More than 200 people jammed the meeting room and spilled into the adjacent hallway at Thursday night’s Pasadena Unified School District board meeting to support a proposed new bilingual Armenian charter high school in the city. If approved, the school would be known as Melkonian High and be the first of its kind in the western United States.
It was the first public hearing about the school and just an informational forum, with no decision on the proposal’s fate on the agenda.
The next step will be for PUSD staff to evaluate the charter petition of Melkonian’s founders and prepare a recommendation on whether the board should approve or deny that petition.
Another public hearing would then be held.
Petitioners are hoping to open the charter this coming Aug. 17, with 250 students in grades nine through 12, drawn from all over the region. They are also hoping the school board will make a decision by its next meeting, on March 26 – though that’s a time frame that school-board Vice President Scott Phelps indicated could be particularly problematic from among the proposal’s many challenges.
In all, 16 speakers made public comments on the Melkonian proposal Thursday night, with 13 speaking in favor, most to rousing applause when they concluded their two minutes at the microphone.
But while the crowd was tipped heavily in favor of the proposal by a large turnout of Armenian residents, the plan does not figure to get nearly as widespread support in other sectors.
One woman who opposed the plan received brief, muffled boos from the crowd after she asked, “Why does I have to be a separate charter? What can’t (students) be absorbed at Blair?”
Board members, meanwhile, generally expressed support for the concept of the proposed school – but acknowledged that making Melkonian a reality is a whole other matter, against a backdrop of the PUSD’s recent closure of five schools amid falling enrollment and financial struggles.
“That’s the big cloud hanging over this,” said board member Lawrence Torres.
Board member Michelle Richardson Bailey made similar comments, saying that opening a new charter school so soon after closures could “lack empathy for the families” of students from the closed schools.
“I do want to support you,” Bailey said, gesturing toward the crowd, “but there’s just so much that is challenging.”
While not taking a definitive stand on the charter proposal, Bailey also said that if the Armenian program were “absorbed into our existing high schools, I would embrace it.”
The proposed school, in the context of the closures, prompted another speaker to label the plan “an insult.”
Board member Roy Boulghourian, himself of Armenian descent, indicated his general support for the proposal’s concept – saying that, beyond the cultural benefits and prestige of bringing an Armenian school to the city, it would also help reverse the PUSD’s falling enrollment and “bring more money in.”
Phelps, meanwhile, called the proposed school “a historic opportunity” for Pasadena schools. But beyond the possibly bad optics of opening a new school following the recent closures, Phelps indicated he feels some “concerns” and “discomfort” with the issue of charters, generally.
“There are a number of issues that would have to be resolved,” he said. “We do have a unique opportunity, but there are so many issues. In good faith, you have to see if those issues can be worked out.’’
Among those issues, he said, “The unions are going to have to be at the table.”
Arsine Shirvanian, one of the founders of the Melkonian plan and one of the speakers at Thursday’s meeting, gave Pasadena Now some details of the proposal – which she described as “a bilingual Armenian high school as well as a school that will teach other global languages and have an approach of global studies of culture and heritage.’’
Shirvanian stressed that the proposed school would be a “dependent” charter, rather than a so-called independent – “meaning that we’re under the umbrella of PUSD, they stand to benefit from us financially.’’
“They get a portion of our ADA (Average Daily Attendance money) in their general fund and they also get a special education fund for each student that registers in our school,’’ Shirvanian said.
She also stressed that Melkonian would be a big step toward reversing enrollment declines – saying 200 students, many from private schools outside of Pasadena, have already pre-registered.
Shirvanian told Pasadena Now that’s she’s received a generally “very positive” reception from school board members, but acknowledged she is aware of the challenges the board faces.
“They are little hesitant because they’re closing schools currently and they’re saying, well, how is that going to come across?’’ Shirvanian said.
“But what we addressed to them is that, first of all, we are a high school. Number two, we are bringing students from outside PUSD from private schools that would never come to PUSD. Number three, we are doing dependent, so that we could financially contribute to the challenges that we have. So it’s a win-win situation for everyone if politics is put aside.’’
Regarding staffing and teacher-union issues, Shirvanian said, “We would collaborate with the administration, the HR of the PUSD, to come together to a mutual understanding where we would benefit from the collaboration and would get the right teachers in.’’
“They’re right now struggling with many layoffs and they have many teachers with the highest payroll and benefits, and as a new charter school, we can’t carry that kind of a weight,’’ Shirvanian said. “So we want the teachers union and PUSD to be sort of understanding of that and help us to kind of find our wings and fly.’’
The location of the proposed school would also have to be figured out.
“Wherever they allow us to make MHS home,’’ Shirvanian said. “There are many sites (around PUSD). We’d leave it up to them. … We want to collaborate with them and find the most effective solution to co-exist.’’
School board President Patrick Cahalan pointed out the process is still in its early stages – and, like Phelps, thought an August launch of the proposed school might be a bit optimistic.
“The real conversation will occur when we have the staff recommendation and the board discusses the ramifications and impacts on the district,’’ he said.