Traumatized and Divided, Pasadena Unified Community Confronts Options for Closing a High School and Middle Schools Tonight

Board mulls criteria for selecting closures from matrix of possible scenarios

Published : Thursday, October 10, 2019 | 5:48 AM

School closures, and the perspectives behind them, have divided opinion.

[Updated]  Pasadena’s Board of Education is scheduled to meet Thursday night to discuss additional public school closings, this time middle schools and possibly a high school, following their Sept. 26 decision to close three elementary schools in the face of declining enrollment.

A matrix of scenarios is set to be examined at tonight’s meeting, with the Board likely to narrow the focus onto a tightly edited group of options for a final decision at the Board’s Oct. 24 meeting.

There are a total of five options for middle school closings the Board is scheduled to discuss.

The scenarios call for various combinations of closing McKinley grades 6-8, Blair grades 6-8, Marshall grades 6-8, Wilson grades 6-8, or Sierra Madre Middle School or Wilson middle schools altogether (see sidebar graphic).

The two options for high schools include keeping all four of the city’s high schools, John Muir, Pasadena, Blair and Marshall open, or optionally, closing Marshall.

District officials have blamed the plunging enrollment on lower birth rates and skyrocketing housing costs they say have made it almost impossible for young families to afford living in the school district’s footprint.

A list of school closure options which may be considered at tonight's School Board meeting. Courtesy PUSD

The closures have traumatized and divided the PUSD community.

“This is a horrific decision,” said Board President Lawrence Torres. “Being in the middle of this — it’s emotionally devastating.”

Board Member Scott Phelps agreed, observing that nobody becomes a Board Member to close schools.

Some of the potential closures have left community members scratching their heads in confusion.

“I never would have thought they would even attempt to close Sierra Madre [Middle School]. It’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous. It’s very modern. It’s brand new. All their test scores are going up. It’s the greatest school,” said Sierra Madre resident Carol Canterbury.

Just how Board Members approach their decision-making about which schools to keep open and which to close has revealed differing perspectives in the criteria each is using.

Board Member Patrick Cahalan, for example, weighed in on the potential closing of Sierra Madre Middle School.

“In my opinion, closing SMMS is not a viable option for a number of reasons,” he said, listing several and summarizing by noting “it is hard to make the case that closing one of the newest facilities in the district is the best way forward.”

Cahalan said he aims to ensure the impact of the closure decision is as equitably spread around the district as possible, “especially considering the very significant disparity between the members of this community who have access to reliable transportation and those who do not.”

For Phelps, the Board should support parental choice and keep open the schools which are “high choice” schools. But the subcommittee preparing the closure options “would like to take from popular schools to help sort of less popular schools,” Phelps said.

Phelps said his position to support top choice schools “is getting distorted” whereby it has been interpreted by some to mean it preferring schools that aren’t diverse, which isn’t true, Phelps said.

Board Member Michelle Richardson Bailey approaches the situation differently. When Cleveland school was closed last year, Richardson Bailey remembers, the Board room was empty except for Cleveland supporters. The message from the community then, she said, was “close it because it’s underperforming and it’s a low enrolled.”

“But now we’re closing more affluent schools … San Rafael and Sierra Madre, everybody just lost it. How could you close these schools? Don’t close my school, close that [other] school because our school is better than that school,” she said.

“Losing underprivileged families is just as impactful to the District as losing privileged families,” Richardson Bailey said. “And if privileged families feel like they need to pull their kids out of the District because they have a choice, then exercise your choice and don’t hold the School District hostage.”

Parent Tina Pham said school consolidations at this point in time have “really have divided up families who are normally super supportive of each other.”

Board President Torres looks past the decisions.

“ I just hope after we get through this that people can come together, you know, at their school site, at their new school sites and realize that though my buildings have changed, you know, I still have my teachers, I still have friends, I’m able to make new friends and that the things that we’re able to do in larger schools are much more than I was ever able to do,” said Torres. “I just hope people give us a chance.”

The Board of Education meets in public session Thursday night, October 10, at 5:30 p.m. in the Elbie J. Hickambottom Board Room at District headquarters ay 351 South Hudson Avenue, Pasadena.

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