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Sensible Talk is author Robert Niles' blog about... sensible things.

April 21, 2014

School attendance zones should build, not break, communities

Robert Niles
The Pasadena Unified School District is asking for public input as it redraws the attendance boundaries for its elementary, middle and high schools. By redrawing its attendance zones, PUSD has an opportunity to fix one of the major problems that's been crippling the district in recent decades. But will the district take this opportunity, or let it slip away?

PUSD attendance zones

Currently, PUSD breaks up its elementary classes, scattering kids from the same elementary to multiple middle schools. The same thing happens when children move from middle school to high school. The district's attendance zones for secondary schools cross the attendance zones for the various elementary schools, instead of overlaying them neatly. Throw in an elementary school, a K-8 school and a 6-12 school with no geographic zones — where students are selected for attendance by random lottery — and it's nearly impossible that a child entering a PUSD school in kindergarten will find the majority of his or her classmates attending the same school with him or her in high school.

Here's the problem with that: When the district breaks up elementary school communities, it doesn't just separate kids. The district separates parent communities, too. Active parent communities are vital in raising money and providing volunteers to support field trips, sports teams, performing arts programs, and many other student activities. When a district breaks up the networks that parents form during their first six years in the district, that makes the challenge of moving up to middle school even more difficult. And when parents don't see a functioning parent support community at the secondary school where they've been assigned, if they have the resources to leave the district, there's a strong chance that they will.

Unfortunately for all Pasadena-area kids, the parents with those resources are the ones most needed to lead and cultivate those school support networks.

Breaking up school communities also changes the way that secondary schools look at and work with elementary schools in the district. Under the current system, secondary school teachers, coaches, and directors don't know which students they'll be getting into their programs. So their focus becomes one of marketing, trying to attract students and parents to select their schools. With better-defined assignment zones, people at the district's secondary schools will know which elementary programs will feed into their school, and that they will be getting all the kids from that school.

That changes the relationship from marketing to kids to cultivating them instead. Instead of trying to "sell" to everyone in the district, secondary schools can begin to refocus on building stronger relationships with their designated feeder schools and their teachers. Secondary-level music, drama, science and sports programs can develop better feeder programs at the elementary level, working with parent support communities and creating a situation where more kids get engaged at an earlier level, encouraging more students to stay in school and to stay in the district.

Right now, the lack of defined feeder schools stands in the way of building the relationships that can cultivate and sustain these programs, keeping PUSD from offering many of the extra- and co-curricular activities available in neighboring districts.

PUSD can stop shooting itself in the foot by stopping its insane practice of breaking up elementary and middle school communities when students advance to the next level. It's time for the district to redraw its attendance zones so that all kids from one elementary feed into the same middle school, and all kids from the same middle school feed into the same high school.

That won't be easy, but that's no excuse for not doing right by Pasadena's kids. Take a look at the numbers, and you'll see that they don't line up easily, as you try to imagine how to assign elementary schools to specific secondary schools:

  • 15 K-5 elementary schools
  • 3 K-8 schools
  • 3 6-8 middle schools
  • 2 6-12 secondary schools
  • 2 9-12 high schools

But this is not impossible. I looked up a district map, and tried to assign the district's elementary schools to their nearest middle school facility, and then to do the same for middle and high schools. Here's a plan that I would like to propose to the district, as a way to keep student and parent communities together in the transition from one school to another.

After each school, I've listed its current attendance, according to published district data. In parenthesis is the average number of students per grade level at that school. For the secondary schools, I've posted a third number, in italics, that is the sum of the average number of kids per grade level at the schools that would feed into the secondary school under my plan. Under each high school, I've listed the secondary schools that would feed into it, and then each elementary school that would feed into that school.

Pasadena High School 2028 (507) 513

  • Sierra Madre K-8 School 1079 (120)
  • Wilson Middle School 667 (222) 393
    • Don Benito* 638 (107)
    • Field 514 (86)
    • Hamilton 558 (93)
    • Willard 644 (107)

Marshall Fundamental School 1848 (284) 266

  • Marshall Fundamental School
    • Webster 511 (85)
  • Norma Coombs K-8 School 414 (46)
  • McKinley K-8 School 1217 (135)

Muir High School 1112 (278) 334

  • Eliot Middle School 665 (222) 334
    • Altadena 346 (58)
    • Franklin 340 (57)
    • Jackson 316 (53)
    • Jefferson 471 (79)
    • Longfellow 520 (87)

Blair School 1153 (165) 337

  • Blair School
    • San Rafael 381 (64)
  • Washington Middle School 499 (166) 273
    • Cleveland 252 (42)
    • Madison 471 (79)
    • Roosevelt 259 (43)
    • Washington 654 (109)

The schools noted with an asterisk currently do not have a geographic attendance zone, but would need one under this plan. You'll see that for all but Marshall, my plan would assign more kids per grade than the district's high schools currently enroll. That shows the existing "leakage" of students from elementary to high school, due to drop outs and kids moving out of the district, usually to private schools.

