From Private School to PUSD: One Family’s Journey
How do you choose the best school for your child? This is a HUGE question. After reading an inaccurate and incomplete article about how to choose a school in the Pasadena area, I felt compelled to write about our own experience. I won’t provide a list of the best schools, nor can I tell you which school is best for your child. What I want to share is simply our family’s experience of how we choose schools for our two children – our process, research, and the resources used to help make our choice. We also want to share the decision we made, the outcome, and our experience with Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD).
Let me start with some background. In 2014, our children attended an independent preschool through 8th grade school. They had attended this school since pre-Kindergarten and it was typical of most private schools in the area. My husband was a teacher there, but transitioning to an administrative position the following year. So we had to decide whether our children would continue at that school. It was the perfect time to reassess our children’s education and family priorities because our oldest child would be entering middle school the next year. Continuing at the independent school was the easy option. The school’s administration made it very clear they wanted our family to stay. We could afford it and our children would have stability. However, we always felt a bit isolated from the community and had concerns about the depth and diversity of the curricula.
As a librarian, I was well-suited to undertake the monumental task of researching other options. And yes, “monumental” is the appropriate word to describe the hours and days of researching schools. My process is organized by WHEN, WHAT, and HOW.
WHEN? We were fortunate to have plenty of time to engage in this education reassessment process. I started my research in August 2014. It is imperative to start early because independent school applications are due in the winter months, with some in early December. Open enrollment for public schools also occurs in early winter.
WHAT? We first had to decide what schools we would evaluate. My research included an assessment of the following:
• Over 10 independent schools (elementary/middle and their feeder high schools)
• Our Catholic parish school
• Local charter schools (at that time, my husband was serving as Chairman of the Board of Governors of a charter school in Altadena)
• Pasadena Unified School District
• Other school districts if we moved (San Gabriel Unified School District, South Pasadena Unified School District, and Arcadia Unified School District)
• Current housing market and forecasts (which included obtaining an appraisal of our Pasadena home)
When we moved to Pasadena in 2007, my husband was already teaching at the independent school, so we had not explored PUSD. Furthermore, we had been told PUSD schools were inferior which is why there were so many independent schools in the area. This was why we considered moving to other cities and explored other school districts. However, upon further research, we discovered quickly that we had been misinformed and the reputation of PUSD’s schools being inferior was undeserved.
Similar to many large and older cities, both Pasadena and PUSD have a history of segregation. In 1970, court-ordered desegregation of its schools lead to “white flight.” This contributed to increased enrollment of students at independent schools and the founding of new independent schools. Knowing this history did not scare us away from PUSD, but instead made us even more interested in PUSD. I encourage others to explore this complex history. A few good resources include: All Deliberate Speed: Segregation and Exclusion in California Schools, 1855-1975 (1978) by Charles Wollenberg; “One Pasadena: Tapping the Community’s Resources to Strengthen the Public Schools” (2006) by Richard D. Kahlenberg; and Peter Dreier’s Huffington Post article “In Pasadena, a Vote of Confidence for Public Schools” (2011).
HOW? Assessing each school and the school districts required much effort and time. To keep the information organized, I created physical and electronic folders and spreadsheets. The resources I consulted were plentiful and included:
• School websites (including fact sheets, event calendars, library resources) and Facebook pages
• School Accountability Report Cards (SARC) (these reports are full of key data including demographics, discipline, and test scores)
• School tours (both public and private schools offer multiple tours throughout the year)
• Back-to-school events (these are typically held in early fall and campuses are generally open then)
• School board websites (I reviewed a year’s worth of meeting minutes and reports)
• Pasadena Education Network (PEN) website and resources (I also attended 2 events: Choosing an Elementary School and Middle School Parents Panel)
• Pasadena Educational Foundation (PEF) website and resources
• GO PUBLIC: A Day in the Life of an American School District (documentary of students’ days in PUSD)
• Parents of children at different schools
• S. News and World Report – High School Rankings
• Los Angeles Magazine Challenge Index (ranking 75 private and public schools in Los Angeles County)
Our two most important resources were the tours and other parents. We toured schools in the fall of 2013. I sometimes toured the same school more than once. In preparation for the tours, I wrote down key aspects to watch for and questions to ask. These were written in a journal that I took with me on the tours and where I openly took copious notes. Taking notes was very important because after the first few schools, my memory of each school’s distinctiveness started failing. If a question couldn’t be answered on a tour, I was given the name of the person to contact or asked for my own contact information – I had already prepared post-it notes with my contact information tucked into the back of my journal. While I had gathered much data on the schools before the tours, going on the campuses was important to get the feel and energy of the schools. It was also important to see the students during school hours – did they seem engaged or bored? happy or scowling? friendly or rude? We also felt it was crucial for our children to tour the schools too, and they did so after we narrowed down the schools.
Parents were invaluable to our research of the schools. I reached out to parents at our then-current school, church, neighborhood, Facebook, and parent referrals from schools. We took several parents to coffee, breakfast, and lunch for what we called “school meetings.” While informal in nature, I had developed a list of questions for these meetings to ensure our inquiries were consistent and not side-tracked by parents trying to recruit us.
On a personal level, we talked with family and friends about the upcoming decisions we had to make. The uncertainties and worries were very stressful. But one comment from a friend still resonates strongly and helped us finally make a choice. He said, “You and Chris are very active parents. It doesn’t matter what school you choose. Your kids will thrive anywhere because they have you.” Those words were so reassuring and helped us through the rest of the process.
