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Pasadena can't properly support four public high schools any longer

Robert Niles
Published: September 25, 2013 at 10:29 AM (MST)
Last month I wrote about the shrinking number of children living in the Pasadena Unified School District attendance area, and the ongoing enrollment decline that's resulted. Since my children are in the eighth and 11th grades now, that got me thinking about how PUSD high schools compare with other local public high schools for enrollment.

Pasadena High School

I used the State of California's STAR test reporting website to find the enrollment at each grade level for PUSD's four high schools, plus eight other public high schools that surround PUSD. High school seniors don't take the STAR tests, so I found data for grades 9-11. To make the numbers easier to understand, I averaged the enrollment for those three grades to get an average grade-level enrollment for each school.

With its declining enrollment split among four high schools, PUSD has three of the four smallest average grade-level enrollments among public high schools in the area. Here are the data (PUSD schools are in bold type):

Arcadia HS 875
Glendale HS 704
Crescenta Valley HS 702
Temple City HS 516
Pasadena HS 482
Hoover HS 442
South Pasadena HS 390
La Canada HS 358
San Marino HS 293
Marshall HS 265
Muir HS 265
Blair HS 169

Why does this matter? High schools don't offer one-size-fits-all class schedules like elementary schools do. A great high school offers a wide range of options: multiple foreign languages, social and physical sciences, and arts electives. But schools need a minimum number of students to enroll in each of those courses to justify offering those classes. When grade-level enrollment declines to the point where schools can't get those minimums, they start cutting entire courses of study from their curricula.

That's happened in PUSD. There's only one French teacher left in the entire district, for example. My daughter, who has adored France from an early age, wanted to take French for her foreign language requirement in high school. If we hadn't won the open enrollment lottery for her to attend Pasadena High School, we would have had to leave the district for her to take French. French isn't offered at any other PUSD school anymore.

I went to high school in Indiana, where hundreds of small, rural high schools across the state closed to consolidate into larger schools, simply so that they could offer a wider range of options to their students. Schools with fewer than 1,000 students just couldn't afford to offer the wide range of languages, science courses, AP classes and arts electives that big-city and suburban schools with larger enrollments could. Not with so few, or no, kids on hand to enroll in those classes. So schools consolidated to create those critical masses for additional courses.

Declining enrollment reverses that progress. California public schools today no longer have the money to offer high school classes that attract a dozen students or less. Even as class-year enrollments decline at PUSD high schools, individual class sizes remain high. The district must make its budget by laying off teachers and reducing course offerings to maintain individual class sizes as school enrollments decline. (My daughter has had AP classes with more than 40 kids!)

Given the number of teachers, counselors and librarians the district has laid off over the past decade, it's already effectively "closed" a high school by dismissing enough people to staff a campus. But by continuing to spread its remaining students across four campuses, it's created a situation that denies the district the critical mass of students needed to offer a full range of courses on each of those campuses. It's a lose-lose for everyone.

I've talked about academic courses, but school enrollments also affect extra-curricular activities, such as sports teams, marching bands, theater programs, and debate teams. California's public-school budget doesn't pay for extra-curriculars anymore — that's up to parents and community members to fund. But to do that, schools not only need a critical mass of students interested in those programs, they need a critical mass of parents with the resources to pay for them.

Students whose parents or caregivers can't afford to pay for their children's lunch everyday aren't in a position to pay for band uniforms, buses to away games, theater equipment, or any of the other expenses of the extra-curricular programs that enliven high school and help keep so many kids invested in their schools. Again, this is where poverty crushes education.

Let's take a look at the average number of non-poor children enrolled in each grade level at the local public high schools. Here, we see the crushing disadvantage with which the Pasadena community has left its schoolchildren. These are the average number of children in each grade level at local public schools who are not participating in the free or reduced-price lunch program.

Arcadia HS 702
Crescenta Valley HS 581
La Canada HS 343
South Pasadena HS 317
Temple City HS 281
San Marino HS 278
Glendale HS 227
Pasadena HS 166
Hoover HS 151
Marshall HS 69
Blair HS 36
Muir HS 34

That's right. Three of the four PUSD high schools have fewer than 100 non-poor children in each graduating class, by far the smallest numbers in the area. Perhaps this is the reason why so many families in the PUSD attendance area who aren't in Pasadena High School's attendance zone apply for it during open enrollment. (And, why so many of those who don't get into PHS choose to leave the district.) Families with the means to support their children's education want to attend a school with a critical mass of other such families.

PUSD has made some effort to address this problem. PHS and Marshall join together to put on a musical theater show each spring, a production that would likely be impossible to mount on a single campus. The district has created several topical "academies" that bring together onto a single campus students from across the district who are interested in a particular subject. But that doesn't help talented students with a variety of interests. What if you want to take classes in visual and performing arts? The visual arts academy is at PHS, but the performing arts academy will open next year at Marshall. It's one or the other. You can't do both.

A coordinated schedule and shuttle bus system would enable students to take classes on other PUSD campuses in addition to their "home" school, offering the district greater scheduling flexibility. (Such as allowing a kid at Marshall to come to PHS to take French.) But that would cost money the district doesn't now have. And students from different campuses can't compete together on a single sports or debate team, due to state and national competition rules.

At some point, the Pasadena community needs to face up to some problems. It simply doesn't have enough children to support four high schools anymore. And it certainly doesn't have the critical mass of non-poor families to support four high school communities.

And that raises the larger problem. For a variety of reasons, Pasadena has become the focal point of poverty in the west San Gabriel Valley. It's time to quit blaming the schools for problems created by the vast number of poor families living in this community. If we want to help build stronger school communities in Pasadena, we can start by consolidating campuses. But we will finish the job only by finding ways to lift many more Pasadena-area families out of poverty, as well.

Update: Two more points: First, anyone who suggest that the solution to Pasadena's education "problem" is to further divide the local school-age population with additional charter schools ought not get another moment of the public's attention. If anything, we need be working to close the existing charters in our community, which drain money and students from our public schools in exchange for giving the kids who attend them an inferior education.

Second, while a California school district needs a critical mass of non-poor parents to pay for extra-curricular activities, the benefits of those teams, clubs, and programs are not limited to their children. Having a wide range of sports teams, special interest clubs, musical and theater programs, and speech and debate teams creates opportunities for all the kids in a school: "Students who participate in extracurricular activities are less likely to drop out and more likely to have higher academic achievement." When schools lose those programs due to economic segregation in their communities, we're left with one more example of how separate is inherently unequal in education.

Robert Niles also can be found at

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