There’s a new public school in town, and Pasadena Unified School District supporters want you to know about it. It’s the school around the corner — yes, the one that’s always been there.
But wait. It has a lot more than a new look — it has state-of-the-art technology, bilingual education in Mandarin, Spanish or French as part of a district boasting six thematically focused magnet schools focusing on the arts or STEM. High school options include nine unique college and career academies on four campuses, including the arts and music, STEM, computer programming, media, law, health care, engineering, accelerated math and more, as well as the International Baccalaureate Program.
Come have a look and take a tour, say local Realtors, who have become well-versed in neighborhood-level education through a fortified training program on PUSD involving the combined efforts of the Pasadena Educational Foundation, Pasadena Education Network and Pasadena-Foothills Association of Realtors.
The effort has galvanized the creation of a course bolstering the acumen of Realtors, who are often the point person in a community for home buyers. The course has focused on PUSD realities versus a “perception gap” that the schools are not viable.
“The first introductory messages that some families were having were coming from the Realtor, and we heard enough anecdotes that the information being shared just did not reflect an accurate image of what the school district really was at that point,” said PEF Executive Director Patrick Conyers.
One of those anecdotes came from PUSD Superintendent Brian McDonald. When he first moved to Pasadena and was house hunting, his real estate agent told him PUSD schools were not a good option.
“That message was being shared time and again, with no basis, no factual information,” Conyers recalled. So PEF and partners began zeroing in on realty offices in town to begin a productive dialogue about public schools.
Del Lile, a Compass Pasadena Realtor and PEF board member, can attest that he is walking proof that people can change their minds about the district. Although he grew up in Pasadena and attended public schools back in the day, when his own children reached school age he and his family moved to nearby Arcadia: “I just went by the perception that was in my head for no good reason, really, and not based on any research whatsoever, but just from blindly believing something I had heard.”
Serving clients in Pasadena, however, Lile grew more curious over the years about the public schools and conflicting reports on their quality. When he began seeking more information and taking tours, Lile easily turned pro-PUSD and soon joined the Realtor Initiative, even becoming chair of the PEF branch of the collaboration that also involves the PEN and Realtors.
“I certainly fell into the category of a Realtor that would not readily recommend PUSD if someone asked … but after taking some tours through the Realtor Initiative I realized that whatever perception I had of PUSD was not matching the reality of what I was seeing,” said Lile, who explored about six schools and was floored by the innovation, creativity, teachers and facilities. “I was so completely impressed with everything I saw, I realized, ‘OK, there is a real issue here.’ I saw that we really need to give people firsthand information, so they don’t just repeat information that is wrong.”
The partners have created a three-hour course, including presentations on the open enrollment system in PUSD and how parents can choose the right schools for their children, as well as a comprehensive school site tour, volunteerism within the district and a question-and-answer period. The course, which costs $49 (donated back to PEF and PEN programs), has been full for both sessions so far. Two are currently scheduled next year.
“During the class, people are having these ‘Wow’ moments, saying, ‘I had no idea’ — they are really amazed and they want to get involved,” Lile said. “Everyone needs to walk through the PUSD schools and determine which school best fits their individual or family needs.”
Pasadena Education Network Executive Director Nancy Rose Dufford is among presenters for the course and helps people understand open enrollment, which can be a confusing process: PUSD serves three communities — Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre — with 29 schools and 17,000 students. With schools as diverse as the communities themselves, parents need to pick their priorities when choosing. About 60% of elementary school parents get their first choice, while 80% are matched with one of their top three choices. About 78% of middle school families that applied have been matched with their top choice of school and 97% of high school families have gotten their first choice.
Another presenter, local parent and Pepperdine University professor Jennifer Miyake-Trapp, helps break down the differences among public, private and charter schools.
Dufford, a parent in the local district, has seen the shift in the attitude surrounding PUSD over the years.
“More and more families in this community have realized all that public schools have to offer, and that the diversity they can find here lends to real world experiences and value. You can have great opportunities in PUSD,” said Dufford, whose PEN has become an information advocacy network for some 1,600 parents.
Leading a recent tour of Altadena Arts Magnet, Principal Benita Scheckel guided visitors through bright hallways adorned with colorful murals created by the local community’s artists and students, and showed off dance studios, music rooms, an innovation lab and a peek at the dual immersion French kindergarten.
The magnet exemplifies a comeback school, Scheckel explained, noting that at one time, it saw five principals over three years and had the lowest test scores in the district — and then was under construction for several years, pushing its enrollment down to 180 from 500. Now, parents from near and far are clamoring to enroll students there, enthralled with the dual French option and all-encompassing arts education.
“It’s very interesting to see — we are bringing back a lot of our Altadena families, who were either going to charter or parochial or private schools. Additionally, we are starting to attract families from outside PUSD — from Eagle Rock, Silver Lake, Highland Park,” she said. “I’m seeing a huge grass-roots movement toward public schools; suddenly it’s on everyone’s minds and they’ve become huge champions of us.”
As more parents, Realtors and community members tour the schools, more want to become involved, said PEF marketing director Monica Lopez, who has been approached by other school districts seeking to emulate the organization’s efforts with parents and the Realtor Initiative.
“We learned along the way that this wasn’t just a problem in our community … the issue of a perception gap among Realtors exists in other districts as well,” said Lopez, who keeps an “R&D” folder on hand to give to those districts. The initials stand for “Rip Off and Duplicate,” she laughed.
Together, the partners acknowledged the school closures announced recently by PUSD administrators. The district’s decision was based on factors including declining enrollment due to generational changes, like millennials waiting longer to have children, declining overall birthrates and soaring housing costs. None of the factors include a decline in PUSD quality, they noted.
Lopez, a PUSD parent for some 16 years, said she has also seen great change in the perception of the district over time, due to the groups’ combined efforts.
“That is something that has drastically changed in the district over the years. … People used to say Don Benito [Elementary] was the only school to go to, but that is just not true anymore. All of our schools have something wonderful to offer,” she said. “Some of that old perception lingers, and will always linger for certain people who want to tell the same story and beat that same drum … but we can replace it with our new stories. If people just come and see the schools firsthand, they will know. So please, come and see us and tell your stories!”
To learn more about the Realtor Initiative or tours at PUSD schools, or find other information, visit the Pasadena Educational Foundation website at pased.org or email PEF marketing director Monica Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org.