Our top 4 educational priorities for our children are challenging curricula, broad opportunities for extracurricular activities, a diverse student body, and a safe environment. We chose Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD).
Our neighborhood elementary school is Daniel Webster (Webster) and we live in the priority zone for Marshall Fundamental School (Marshall) (a unique campus with both a middle school and high school). These are the two schools our children currently attend.
CHALLENGING CURRICULA – yes, our children are challenged. When our son started 6th grade on the honors track at Marshall, he was behind other 6th graders in math. I was a little surprised that his new public school peers were ahead of him – it highlighted the erroneous assumption that private schools are always better than public. It took a full year to get him caught up. My son is still on the honors track at Marshall and working harder than ever to stay on the Honor Roll. Our daughter too is challenged and has been able to deepen her love of science at Webster. Last May, she won 2nd place at the PUSD Innovation Exposition (science fair) in the 3D Printing category.
EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES – yes, our children are having fun too! Marshall has amazing music and arts programs. Our son plays the trombone for the middle school Jazz Band and he’s had the opportunity to perform for our community at last year’s Latino Heritage Parade. He hopes to be accepted into the high school’s Academy for Creative Industries (ACI) program, their award-winning Marching Band, and the track & field team. He also enjoys the social activities, including the dances and clubs (art club and Doctor Who club), and he even started his own middle school cycling club. In 2018, his class has the opportunity to go on a New York and Boston trip.
At Webster, our daughter played violin her first year at PUSD, and is now playing the saxophone in Advanced Band. As a PUSD student, she was selected and had the honor of playing with the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra (PYSO) All City Orchestra. Our daughter also went to Sacramento last year and has enjoyed the after-school programs on cooking and marine biology. This year, she’s excited about joining the 3D Printing Club and participating in her second Color Run.
DIVERSITY – yes, PUSD is indeed diverse. As a Mexican-American myself and former special education attorney, honoring diversity is a core value. Our children are at schools so diverse in ethnicity, race, language, income, ability, and talent. The last two years have been filled with thoughtful, and sometimes difficult, conversations on equality that have deeply enriched their lives and have matured them in ways that I don’t think smaller, independent schools can. For example, questions such as “Can my friend really be deported?” lead to discussions that inform them about current events and make them more involved citizens. And especially in today’s political unrest, having our children learn among diverse students is an invaluable experience.
In addition to having a diverse student body, the community of PUSD parents is also diverse in their talents and professions. Many parents take time to share their expertise with students and others devote countless volunteer hours toward the betterment of school programs, such as star-gazing nights, costume design for plays, and art contests. We have met parents who are nurses, doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, school administrators, artists, homemakers, scientists, musicians, professors, realtors, analysts, drivers, photographers, secretaries, accountants, entrepreneurs, spiritual leaders, designers, psychologists, veterinarians and so many other professionals that enrich the diversity of the PUSD community. Not only have our friendships with other families increased, but we feel a much deeper connection to Pasadena – its residents, government, and businesses.
SAFE ENVIRONMENT – yes, PUSD considers student safety a top priority. School safety was something we examined closely during tours. Our children’s schools take preventive measures to keep students safe and parents are promptly advised of any possible safety issues. The schools have also been responsive to safety concerns raised by parents. Bullying was a concern we had about Marshall because it is a joint middle school and high school. So far, we’ve had no problems. Our son is part of the WEB (Where Everybody Belongs) Crew, welcoming new 6th graders and participating in inclusive social programs.
For this article, I asked our children to provide 3 reasons why they like their PUSD schools. Our daughter said 1) the “variety” of friends (to her variety means diversity), 2) “great class materials” (she explained this included Chrome books, art supplies, and a 3D printer), and 3) “fun extras” (which included music and the science programs). Our son said 1) diversity of students, 2) the social aspect because “there are so many more students in public school and I have way more friends,” and 3) the classes are challenging which he said makes them “more interesting” too.
While I’m highlighting the good of being a PUSD family, this doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I don’t think any school is perfect. Indeed, there have been ups and downs for us, such as navigating the complexities and hierarchy of a public school system, being disappointed with its financial limitations, and sometimes large class sizes. However, PUSD and school communications are helpful, our children are fortunate to have some very committed and inspiring teachers, and PUSD parents are generously supportive. We are still very active in our children’s education. When we encounter a problem, we’re responsive and contact teachers and/or administrators with a cooperative spirit by offering solutions ourselves. So far, all issues have been appropriately addressed.
While I know many would agree with our positive opinion of and experience with PUSD, there will be plenty of parents that would disagree and have had contrary experiences. But overall, and at this time, we’re satisfied with our choice and our children are challenged and happy at their schools. PUSD may or may not be the school district for your child. Our hope is that by sharing our process of assessing schools, decision, and outcome, you will consider PUSD as an option for your own family. The school district has much to offer as acknowledged by all four PUSD high schools being placed on “America’s Most Challenging High Schools 2017” list – The Washington Post’s rankings of how successfully private and public schools challenge students. Furthermore, PUSD was also just awarded a $14.5 million Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP) grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement. Its first grant was awarded in 2013. These grants highlight PUSD’s challenging and diverse programs.
Finally, don’t over-stress about choosing the perfect school now to ensure your children will be accepted into the best colleges later. Because if you’ve taken the time and effort to read this entire article, then your children too will thrive anywhere because they have YOU.
Cindy Guyer is a librarian and adjunct professor at the University of Southern California. Her husband Christopher Guyer is an assistant principal at Gabrielino High School. They live in Pasadena with their two children, hamster, and dog.