This plan also assumes no school closures. But you can see from the attendance data that PUSD has some seriously underutilized school buildings. And we've talked before about the community's struggle to support four high schools, when compared with the level of community support enjoyed by high schools in neighboring districts. However, I've created scenarios involving several possible secondary school closures, and this process still works. PUSD can create an attendance zone map where secondary schools zones do not break up elementary school zones.

The question remains as to how to draw the elementary boundaries. I would hope that the district would start with a simple concept of assigning each home to the nearest elementary school, then moving those lines as needed to balance attendance levels. Perhaps that leads some families to be assigned not to the nearest elementary school, but to the next nearest one. In no case, however, should the district gerrymander attendance zones to send kids past two other PUSD elementary schools to get to a third, or further school.

The current zoning situation with Blair, for example, is crazy. My home is assigned to Blair for high school, even though three other public high schools are closer to my home than Blair. (In order from nearest to farthest, they are San Marino, then PHS, then Marshall, then Blair.) Everyone who lives south of Colorado Boulevard is assigned to Blair, even though almost no families with high school students in that area east of Lake actually go to Blair, according to people I've spoken with in the district who've looked at that data. Everyone I know personally who lives near us and have sent their kids to PUSD schools chose the nearer PHS or Marshall in open enrollment. Those who got in usually stayed in the district. Those who didn't, left.

I suspect that not only would the plan I propose help keep grade-level communities together, and promote stronger relationships between secondary and elementary schools, it might just help the district to retain families by reducing the need to rely upon open enrollment for families to get into the schools they want their kids to attend. Even if that doesn't happen, though, retaining and strengthening relationships among students, teachers, parents and administrators within the district can only help improve the district and make it a more attractive system for everyone in the community.

Again, let's stop letting PUSD shoot itself in the foot with its crazy attendance map. It's possible to draw a map that doesn't destroy communities. So let's insist that the district do that.

March 6, 2014

Classical music fans: ' Interviews' now available in paperback and for Kindle

Robert Niles
We are pleased to announce the publication of our next book! Laurie's Interviews: Volume 1 is now available from, in paperback ($19.95) and for Kindle ($9.95). The 300-page collection includes more than two dozen interviews with top violinists that Laurie has done for over the past six years, including ones with Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and David Garrett. Interviews: Volume 1Two-time Grammy Award-winner Hilary Hahn wrote a lovely foreword for the book. "Laurie addresses topics that are comfortable but all-consuming, such as current projects, and delves into the delicate nuances of creativity. She captures specific moments in time. I love that. In this collection, you can observe her at work, but you will also travel along with her interview subjects," she wrote.

If you buy a paperback copy of the book through Amazon, you soon will be able to add a Kindle version for just $2.95, under Amazon's Kindle Matchbook program. (It takes about a week after initial publication for that option to become active. In the meantime, if you visit that link, Amazon will suggest Kindle versions that you can buy now at a discounted price, of print books you've already bought from Amazon.)

We're planning a book launch party in Pasadena, as well as some other promotions for the book. In the meantime, we appreciate all the support from our friends and readers in buying the book and rating it highly on Your purchases and recommendations encourage Amazon to suggest the book to other customers, helping expose Laurie's work to more potential readers. (And if you'd like to "like" the book on Facebook, the official page is at

You can find links to all of our books on, and, as always, you can find Laurie's latest blog posts on Thanks for reading!

February 26, 2014

Let's get some real data on community support for new programs in PUSD

Robert Niles
What courses and activities would you like to see offered in the Pasadena Unified School District? As part of a state-mandated "Local Control Accountability Plan," the district has been looking for community input to "describe the school district’s overall vision for students." Advisory committees and community forums are nice components to that effort, but wouldn't it be nice to include some hard data from the entire local community, as well?

I'm talking about a community survey. In college, I was appointed by Northwestern University's then-president Arnold Weber as one of five student members to a 24-member student and faculty "Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience." We were charged with doing for Northwestern what the LCAP is supposed to do now for PUSD — to create a vision for the future of the institution, along with a plan for getting there.

