October 18, 2007
Can Pasadena become a ‘city of justice?’
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Until recently, our city government took no responsibility for the declining enrollment and financial problems facing PUSD. They acted as though the city's development and housing policies had no relationship to PUSD's declining numbers. They acted as though the kids attending PUSD schools were somehow not the responsibility of city officials as stewards of the entire community.
As a political scientist, I understand this. City officials didn't pay attention to our schools because they assumed that the parents who send their kids to public school didn't vote. After all, about two-thirds of the children attending PUSD are poor or almost poor -- that is, they are eligible for free and reduced lunches. And a majority are students of color.
On the two issues that matter most to Pasadena's low-income residents -- schools and housing -- our city officials acted as though it was "not their problem." But, fortunately, that is changing. There is now a growing and broad movement in Pasadena to address these two issues.
In the last year, thanks to lots of grass-roots organizing by parents, teachers and community residents, city officials are taking some responsibility for the success of our public schools.
Another catalyst for this growing partnership between the city and the school district was a report commissioned last year by the Pasadena Educational Foundation. It was called "One Pasadena: Tapping the Community's Resources to Strengthen the Public Schools."
The report, by consultant Richard Kahlenberg, really struck a nerve in our community. It pointed out that Pasadena has more world-class institutions -- colleges, museums, theaters, hospitals and science-based businesses -- than any other city its size. If these institutions -- and the broader community -- got behind our public schools, PUSD could be a first-class school system.
In fact, our public schools are actually improving quite dramatically. In 2001, 14 of our schools had API scores below 600. Only three schools had API scores over 700. This year, 20 of our schools have API scores over 700, five have API scores over 800 and none have API scores below 600.
There are some incredible programs in our public schools around art and music (every school offers instrumental music, band and orchestra), science and math and the International Baccalaureate programs at Willard, Wilson and Blair.
Marshall High School was named by Newsweek as one of the 300 top schools in the nation. Our staff includes California's principal of the year and teacher of the year.
The school district has wonderful partnerships with the Huntington Library, the Constitutional Rights Foundation and the Huntington Botanical Center. Recent graduates of PUSD high schools have been accepted at some of the nation's top colleges and universities.
But there's much more room for improvement, especially at our high schools, where the dropout rate and the number of students performing below grade level are unconscionably high.
The new superintendent, Edwin Diaz, and the school board are working well together and building on the successes. But they can't do it alone.
We urgently need to increase state spending for public education. Sadly, California ranks 42nd in the country in per-student spending. We spend $6,765 per student. The national average is $8,041.
We also need to get our city government to be a stronger partner with our school district. There are many ways that the city can support our school district and the 20,000 kids who attend our public schools. For example, the city could maintain the playgrounds and athletic fields, help manage the school libraries, provide school nurses, transport students to and from schools and help pay for after-school programs at every elementary school.
Many other cities do a great deal with and for their local school districts. To learn from these best practices, a number of local groups are sponsoring a public forum on "Civic Investment in Our Public Schools" on Sunday, Nov. 4, at the Pasadena Senior Center, at the corner of Holly and Raymond streets, from 1:30-3:30 p.m. The forum will include speakers from four cities -- San Francisco, Santa Monica, Long Beach and Burbank -- who will describe how they work closely with their public schools.
There's a growing political constituency to improve our public schools, address the shortage of affordable housing and address the widening gap between the rich and everyone else. That's what it will take to make Pasadena the city of justice that it can be.
Peter Dreier, professor of politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program at Occidental College, is co-author of "The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City." This column is based on a talk he gave at All Saints Church on Oct. 7.
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