Are Pasadena Public Schools Really That Bad?

Students at Field Elementary School in Pasadena, California (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Brita)

WE'RE ANSWERING THE QUESTIONS ABOUT SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA THAT KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT. IF YOU HAVE ONE, ASK IT HERE.


The superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District was touring a new home in Pasadena eight years ago when he mentioned to his realtor that he had five young children. Her response came as an unwelcome surprise.

"She felt it necessary to recommend that I place my kids in a combination of schools; private as well as public," Superintendent Brian McDonald said. "She had us taking our kids as far away as Glendora, and that really struck me as odd... for her to recommend not placing [even] one of our kids in the Pasadena Unified School District."

But McDonald, who has served as both the chief academic officer and superintendent in Pasadena, isn't the first parent to hear bad reviews of the city's school system. A negative reputation has plagued PUSD for decades.

"Word on the street, on the playground, in the grocery checkout line [has been] you can't send your kids to public schools in Pasadena," says Susan Savitt Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Education Network.

Some of that reputation comes straight from the numbers. PUSD's ratings on GreatSchools.org, a popular website that scores many of America's schools, are below average.

But those numbers, and the ongoing bad press, seem at odds with what many would expect of a public school system serving a relatively moneyed suburb of Los Angeles. The median house price in the city of Pasadena is $824,100.

To that end, an anonymous reader wrote in and asked us: "Pasadena seems like a well-off city, with high property values. Why are over half the schools considered below average? What is the history? Also, is Pasadena the only well-off local community with not great schools?"

A HISTORY ROOTED IN RACISM

Like much of American history, the history of PUSD is steeped in racism and fear.

In 1970, a U.S. District Court ordered that Pasadena desegregate its schools in accordance with Brown v. Board of Education. In response, many white families left the district or sent their children to one of the area's many private schools - a 1971 New York Times article estimates that as many as 22% of white schoolchildren were pulled from the system in the year following the court's order.

With those privileged students went their privileged parents, many of whom had the time, connections and social capital to volunteer, fundraise and advocate for their local public school. The schools and the children who still attended PUSD suffered in their wake.

This trend continued for decades - between 1970 and 2000, the white, largely middle-class student population in PUSD declined from 53.7% to 15.5%, according to a 2016 report by progressive think tank The Century Foundation. And the district's reputation - at least, according to some parents and realtors in the area - remained poor throughout the years.

A CYCLE PERPETUATED

Yet, some parents who pull their kids out of public schools — worried about the quality — may be inadvertently perpetuating a cycle that contributes to the schools' low performance.

Research highlighted by the U.S. Department of Education shows that socioeconomic diversity benefits all children, and in turn, the quality of the schools they attend. Students learn to work together with people of different backgrounds, and low-income students in particular gain additional benefits from resources that may not otherwise be available to them.

Schools populated by predominantly low-income students, on the other hand, tend to fare worse than average.

In 2016, 45% of school-aged children in Pasadena were enrolled in private or charter schools.

'THE DATA DOESN'T LIE'

Some of PUSD's reputation is inarguable. Of 21 public schools within PUSD rated by GreatSchools.org, 11 are scored four or below out of a possible ten (with ten being the highest and one being the lowest). Three are given five out of ten, and seven are given a six or higher.

The district's ratings are below those of nearby districts in L.A. County with similar property values. In Burbank, where the median home price $827,200, all but one of the public schools rated by GreatSchools.org receives a six or above; most are sevens, eights and nines. In Glendale, where the median home price is $847,200, 19 out of 23 public schools rated are given a six or above.

"The data doesn't lie," says Carrie Goux, a spokesperson for GreatSchools.org. "It might not tell the whole story, but it doesn't lie. These ratings are telling us something that's important."

STEAM, STEM AND THE ARTS

City and school officials in Pasadena are well aware that they need the buy-in of local families of all socioeconomic levels in order to see their district thrive.

"We have taken a very deliberate approach in improving our offerings to families," McDonald said.

To that end, they've made a number of strides in their attempt to elevate the schools. The district recently won a $7.9-million federal grant, which allowed it to implement magnet programs at several low-performing schools. Those included a STEAM program at Washington Middle School, a STEM program at Washington Elementary School and an arts-themed magnet program at Eliot Middle School, according to McDonald.

Ten schools or all grade levels now offer dual language immersion programs in Spanish, Mandarin and French, and Pasadena High school has implemented an App Academy.

And in 2013, the district began an official collaboration with local governments of Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre — all served by PUSD — to enact holistic improvements to students' quality of life outside as well as inside the school walls.

The district's test scores are beginning to reflect these efforts. According to California's Department of Education, 45% of PUSD students met or exceeded the standard set for their grade level in English language arts and literacy in 2018, as compared to 36% of students in 2015.

The same improvement could be found in math. In 2018, 35% of students met or exceeded the set standard, as compared to 29% in 2015.

Both statistics, however, fall slightly below the state benchmark of 49.8% in English and 38.7% in math.

At the same time that the district and the city are working to improve the schools' quality, several parent and local advocacy groups are also involved in efforts to remedy the district's reputation. Schwartz's organization, the Pasadena Education Network, was founded in 2006 after local parents noticed that the district's poor reputation was not necessarily deserved.

"They realized they were hearing [rumors] from people who either didn't have kids in the schools or hadn't had kids in the schools in decades - or ever," she said.

PEN encourages parents to tour the district's schools to see for themselves what types of programs are available.

GreatSchools.org's Goux agrees. The organization's ratings, she says, aren't intended to be taken as an absolute determination of a school's attributes.

Rather, they give parents "the tools to go in and take a tour of that school, ask questions... and sometimes, have really tough conversations."

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