It’s that time again, when the president of the Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education gives the annual voter-mandated State of the Schools address. And once again, the speech, which current Board President Ed Honowitz is set to give at 6 p.m. tonight at Burbank Elementary School, is expected to be long on hope and short on accomplishments in many critical areas, including district spending practices and sustained academic achievement.
But that’s not the only bad news Honowitz may be delivering tonight.

Dwindling attendance by the PUSD’s nearly 21,000 students, declining enrollments district-wide, continuing threats of school closures, threats of state and federal intervention at underperforming schools, millions in budget and personnel cuts, nearly $1 million spent in legal fees on a law firm that was recently sanctioned for unethical behavior, a bitter relationship with teachers who say they are underappreciated and underpaid, a sub-par performance on the California High School Exit Exam by graduating seniors and communication breakdowns between elected board members, their staff and the public pretty much eclipse some of the other significant gains that the Pasadena Unified School District has seen this year.

Granted, there have been some overall improvements in state-mandated California Standardized Tests Reports, or STAR, testing, with across-the-board increases in English language arts, elementary math and history and social sciences.

But California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE, results among graduating seniors were alarming this year, showing 52 percent of those kids failed the test’s math portion, and 43 percent of slightly lesser number of students failed the English part.

Along with that, the district may face sanctions by the federal government for eight schools failing to meet requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, and Washington Middle School leads the list of district schools that have been under a microscope by the state Department of Education. Washington is now in its fourth and last year to show academic improvements, otherwise face takeover by the state.

Making the grade

People interviewed for this story were asked to give the district its own letter grade for its performance over the past year. And most did, with some longtime critics being extremely generous and others holding out extremely harsh assessments, but apparently not yet ready to throw in the towel and say the district was an outright failure in serving students, parents and guardians.

Some parents were clearly not in a forgiving mood. Among them was Monica Watts, a 42-year-old mother of two who regularly attends meetings of the school board.

“There is a lack of openness and honesty regarding the services and support available in the district and what parents can do if their child is not succeeding,” said Watts.

“I would have to give them a D-minus and the only reason they don’t get an F is because they decided to get rid of Lozano-Smith,” Watts said.

Ninth Circuit District Judge Oliver Wanger two years ago sanctioned the Fresno-based law firm, which was under contract to the district and handled all of its legal challenges, for “misguided advocacy” in a Northern California case and ordered the firm to conduct ethics training for all of its attorneys and shareholders.

“Grading the school district, not the individual schools or their administration, but the school district, the grade is C-minus,” said parent Karen Balian-Baghdassarian. “I believe that the exceptional quality of education is not district-wide. I believe that PUSD has gone out of its way not to attract the right kind of student. [But] I do not feel that enough positive changes have been made at ALL district campuses,” Balian-Baghdassarian said.

“I also do not feel that the district administration is doing enough to back its teachers. Their lack of responding to parents’ concerns is getting old. Emails and phone calls are constantly not being answered,” she said.

At the board meeting of Sept. 13, Inez Yslas, a human resources consultant by profession and a Latino activist who does not have children in the school district, called for Clark’s resignation. She is not alone. Others to call on Clark to quit include Maurice Morse, a member of the committee that selected Clark to take over for former full-time Superintendent Vera Vignes, activists Jon Wright and Rene Amy, the Pasadena Journal and the Pasadena Weekly.

“I would give them a D-minus as a school district,” said Yslas. “We don’t have kids performing at grade level. They’re not the worst school district in the state, but they are pretty far down on the list. The only reason I don’t give them an F is because they have shown some growth in the four years Percy has been here.”

Yslas believes Clark should quit based on what she considers disrespect to the Latino community, financial chaos in the PUSD and the administration’s focus on bringing white, middle-class students back to the district.

“This is a school district that has a majority of Latino students,” Yslas said. “If you look at the pictures on the wall at district headquarters, there is only one Latino, and that is an elected official.”

Yslas said she visited district headquarters on Sept. 14 and found only one phrase in Spanish, and that was “Clinica de Salud,” or health clinic.

“If he thinks it’s inviting, it is not. I see nothing there that says I am welcome, and that attitude is reflected throughout the school district.”

Honowitz didn’t give the district a grade. Nor would he divulge what he might be talking about tonight. But he did acknowledge that more could be done to improve both the district and the way it gets its messages across to its constituents.

“My focus is not on a couple of vocal critics,” Honowitz said, speaking of Yslas, Wright and Amy, among others. “You have to realize that we have 22,000 kids in the district and 10,000 families. Certainly there will be individual critics. That is the nature of things. If you want to really understand something, try and change it.

“There is a lot we can do to improve communications and public engagement,” Honowitz continued. “We’re discussing a public outreach program and we have a committee working on something that will be rolling out shortly.”

That may be easier said than done, considering the district’s communications person, Erik Nasarenko, quit his nearly $80,000-a-year job at the district to work for Lozano-Smith, and his assistant was laid off.

But will merely making bad news seem more palatable be enough to improve the district?

According to Clark, who has often alluded to reaching “mountaintops” of educational excellence in his management of the district, there isn’t much more to improve.

‘Tireless work’

Unlike Honowitz, Clark, who came to Pasadena from Michigan four years ago and has generated controversy for almost that long, didn’t hesitate when asked to give a grade to the district: B to B-plus.

Assistant Superintendent George McKenna was even more impressed with this year’s gains, giving the district’s a B-plus to an A.

“I’m very pleased with our test results,” Clark told the Weekly last week.

“I owe a big thank you to our students, teachers, administrators and staff. These scores represent that we are moving in the right direction academically in the PUSD,” Clark said.

