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Opinion: It’s Time to Take John Muir High School Seriously as an Academic Powerhouse

Published on Wednesday, May 27, 2015 | 1:03 pm
Mo Hyman. Photo courtesy College Access Plan

A quick search for John Muir High School on the websites of local news outlets reveals a number of articles. Most are about football; many are related to teacher/coach/principal scandals; a few highlight Manuel Rustin, a 2012 Milken Educator Award winner; and one is about that time a bear came so near the school that campus was evacuated. One is hard-pressed to find articles on the school’s academics. Of course sports and scandal are important and entertaining; however, a more significant element of what is newsworthy about Muir is left off the page.

I am the co-founder and Executive Director of a nonprofit organization, College Access Plan (CAP), and began the program in 2006 with a then Muir teacher, Kathleen Parent. What I did know at the time was that over 90% of the students are low-income and/or first generation college going, and that these groups face extraordinary barriers to college access and success — barriers that do not exist in families where parents have experience with college and the labyrinthine process of applying or that have the resources to pay for college counseling and test preparation services outside of school. I knew nothing of the notoriety nor notoriousness of this school. What I quickly heard, however, was that Muir had a certain reputation — and that this reputation had little to do with academics.

What I have learned through my own experience with teachers and students tells a different story.

As a college access and success expert, it is my job to know what colleges look for in competitive and desirable students. One thing that is rarely discussed in regards to Muir is that it produces the kind of students competitive programs seek.

While I believe that CAP has a positive impact on students’ abilities to make informed choices about where they apply to college and how they present themselves in applications for schools and scholarships, I know that whether a student is accepted to a given school primarily hinges upon his or her academic preparation. College admissions offices are sophisticated and know which high schools provide environments that prepare students for academic rigor, leadership, and social impact. Clearly, John Muir has made an impression: at this time, at least nine students from the class of 2015 will attend UCLA or UC Berkeley in the fall.

About 7-8% of public school students in California typically attend any UC schools. Nearly this percentage of Muir graduates will attend just these two UC campuses next fall. I am fully aware that these are not the only fantastic schools out there. Still, I think this class’s planned attendance rate to UCLA and Cal alone is illustrative of a greater trend toward competitive academics at Muir.

Why is Muir so successful at serving students, providing the well-rounded applicants that top colleges desire? Muir students participate in one of three College and Career Pathways that offers them career training, internship opportunities, and community service projects, all of which bolster the impact of their academic preparation and impress schools seeking students who invest energy in the disciplines in which they claim interest. The Engineering and Environmental Science pathway in particular has illustrated the ability to produce students who gain admission to highly competitive engineering programs.

And career opportunities are great, but they are not the most important piece of the puzzle. The bottom line is simple: the teachers and counselors at Muir are dedicated, and many of them hold advanced degrees and have received outside teaching accolades. These educators have stuck with this school through internal changes and external judgement. They are the ones who engage students in an environment where they can safely explore their interests, even in the face of often-misplaced public scrutiny and misguided public opinion. If Pasadena’s local press seeks a sensational story, it may consider investigating how this group of bandit educators and their students ran away with the Awesome School crown while no one was looking.

As a community, we ignore what’s happening at Muir in the area of academics at our own peril. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of assuming everything is status quo. We have been fooled — what’s happening at Muir is extraordinary.

About the Author

Mo Hyman is the co-founder and Executive Director of College Access Plan, a nonprofit organization that partners with the Pasadena Unified School District and community organizations to provide middle school, high school, and college students with the tools they need to identify and fulfill in their best-fit postsecondary dreams. Mo is also a community college professor and has taught dozens of composition and rhetoric, literature, and critical thinking courses at Pierce College and Pasadena City College. She lives in Northwest Pasadena with her lovely husband, Jason, and their two unbearably cute dogs.


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