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District asks: What will make students stay in Pasadena's public schools?

District asks: What will make students stay in Pasadena's public schools?
Angie Uriu, program manager of the Harmony Project, works with summer school students in a music class at Webster Elementary School in Pasadena. The school is a feeder to Eliot Middle. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The group of about 10 parents had gathered at an Altadena home on a cool June night to discuss an ultimatum: If the Pasadena Unified School District would not let their children transfer to a new arts school in Duarte, many would leave the district.

One parent threatened to move to another city, others to keep their arts-minded kids in private schools to avoid sending them to Pasadena's Eliot Arts Magnet Academy.

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"The academics are not acceptable," said Kirstin Lombardi Davis, as the other parents nodded fervently.

The parents' complaints echo a decades-long reality in Pasadena: While the city is renowned for elite cultural institutions, its public school system has a reputation for lagging behind.

Seeking to reverse its trend of declining enrollment, district leaders face a tough question: How do they persuade more families to keep their kids in local schools?

Currently, 55% of school-age children residing within the district's boundaries attend district-operated schools, with the rest enrolled in private or charter schools or studying in another district, according to a 2016 demographic report.

The district makeup is, in part, the legacy of a now-defunct 1970 federal mandate that required Pasadena to bus children to end racial segregation. Many white students left to enroll in private schools. Today, 82% of students are nonwhite, and 65% are eligible for free and reduced lunches.

Many slots in district schools remain unfilled as fewer students enroll each year.

And as the district faces a $5.7-million deficit for the 2017-18 school year, in part exacerbated by low enrollment, it is looking to shutter several campuses to better allocate its resources.

The district's financial situation is "dire," Supt. Brian McDonald said at a recent board meeting where a dozen parents — dressed in black, to draw attention to their group — had lined up to implore the district to let their children transfer out.

Districts across California, including L.A. Unified, are struggling to maintain enrollment and stay afloat financially as birthrates decline and they are hit with higher pension, healthcare and special education costs. But the high percentage of students who choose schools outside of the district makes Pasadena an outlier among its peers.

Solutions are not easy, though, and the district's actions have seen varying success.

Dual-language Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs at several elementary schools proved so popular, another in French was added. An International Baccalaureate Program offers more rigorous academic courses at Blair High School and Middle School, and in 2013 Eliot Middle School used a federal grant to transform its campus into an arts-focused magnet, with new performing studios.

Some experimentation has been especially serendipitous.

After he began coaching his son's math team, technology consultant Jason Roberts wanted to teach younger students higher-level math. This spring, a group of seventh-graders took an Advanced Placement Calculus exam after completing coursework in the subject. In the fall, some sixth-grade students will begin taking advanced classes at a "math academy" taught by Roberts and a former tenured math professor.

"We are constantly tinkering with things, trying to see what works," school board member Lawrence Torres said.

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For many, the tinkering is paying off. The number of families requesting to enroll children in the district rose last year — 365 out-of-district students were permitted to enroll and 169 students received approval to leave, according to Pasadena Unified spokeswoman Hilda Ramirez Horvath.

While overall enrollment, like that in other California districts, continues to decrease, the rate of decline in Pasadena began to flatten about three years ago — a positive sign, said board member Scott Phelps.

San Rafael Elementary School's dual-language program sealed the deal for Emily Mencken — each of her three children enrolled. When the program was established in 2009, Mencken said, the school "on paper didn't look like much." But the language immersion transformed San Rafael, she said, and her oldest daughter is now fluent in Spanish.

"When families say, 'I am going to charter or private,' they don't really know much about the public school system outside of reputation or rumor," Mencken said.

Phelps agreed. "There is a big perception gap because of segregation," he said. The families who leave the district "just haven't been in our schools in years. They take the word of people."

John "J.J." Brown holds a music class attended by students from seven schools at Webster Elementary as part of their summer school.
John "J.J." Brown holds a music class attended by students from seven schools at Webster Elementary as part of their summer school. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Despite the new programs, the negative perception persists. According to a 2016 survey of Pasadena parents, nearly three-quarters of those whose children had never attended schools in the district cited concerns over academic quality as the primary reason they had not enrolled. About the same percentage of parents who took their children out of the district also pointed to concerns with classes.

Sydney Sepulveda, 13, speaks from experience. The aspiring actress had attended Eliot for half a year starting last November and felt stuck. She said she was studying at a lower grade level than when she was home-schooled.

Duarte's California School of the Arts, which she calls her "dream school," enlists professional dancers, musicians and actors to teach advanced courses in several fields of art.

Eliot, on the other hand, offers fewer courses, most of which are introductory. The school also posts the lowest test scores of the Pasadena middle schools — in 2016, only 15% of students met or exceeded state standards for English Language Arts and 8% achieved the same in mathematics.

"She would come home and say, 'Mom, I'm not learning anything,'" said Dawn Sepulveda, her mother.

Recently, the district granted transfer requests to the families hoping to enroll their children at the Duarte school.

Sepulveda said she was grateful, but she admitted she was surprised. She had been prepared to send her daughter to a private school.

As a result of debate surrounding the inter-district transfers, Eliot will examine its own program and "see where we can refine it," Ramirez Horvath said.

Alexandra Plyler said she has relished her time at Eliot. The 13-year-old eighth-grader transferred from a private Catholic school and now plays the electric guitar. Her mother, Lupe Perez, said Alexandra "has blossomed."

"It was the best decision for her," Perez said.

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