August 29, 2008

Editorial: Pas Schools Looking Up

THE Pasadena Unified School District has had so many "been down so long, it looks like up to me" moments in recent decades that it would be funny if it weren't so ... well, not funny at all.

It's not that the education of the students and families who have stuck it out in the largest district in the West San Gabriel Valley should be a dead-serious matter. Such pomposity is the enemy of true education, which succeeds with exuberance and wit and charm along with heaps of hard work on the part of teachers, parents and most of all students.

Leave the defensiveness and the tone-deaf sticking to their guns no matter what the facts are to the district's most ardent critics, who have come to a point where they don't want it to succeed, and to its most knee-jerk supporters, who believe even constructive criticism is forbidden.

It's the savvy realists who are going to be - if anyone is to be - the saviors of the once-proud Pasadena schools, which serve Altadena and Sierra Madre as well.

And we're most pleased to see that now that he's no longer a freshman, after over a year on the job, PUSD Superintendent Edwin Diaz has emerged as foremost among the savvy realists about his district. Smart, methodical, laser-focused, he not only cares deeply about the schools - he's got a plan to ring the changes through them that will be required for successs.

With school opening next week, the first thing on the Diaz and school board agenda is clearly the ongoing crisis at John Muir High School.

Wholesale change was needed at the Lincoln Avenue landmark from which students were fleeing, test scores plummeting and the state threatening takeover.

And change on that level is what the PUSD has ordered up. Last school year, every teacher had to resign and reapply for newly open positions. For those who were invited back and for the new teachers as well, an extraordinary grant from the Pasadena Community Foundation, the largest in its generous history, has made possible a three-week paid training session this summer to get everyone on board with the new academy system that will begin next week at Muir.

Unlike most grants, this one keeps on giving - it's a three-year program to allow for fine-tuning the next two summers as well.

But it's not just Muir on the PUSD agenda. With 20,000 students, it can't be. Diaz and the board are also going about middle-school reform with a new block schedule as has been in use for years at area private schools, allowing for more in-depth work, especially on math and science. They've already instituted reforms aimed at standardizing a crazy-quilt system that had perhaps a dozen grade configurations at different schools - K-5, K-6, K-8, and on and on.

Very quietly, what had been the innovations of "fundamental" and "alternative" school labeling is now there in name only - Don Benito and Marshall are no more fundamental than any other school. (The label was created in the 1970s as a 3-R's system reaction to theperception of rampant progressivism and consequent lax standards.) Same at Norma Coombs Alternative School, heir to the legacy of famed teacher and administrator Paul Finot at the old Evening High School - schools are emphasizing learning over labels. (It's too bad all are doing so in part because of the teaching-to- the-test requirements of nationally standardized exams, but that's a problem to conquer another day.)

And the district is also quietly committing to what will be a great financial boon - within two years, Diaz wants to see the large South Hudson Avenue Ed Center property evacuated and prepared for a long-term lease in the private sector to provide a permanent revenue stream for the schools.

With so much progress in the works for the PUSD, residents may even find themselves in the mood to vote for another school construction bond come November.

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