At our first meeting, the university's Vice President for Student Affairs, Jim Carleton, insisted that the Task Force was doomed to irrelevance if we relied on our personal opinions and anecdotal "evidence" from others. We needed real data, he said, proposing a random-sample survey of the students and faculty, to discover what they thought and were doing, and to document their reactions to some of the issues we'd been charged with considering.

As a major in Northwestern's "Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences" program (try writing that into a little blank for "major" on a paper job application!), I was tapped to work with Jim in designing the survey, which ultimately was conducted by the university's Public Opinion and Survey Lab. We need something similar for Pasadena Unified now.

My daughter has attended Pasadena High School, and said that the school has surveyed students about what courses they'd like to see added to the school's curriculum. (It looks like there's a big demand for adding an AP Psychology class, she said.) But that captures only the opinions of people already in the district. PUSD needs to reach out to families with school-aged children who are not now attending PUSD schools if it is to increase its appeal to all members of the Pasadena-area community.

In addition, PUSD needs to reach out to the broader community to search for potential support for additional programs in the district. Like many public school districts in California, PUSD doesn't have the extra cash to hire additional teachers and coaches to add new programs "on spec." With two-thirds of the district's students coming from poor households (and needing extra support from the district as a result), a dwindling local population of school-aged children, and a huge number of retirees needing ever-more-expensive health care, the district's more likely to be looking for cuts than additions to the curriculum. The only programs the district's been able to add in recent years are ones that deliver new sources of funding to the district, such as ROP [Regional Occupation Program] efforts, including the vocational "academies" we now see at all PUSD high schools.

If we as parents in the Pasadena area want PUSD to offer new programs, we're ultimately going to have to come up with the cash to support them. That's why it is vital that PUSD, or some organization working on the district's behalf, do some solid community research to determine which new programs would have the student demand and community support for the district to offer without having to undercut some other, existing program in return.

Here's an idea: A community survey, mailed to every residential postal customer in the Pasadena, Altadena, and Sierra Madre zip codes. Each survey could be identified with a unique code, so that the recipient household could complete it online instead of filling in the paper form and mailing it back. (That would help support a higher return rate.) The survey should ask if the household includes any school-aged or younger children, then if they attend PUSD schools or not.

I'd propose that the district consider consider only responses from households with children when quantifying potential student demand for new programs. But I suspect it would be far less expensive to simply mail the survey to everyone than trying to create a database of mailing addresses of local households with children. In addition, many "empty nest" households without children might be willing to provide financial and volunteer support for new programs in the school, and the survey should solicit that support.

The survey could list courses and extracurricular activities currently offered at least one public high school in the area (PUSD, South Pasadena, San Marino, La Cañada, Glendale, Arcadia, etc.), but not now offered at all four PUSD high schools. Recipients could be asked to "bubble in" one of three options for each course:

  • A - This is a "must-have." The family won't attend the school if it isn't available
  • B - The family would consider this, if offered
  • C - The family doesn't care and probably wouldn't participate in this

Here are a few such activities that could be included on the survey (these are off the top of my head. I haven't yet done the full research on this.) Households without school-aged children would be asked to skip this section.


  • Chinese
  • French

Performing Arts

  • Marching Band
  • Show Choir
  • Orchestra
  • Theater - annual drama
  • Theater - annual comedy
  • Theater - annual musical
  • Dance


  • Speech/Debate teams

(This list is far from complete, by the way.)

The next section of the survey would repeat this list of activities, but with checkboxes next to them that recipients could be asked to check if the household would be willing to provide financial or volunteer help to support this program. All recipients would be asked to complete this section.

Finally, the recipient would be asked to provide a name, email address and phone number if s/he checked any boxes in the support section, so that the district could make contact should their activities be added in the district. If there's no contact information provided here, the answers in the support section should be ignored, and all activities should be counted as unchecked.

Percentages don't matter when analyzing this survey. What we need are the raw numbers — the numbers of families would consider each potential activity a "must have" and the number of households that have pledged to support those activities, backed up with contact information for the district. Those numbers will tell PUSD leadership which activities have the broadest demand and support in the community. If these results are run in crosstab with families with children not in the district, they would suggest which programs have the greatest potential to help increase district enrollment, too.

With that real data in hand, PUSD's leadership can make a more informed decision about which programs have support in the community, and begin to build more relationships with community members who are willing to help support our schools.

Would you like to see this survey happen? Let's start a conversation with the Pasadena Educational Foundation, local businesses, churches and community organizations that might be able to provide financial and logistical support to conduct the survey. Heaven knows PUSD doesn't have the extra money sitting around to do it. I've forwarded this post to PEF. If you'd like to support this effort, email me at and tell me how you can help I'll pass along your name to PEF as well. Thanks.

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