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Public Schools in Pasadena Achieve Gains as Strife Ends

Times Urban Affairs Writer

After a bitter desegregation fight that lasted more than a decade, the Pasadena public schools seem to be settling down.

No longer preoccupied with divisive racial issues, school officials have been able to concentrate more on educating students--and lately they are pleased with the result.

Teacher salaries are up 10% this year. Class size has been reduced in elementary schools, and some high school teachers have been given lighter teaching loads so that they can spend more time on class preparation. Most important, test scores of black and Latino pupils have increased sharply, while white students’ scores have remained high.

For the Pasadena schools, the last few years have brought a turnaround.

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In 1970, U. S. District Judge Manuel L. Real found the Pasadena Unified School District to be unconstitutionally segregated and approved a mandatory busing plan to correct the problem. This was the first federal court order of its kind on the West Coast and one of the first outside the South.

Battle for Control

For most of the next 10 years, liberals and conservatives kept the community in an uproar as they hurled accusations at one another and battled to control the school board.

During these years, white enrollment declined sharply--from 53.7% of total enrollment in 1970 to 29.1% in 1980, when the court order was lifted. Last fall, it was 23.4%.

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Much of the decline was due to demographic change--the white birth rate slowed and the city’s Latino community grew rapidly. In 1970, Latino pupils made up only 9.2% of total enrollment, but by 1980 that had increased to 22.2% and by last fall it was 29.3%.

But some of the change was also due to “white flight"--white families either moving out of the school district (which includes Altadena, Sierra Madre and some unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County, as well as Pasadena) or sending their children to private schools.

Private School Enrollment Up

In 1970, about 19% of the elementary school-age children attended private schools. By 1980, the percentage had risen to 25.8%.

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“It was not only white flight but bright flight,” school board President Katie Nack said. “We lost some of our best minority students too, because of fear of what might happen and because of a relaxation of academic standards.”

The federal court order was lifted six years ago, and today the school board takes what Nack described as a “very relaxed” approach to desegregation, and just tries to maintain as much racial balance as possible in a district that is almost 80% minority.

About half of the district’s 22,300 pupils are bused, many for racial balance purposes. School attendance boundaries have been drawn to try to include a maximum number from each of the three main racial or ethnic groups--black, Latino and white--at each school.

Minority Numbers Increase

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Despite these efforts, minority enrollment has climbed past 90% at a few schools and has reached 85% at several more.

School officials, who are generally proud of what the district has to offer, complain that some real estate agents still steer families away from the public schools.

“When I was looking for a house here, several realtors subtly, or not so subtly, hinted that I ought to consider private schools,” said William A. Bibiani, director of the district’s testing program. “I responded with a tirade because Pasadena is producing a quality school product.”

After taking over in February, 1985, Superintendent of Schools Phillip B. Jordan has concentrated more on strengthening educational performance than on desegregation.

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“When I was interviewed for the job, some of the board members asked me what I was going to do about that, " Jordan said, referring to declining white enrollment. “I said I’m not going to do anything about that. I’m going to try to produce educational programs that meet the needs of the students we’ve got. If others want to join, as they see good things happening, that’s fine, but I’m not going to design special programs for them. The board hired me, so they must have agreed.”

This year’s 10% pay raise for teachers and other employees cost the district $4.7 million. Another $1 million went into educational improvements--class-size reduction in elementary and middle schools (grades 6, 7 and 8), more science and mathematics classes in high school, and additional funding for libraries and science labs.

Able students now are able to take advanced-placement classes at Caltech, and a Caltech physics professor is redesigning the district’s elementary science curriculum.

To crack down on drug and gang problems, the school board has “closed” all four of the district’s senior high school campuses, allowing students to leave only at the end of the day.

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When scores on the California Achievement Test are studied by racial and ethnic group, “you find our kids are scoring better than their peers in comparable districts,” said Bibiani, the testing director.

Last year, the average white student scored in the 76th percentile--comparable to the results achieved by other affluent, predominantly white school districts in the nation, according to Bibiani.

Minority Scores Improve

The average Latino student scored at the 54th percentile, for Latinos an increase of 19 points since 1975. The average black student in Pasadena scored at the 47th percentile for blacks--still slightly below the national average, but up 20 points since 1975.

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“What Pasadena’s record shows, after all these years of controversy, is that minorities can make significant gains without detriment to white performance,” Bibiani said. “The numbers are there for anyone to see.”

But he added, “I don’t think the community accepts this” as true, because fewer middle- and upper-middle-class parents are sending their children to public schools.

White flight is continuing, board president Nack noted, adding, “I don’t know where the slide ends.”

Tiny Minority

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Whites have become such a tiny minority at some schools that some Pasadena blacks now question the wisdom of continuing with desegregation efforts.

Elbie Hickambottom, the school board’s only black member, declined to be interviewed for this article, but a few months ago he told the Washington Post, “Not too very long from now, we could be back to the same segregated school system we had 10 or 12 years ago . . . and there is nothing we can do about it.

“In fact, my attitude is I’m not sure I want to do anything about it. We went through the court order. We tried. It really hasn’t worked because the majority didn’t want it to work. Now I say let’s move ahead with the educating of our kids, providing the best possible education.”

Supt. Jordan said returning to segregated neighborhood schools would risk a new lawsuit and would jeopardize substantial state desegregation funding for which the district recently became eligible.

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Peter F. Hagen, who runs the Pasadena desegregation plan, said some young families are asking: “ ‘Why should we bus our kids across town to a school with a mostly minority enrollment, when we have one of those right in the neighborhood?’ It’s hard to argue with that, but the initiative is going to have to come from them. Nobody around here is going to push it. We have too many scars from past battles to be suggesting a return to neighborhood schools.”

FO A racially-mixed group of sixth-graders at Pasadena’s Washington Middle School cheers their kickball team on during class. Pasadena’s schools were ordered desegregated in 1970.


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