with their third-grade daughter and a son about to enter high school, they expected to find a vibrant and successful public school system. After all, Pasadena has one of the world’s most renowned science institutes in Cal Tech; it’s known for its highly visible slice of high-income families; even its city college has earned terrific marks.
What they found instead was a highly fragmented victim of a decades-long process of “white flight” that was only beginning to emerge from serious problems with quality and leadership.
“It was really kind of a shock,” Stan said. “Pasadena itself is a great town: safe, clean, well-managed; the best of suburbia and big-city living in one place. But the schools? It took us weeks of time and tons of anxiety to sort it all out.” Ultimately, their younger daughter entered one of PUSD’s highly successful elementary schools and is quite happy, but after looking at the high schools in the district, they opted to send their son to one of the local charter schools instead. “And even that was a compromise,” Erica said. They aren’t alone: a huge percentage of local families have opted to avoid the public school system entirely over the last forty years.
The Pasadena Unified School District has eighteen elementary schools, three middle schools, a couple of K-6’s and three high schools, serving a total of just under 20,000 students. The district itself extends into the unincorporated area of Altadena and the small, affluent city of Sierra Madre, but even taken together, the number of students served is a surprisingly small proportion of the school-age children in the area. Athough the population of Pasadena is 36 percent Hispanic, 14 percent African American, and 39 percent white, the school district population is 56 percent Hispanic, 21 percent African American and only 16 percent white, reflecting the aforementioned white flight issue. In fact, the vast majority of high-income families of any race are not part of PUSD; they belong to one of the affluent mini-districts that surround Pasadena — South Pasadena and San Marino to the south, La Canada/Flintridge to the north. Today, PUSD itself is shrinking; enrollment has dropped by 2,000 in the last couple of years, and the district just voted to close two of its elementary schools next year.
On the other hand, and in spite of a long-standing bad reputation, things are actually getting better. The district’s statewide performance index has improved significantly every year since 2006; the district now includes a National Blue Ribbon school, and another has been included in Newsweek’s Top National Public High Schools list. Most recently, it even beat the (pretty awful) statewide dropout rate by an enviable margin, due in large part to a new program that’s actually keeping kids in school. Statewide education experts agree: Pasadena is finally finding its way up and out.
Special Programs and Schools
Part of the district’s gradual success is due to some long-standing and well-regarded special programs and schools. McKinley , for instance, is a K-8 arts-focused school that is among the most popular in the district. Blair Middle School and High School, along with Willard Elementary (right across the street), offer the challenging International Baccalaureate curriculum; there are “total immersion” language programs at two elementary schools, and there are “career pathways” — essentially special career-based academies — scattered throughout the high schools, including paths in health; engineering and environmental science; arts, entertainment, and media; business and entrepreneurship; information technology; and more. You can get more information in the district's info guide.
A District of Choice
Generally speaking, any resident of the district can go to any school in the district. But it’s not a sure thing. Your child is guaranteed a position only in the school that the district has designated as your “neighborhood school;” you can apply through the annual open enrollment to any other school, but each of them has different qualifications and different levels of non-neighborhood students who are accepted in any given year, so admission is not assured. This means that parents need to do the research and make some serious decisions early.
Alternatives: Charter Schools and Private Schools
The high cost of private schools and long-standing dissatisfaction with the public schools has made the San Gabriel Valley fertile ground for the charter school movement. Many have been tried; few have survived. At the moment there are only three charter schools in Pasadena itself, with new ones being born every year. There are a number of stable institutions in adjoining communities as well. The local options include Odyssey, more than ten years old, and Aveson, with two separate schools for K-5 and 6-12, founded in 2005.
Private schools have been the long-established alternative for the area since the busing crisis of 1970. There are more than sixty in the Pasadena area (about three times the norm for a city its size); one-third of the local student population goes to private schools. Not all of the schools are prohibitively expensive, but most have some overriding philosophy that requires a serious and prolonged ‘buy-in’ from parents that extends far past signing tuition checks. Still, many families have found educational approaches that resonate for them, and many of these schools have been a part of the Pasadena educational mix for generations.
Finding the Islands of Excellence
Pasadena has certainly been through some rough times, like many school districts in the last three decades. Budget shortfalls and demographic changes all but promise that the future, particularly the near future, will be challenging as well. But the relatively new supervisor, Edwin Diaz, is making significant strides managing to create and maintain islands of excellence, accessible to all parents, regardless of income or location. You just have to find them.
But finding the right fit for your child — if there’s a ‘right fit’ at all — takes some work. Jane Harrington, a single mom, chose to avoid the district early on with both her children, and shepherded them through one of the area’s new charter schools for their K-8 education.
As high school came around, she went through the selection process again. She did her homework, visited schools, observed a few teachers at work and ultimately put her high-achieving kids into one of PUSD’s previously “questionable” high schools — one that had made a commitment to improve, and had the stats to show it.
It turned out to be a great move; both her kids moved on to successful universities, just as she had hoped.
“I looked at the charters, I looked at the private schools and actually, seriously, none of them looked like the right place for my kids,” she said recently. “Here I could get involved, the curriculum matched their interests, I could stay a part of it, and I could watch my kids succeed.”