In an effort to ease overcrowding and draw back students who have fled to private schools, Pasadena's public school district is moving forward with a plan to open four campuses over the next several years.
Supt. Percy Clark recently won school board approval for his proposal to open a middle school in affluent Sierra Madre this fall and three other campuses in more densely populated northwest Pasadena over the next three years.
His plan brought some criticism from the African American community that the schedule favored the mainly white Sierra Madre area over the poorer and primarily minority neighborhoods in northwest Pasadena.
Clark denies any favoritism.
"When you look at the whole package, it benefits kids in our entire district, regardless of geography, socioeconomics or ethnicity," said Clark, who came to the Pasadena Unified School District more than two years ago with a mission to raise test scores and lure thousands of private school students back to the district, which includes Altadena and Sierra Madre.
These changes will have families "wanting to come to this district," he said.
In addition, the Pasadena school board has decided to institute all-day preschool throughout the district and offer sixth grade at elementary schools that for years have had just kindergarten through fifth grade.
Some parents have said they want to keep their children in the more-sheltered elementary school environment longer.
Under Clark, the district has abolished its program of busing for integration. The busing started in the 1970s, and many parents considered it outdated.
Clark instituted an open enrollment program, allowing parents to apply to have their children attend any school. Last year, the district opened an arts magnet, which attracted several hundred former private school families.
The most recent plan, approved by the board last month, has been welcomed by most community members, who say it will provide more choices to parents and students.
The Sierra Madre project is first in line because it can be accomplished most easily, officials said. It will house as many as 300 students in a district-owned building that has been leased to a private school. Getting the campus ready is expected to cost about $300,000.
But critics say the proposal unwisely ignores the district's declining enrollment and the state budget crisis. And some activists contend that the plan caters to the affluent and puts the needs of the district's poor and minority children second.
Northwest Pasadena's planned campus for 362 students in kindergarten through eighth grade is to open in 2006 at a district-owned building now housing students from another school that is under renovation.
The district is searching for land in northwest Pasadena to build two primary centers for a total of 600 students in kindergarten through second grade. The district has not yet determined costs for the three projects.
"We've been promised a new school in the northwest for years," said Maurice Morse, a former teacher.
She said the money being spent to open the Sierra Madre school could be used to build or find space for a northwest school immediately.
Joe Hopkins, publisher of the Pasadena Journal, an African American newspaper, wrote in an editorial last week that, although a new school in Sierra Madre "may be great for the white parents for their kids in Sierra Madre, what about the black and brown kids in the northwest?"
He wrote that, despite the district's recent promises for the northwest, he believed that Pasadena Unified would "keep giving lip service to building or opening a new school" there.
District officials, however, say the Sierra Madre school's student body is expected to be highly diverse, with an enrollment about 60% Latino, African American and Asian. (Districtwide, Latino students compose about 52% of enrollment; blacks, 29%; whites, 15%. The remainder are Asian American and others.)
Peter Soelter, one of two school board members -- out of seven -- who voted against opening the Sierra Madre school before the other campuses are ready, said he believed that the district was "financially in very uncertain times."
Enrollment has dropped from 22,426 last year to 21,850 this year, meaning less state funding. Soelter said he wanted to move forward with all school sites simultaneously to "provide options that are more comprehensive than piecemeal."
Supt. Clark acknowledged that northwest Pasadena families had been promised a new school in 1997, when voters approved a $240-million construction bond issue.
He said that finding land for new schools there had been a challenge but that last month's actions would push the effort forward.
Bill Bibbiani, a board member who voted for the entire plan, said: "I'm as frustrated as anybody over the lack of progress in the northwest, but it's more difficult to find land and find a site. What we have repeatedly faced there is 'not in my backyard.' "
Jaime Gonzalez, parent of a student at northwest Pasadena's Madison Elementary School, said that he was not upset about timelines or the Sierra Madre school, but that he was looking forward to easing campus crowding in northwest Pasadena.
Hundreds of students from that area are bused to other neighborhoods' schools, and that would change if more space were available locally, he said.
Sierra Madre parent Katina Dunn, said Clark's efforts to improve Pasadena schools persuaded her to keep her 11-year-old son, Jack, in public schools.
She said she appreciates the diversity in race and class in Pasadena's public schools. Dunn, a former journalist, and her husband, an actor, previously paid about $8,000 a year to send their son to a private school.
But with all of the changes in Pasadena Unified, they moved him to a district school two years ago. Next year, they may enroll him in the new Sierra Madre school or Wilson Middle School.
"That's the thing," Dunn said. "Now you have school options and choice. You can shop around."