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Task Tough for Ambitious Schools Chief

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Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, Percy Clark marched into the Pasadena public school system with a mission to raise test scores, tear down the walls of segregation and bring back thousands of Pasadena students who have fled to local private schools.

“If we can’t do it in Pasadena, and move to the top of the mountain, then we ought to shut down public schools in America,” said Clark, who frequently uses language reminiscent of the civil rights era.

Clark’s record so far has been uneven, supporters and critics say.

His efforts to improve education for the district’s current 23,600 students, who are overwhelmingly Latino and black and low income, while also trying to attract more upper income and white students, have not gone as smoothly as he had hoped.

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Clark, who is of mixed black, Latino and Native American background but considers himself African American, has been tangled in some of the racial tension he wanted to overcome with his plan to make Pasadena a “mecca for integration.” For example, someone anonymously sent him a cotton plant in the mail to suggest, Clark said, that he was an “Uncle Tom.”

The superintendent has had successes, particularly in raising test scores and the addition of some well-received academic programs. Half of the district’s 31 schools boosted their Academic Performance Index test scores last year, while about 11 remained the same, and three schools dropped slightly.

Still, the district’s scores remain low compared to state averages. And, Pasadena Unified was bruised this year when Blair High School found itself on a list of schools targeted for possible state takeover because of low test scores.

Clark last year abolished the district’s busing program, a vestige of 1970s integration efforts that many called outdated. Parents had complained that that their children were bused to campuses several miles away from home, when there were schools within walking distance. Clark also instituted an open enrollment plan, allowing parents to apply to their favorite schools.

The elimination of busing did not result in significant shifts in racial balances, because the district was already overwhelmingly black and Latino. But combined with the open enrollment program, a new magnet school for the arts and a recently adopted student dress code, the move fit Clark’s plan to make the district more attractive to families who had opted out of it. If only part of the community attends public schools, the rest will ignore the campuses and improvement will be that much harder, he said.

Some Students Return

But there has not been a stampede back. Since Clark’s initiatives began, the district estimates that several hundred families have switched youngsters from private schools to Pasadena publics. Clark, 61, who earns $176,132 a year, admits there have been roadblocks. But he is bothered by criticism that change has not happened fast enough.

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“I came into a district that was in disrepair,” he said in a recent interview. “Why not at least give me time? It’s frustrating, but I am not here for people to feel good about me. At the beginning of every surge toward excellence, not everyone is on board. Not everyone is able to grab hold of a vision.”

The city’s African American weekly, The Pasadena/San Gabriel Valley Journal, has hurled insults at Clark, calling him “a greater embarrassment to blacks than O.J. Simpson.”

Joe Hopkins, the publisher, said more effort should be dedicated to improving academics for the district’s current students, instead of trying to lure back those who have left.

“They’re not coming. They don’t want us sitting next to their blond-haired, blue-eyed daughters. They never have and they never will,” Hopkins said.

In 1970, Pasadena became the first school district outside the South to be forced by a federal court order to bus students to achieve racial balance. At that time, white students made up a little over half of the district’s enrollment but now account for only about 15%, even though whites comprise 53% of the city’s overall population. Today the district, which also includes Altadena and Sierra Madre, is about 52% Latino and 29% black.

Pasadena schools were released from the court order in 1979, and participated in voluntary desegregation until last year.

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Community activist Rene Amy said it will take more than Clark’s sweeping vision to turn Pasadena schools around and unite a city that includes both great affluence and pockets of poverty. Millions of dollars have been spent on Clark’s new programs, with what Amy said was little noticeable improvement.

“Is he a miracle worker? Is he a saint? No, absolutely not,” Amy said. “He’s a great rhetorician. That’s wonderful, but is that what we need?”

Mike Babcock, a Pasadena Unified school board member who served as headmaster of Polytechnic private school in Pasadena for 18 years, praises most of Clark’s initiatives. “I think [Percy] has brought a tremendous amount of energy into the community,” Babcock said. “He’s heightened community awareness about public schools.”

But with cuts in state funding, it will be a challenge to improve Pasadena public schools enough so that large numbers of private school parents take notice, he said.

Clark’s personal history offers a window into his staunch support for racial and economic integration. When he lived in the predominantly black south side of Chicago as a child, the light-skinned Clark was called “white boy” and “sunshine boy.” At age 10, he moved with his half-Puerto Rican and half-black father and half-black, half-Cherokee mother to the mainly white and segregated community of Bangor, Mich.

He remembers childhood poverty, shopping at Goodwill, wearing shoes with no soles. Still, his mother took him and his sister to the library regularly and pushed education.

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Clark quickly became socially conscious. He supported the civil rights movement and affirmative action, and helped register black voters.

He received a bachelor’s degree in political science and English at Western Michigan University, and a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Clark became the first black superintendent of Lawrence Township schools, a 15,000-student district in suburban Indianapolis, where he spent 14 years. Under Clark’s charge, the district’s test scores increased, and he introduced popular magnet programs.

But in 1996, Clark was forced to resign after board members claimed he had lied to them about a romantic relationship that he had with an elementary school principal. Days after he lost his job, he was rushed to the hospital after overdosing on prescription drugs, an incident that Clark said was not a suicide attempt but rather a result of accidentally taking too many antidepressants.

“I made a serious mistake in my personal life, and I almost lost my family,” he said.

But he insists he bounced back stronger, and has mended his relationship with his three adult children and his wife of 38 years, Carol Sue Clark.

Began Open Enrollment

Clark spent the next three years working on charter school issues for the Edison Schools, a company that runs public and private schools.

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When he arrived in Pasadena, he instituted the open enrollment program, allowing area parents to apply to any of the district’s 31 schools, with a guarantee that they will be accepted into at least one of their top five choices. Residents who have at least one child between 3 and 15 receive annual catalogs describing each school’s programs, staff and test scores. Parents can apply to schools online, tour campuses and interview principals.

District officials said they do not know for sure how many students in all have transferred from private schools. But they say the number is certainly higher than the 200 former private school families who were lured into the McKinley School, a kindergarten through 8th-grade arts magnet. The campus, which has been Clark’s most ambitious venture so far, opened last year with more than 800 students.

The school has drawn mixed reactions from parents. Some said they are very satisfied, especially with the mix of students, but 20 or so parents took their students out of the school after a controversial principal switch and staff turnover.

The board also has instituted districtwide reading, math and language arts programs that have been successful in other districts, such as Los Angeles Unified.

School board member Bill Bibbiani said such programs are still far behind private schools’ curricula. “The people we are seeking to attract, the so-called ‘great white hope,’ their kids are typically entering the door with skills beyond the programs the district is mandating,” he said.

Clark’s contract is up in three years, but he hopes the board will allow him to stay.

“I have a dream that one day all of God’s children will go to school together,” he said recently. “Public schools work best when you have poor, middle-class, rich, socio-economically and ethnically diverse, all together. That’s what America is all about.”

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