“While we have a long way to go, PUSD students are performing. I am truly hopeful next year that we will have over 20 schools with [Academic Performance Index, or API] scores 700 or higher and that we continue to beat state averages.”
Currently 19 of 32 schools have an API higher than 700, with a score of 1,000 being best, and the district’s average API of 689 was  up last year by 34 points. John Muir High School led the district with an 83-point increase from two years ago. And PUSD did better last year than LA County, which only showed a 19-point increase with an average score of 649.   

The latest API scores were due out this week.

PUSD classes officially began on Sept. 8. During the last week of August, Clark left automated messages on the phones of PUSD parents, praising the students for their performances on the STAR tests.

“I am pleased to report that the gains the district made this year on the California standards tests are significantly higher than the gains made by both Los Angeles County and the state of California in English-language arts, elementary mathematics, and history-social science,” Clark said in the message.

“For example, our ninth graders’ gain in English-language arts was two times more than the county and the state gains.  In addition, there is a significant decrease in the number of students scoring at the two lowest performance bands. We have this year 1,000 less students scoring at far below basic and below basic in English language arts and 902 less students in mathematics. Over five years, we now have 2,369 more students scoring at or above proficient in English-language arts, and 1,400 more students in mathematics,” he said.

Clark attributed the gains to the district’s focus on “literacy, intervention and tireless work by our students, teachers, staff and families.”

But not everyone, including some of Clark’s bosses on the Board of Education, was as hopeful as either him or McKenna.

‘Very concerned’

Board member Steve Lizardo, the only Latino board member in a district in which nearly three-quarters of the students are Latino, gave the district a C-minus and the students a B.

Fellow Board member Bill Bibbiani refused to give a grade, saying things weren’t that easy to sum up. And Board member Scott Phelps, the board’s newest member and a former teacher at Muir High, said he would go as high as a B-minus.

“Things have been difficult in respect to the budget,” said Bibbiani. “I think that process has to begin again right now. We’re average [academically] compared to other districts in California. Test scores appear to be up at about the same level as the rest of the state.”

Bibbiani, a former administrator with the district, has reason for concern. Total enrollment for this year is projected at 21,372 students, down from 22,309 last year. But, as of last week, only 20,105 students actually showed up for school. If those numbers hold, the drop in enrollment could cost the district nearly $5,000 per student in state funding, which is based on attendance.

“It was expected,” said McKenna. “I think we are on track to meet the projected enrollment. We don’t know exactly why, but we speculate on things like housing affordability and low-income families leaving the neighborhood. We have some elementary schools that have less than 300 students now, but we still have to maintain a full maintenance staff to keep those sites running. “

“Overall,” however, “in terms of our students and sites, I am very hopeful given some of our upward trends,” said Lizardo.

“I think our kids and teachers need to be commended for the test results over the past five years. At the same time, when you think about the overall district that is directed by the board and the administrators, I am much less enthusiastic,” Lizardo said. “Overall, over the past four years, our various sites have had some up and down movement. There have been some increases, depending on the school you look at. There is no district-wide, systemic consistency that would signal it is something happening everywhere.”

Last year, the district was forced to slash $8.2 million from its $124 million operating budget. Along with finding things to cut, rumors of school closures and ending busing fueled several marches on school board meetings. Eventually cuts came from the administration, teachers and even security, with School Police Chief Mike Trevis leaving the district in July after his hours were cut.

As for academic performance, “I think it’s a mixed bag,” said Phelps. “From what I hear, there are some schools we are very concerned about and there are some positive signs. I would give us a B-minus or a C-plus. I’m looking at the bigger picture. I am pleased with the test scores, but being a teacher, I am aware of all the work we need to do.”

Seeing is believing

Despite improved test scores, Muir High School Principal Dan Webb is concerned about the education kids are getting in middle school, before they come under his watch.

He knows the state is watching everything that happens at Muir, and last year Webb said he asked 25 kids, who all said they could not do math, how long they had lived in Pasadena. All of their lives, 23 said.

“You’re telling me these kids went to Pasadena schools?” Webb said. “Everybody has one bad elementary teacher, but even the ones you hate taught you something. Nobody sits in an elementary school and does nothing. They don’t sit there in any elementary school and watch videos all day or play games and go out to the playground all day. They teach you to read and multiply. I am not convinced that these kids can’t do this.”

Beginning with the Class of 2006, all public school students will be required to pass the CAHSEE test to earn a high school diploma. They can take the test five times.

“I don’t know how to interpret the scores yet,” Amy, perhaps the district’s most vocal critic, said of the state exit exam results. Amy, surprisingly, gave the district not a failing grade, but a C-minus. Giving the district a C would be fair, he said, if not for the financial crisis that is currently gripping California schools, including those in Pasadena.

“Even though there has been some improvement, compared to other districts the performance is still the same. There has been some effort, but we’re not really gaining ground. I wish I could give them a better grade, but I can’t.”

“Let’s be very fair,” Webb said. “The [STAR] test scores are great for all the hits the district has taken, including the obsession on nailing Clark. I don’t know what to tell you. The man has done everything everybody has said he should do. His budget problem, he’s fixing it; scores are up. If you take away the people they lost because they had to reduce staff because of the budget stuff, turnover in staff is low. Staff turnover is killer in school districts. All I can tell you is they had things to get done and it looks to me like they got it done. We have strategies and we have ways to move.”

The 63-year old Clark, who has worked in education for more than 41 years, said he hasn’t even considered leaving the district. Rather, the criticism has only fortified his resolve to work harder.

“I believe in our students,” Clark said. “Pasadena has the best students that I have ever worked with in over 41 years and I honestly believe they deserve the best. I am driven and passionate about PUSD’s young people. That’s why I stay, because it’s my passion. I’m looking forward to a tremendous year from our students.”