The Effort to Unify an Altadena School District
The text below summarizes four key lessons from the 2005-11 effort to unify a new public school district in Altadena CA. A recommended way forward in the context of US public education current events follows this recap.
Born in 2005 of widespread frustration with Altadena’s over 120 years in the underperforming Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD), a handful of Altadenans enlisted 3 Chief Petitioners to lead the future unification of a new public school district in Altadena. In 2006 these same Altadenans began distributing a Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) petition to form the Altadena Unified School District. Within 4 years 160 volunteers for Altadena Schools had distributed over 7,000 brochures and collected over 7,000 signatures. These signatures were returned to LACOE in 2010. To help define next steps, volunteers for Altadena Schools audited the LA County Registrar’s high-quality signature count in 2011 at the Registrar’s offices in Norwalk. Their audit confirmed that Altadena Schools’ signature plan had been too low. The audit also revealed that LACOE anticipated the Registrar’s rate of signature rejections based on prior precedents but withheld that information from the Chief Petitioners. While the signatures now certified by the Registrar have no expiration date and the petition can have as many signatures added to it as anyone may want to collect, we do not recommend doing so at this time.
4 key insights regarding the unification effort follow. These points serve as the baseline for the proposed way forward:
§ Dissatisfaction and sometimes anger towards PUSD remained high in Altadena throughout the signature collection period. The LA County Registrar’s signature verification showed that some voters even signed multiple times. Throughout this time Altadenans didn’t seem to care what might constitute good or bad reason(s) for forming a new school district. We believe Altadena voters’ urgent dissatisfaction with PUSD remains just as high today.
§ The Chief Petitioners knew before this effort began that in general, small school districts produce only marginally better academic proficiencies for the low-income Hispanic and African-American students that define Altadena’s public school majority than large districts with similar demographics. With a 40-50 point gap in academic proficiency between Altadena’s demographic majority on the one hand and the best of their demographic peers and middle class White and Asian students across California on the other, a 3-point small-district improvement for students of color is meaningless. This remains especially true while the only jobs PUSD’s low academic proficiencies are preparing the majority of their students for are the jobs that US workforce automation is destroying with rising speed.
§ Knowing the limited value of the proposed unification and that Altadenan’s anger over PUSD must be channeled into something more productive to make this effort useful, the Chief Petitioners and other volunteers enlisted many different strategies to redirect Altadenans’ dislike for PUSD into a more constructive focus on the activities that reliably bring all general education students to grade-level proficiency. Despite these many efforts, most of Altadena’s understandably busy and sometimes distracted voters usually wanted little more than the opportunity of the petition to register their dissatisfaction with PUSD. Despite conflicting evidence along the way, this condition proved to be not much better at the end of signature collection than it was at the beginning.
§ A review of past California unification efforts revealed that regardless of what the law says, these efforts do not get very far in practice unless they are led by a large and well-funded local group of public school employees using parents and interested others as the “shills” the law requires. No unification effort can succeed (or even hope to retain the skilled legal counsel required to help fight the next battles after signature gathering has concluded) apart from putting forth a dominant local employee group to sponsor the initiative, fronted by the “shills”. From 2005 to today and with few exceptions along the way, PUSD’s Altadena employees have verified their lack of interest in anything but sustaining their legacy rights under the public education status quo. LACOE’s misleading inputs to the unification effort despite their legal requirement to be a fair and impartial guide prior to signature submission revealed that they are almost certainly right there with Altadena’s PUSD employees.
Some may view the above points as unreasonably harsh. No harshness is intended. Quite to the contrary, particularly in the context of trends in US public education from 2005 to present, our affection for the people of Altadena has grown to the present day. Altadena is a unique community with a very caring and active citizenry. Its people have ample good reason for pride in their community’s past and hope for its future.
But in one important area Altadena has been no different from any other community in the US. Altadenans have shared our nation’s ambivalence when it comes to bringing to an end the continuing lack of academic achievement among the current Altadena and future US student demographic majority. Failure to recognize this danger to our economic future is a major impediment to implementing the well-known solutions for overcoming Altadena’s considerable academic achievement gap. Responsibility for this sorry state of affairs however does not rest entirely with the people of Altadena. The Chief Petitioners, the volunteers for Altadena Schools, and our fellow agitators for academic achievement across the US must share this responsibility.
The Way Forward
To expand on what the previous article meant by “shared responsibility”, let’s consider the Altadena petition’s small role in America’s longstanding pursuit of equal opportunity. In “America Aflame”, a new interpretation of the Civil War by University of North Carolina History Professor David Goldfield, the author declares that the popular assessment of the Civil War as a triumph of freedom is little more than superficial nonsense. Abolitionists agitating for an end to slavery in the decades preceding the Civil War were a perpetually tiny but vocal minority even in the antebellum north. Northern voters throughout this time cared little about this “southern” problem. Similar to today’s voter reactions to education reform efforts that attempt to highlight the moral imperative for ending our nation’s huge academic achievement gap, northern antebellum voters found the abolitionist’s use of evangelical rhetoric almost as irritating as did their southern brethren. Little progress towards ending slavery was therefore made until abolitionists gave up their decades-long moral rhetoric and succeeded in framing their issue in a way that squared with northern voter’s self-interests in the most cynical of ways. With the right words found and with momentum growing in conjunction with Lincoln’s successful candidacy, the war was on.
Even then, this terrible war was prosecuted for no better reason in the average northerner’s mind than the protection of northern jobs. By that time, northern voters had adopted the abolitionist’s newly crafted conclusion that the protection of the future western states as “free states” would have the effect of letting the west serve as a “release valve” to where the north’s despised Catholic European horde could be dispersed. The need to frame the war as spawning “a new birth of freedom”, as President Lincoln so famously did in his Gettysburg address a short while later, did not resonate with the average northerner until after the excessive carnage in the battles leading up to Gettysburg had created the requirement to infuse so many family’s losses with a more noble purpose.
That noble purpose was never sufficiently entrenched to make a reality of the era’s Radical Republican platform of “40 Acres and a Mule”. The ambivalence of our antebellum predecessors regarding the need to adequately level the playing field resulted in the necessity to revisit civil rights again in the 1960s. That same ambivalence clings to us today in our continuing failure to bring all general education children to grade level proficiency.
And while the shortage of educators willing to do the needful for getting all general education children to grade level remains an enormous bottleneck, education reformers are also creating their own human errors today, similar to early abolitionists. Radical abolitionist John Brown (whose son Owen’s grave on an Altadena hillside remains cherished by many locals) led his ill-advised raid on Harper’s Ferry. Today, while not nearly as egregious as Harper’s Ferry, our nation’s largest operator of public schools that bring every low-income child to grade-level proficiency encourages much-needed donations with portrayals of public funding that don’t pass the common sense test. But more importantly, none of us – myself included – have found the words that resonate with the general public. If the early abolitionist experiences serve as precedent, we too may see no change on a large scale until we find the right words.
Meanwhile the number of PUSD schools in Altadena whose poor academic performance has put them at risk of administrative change via the legal maneuver known as the Parent Trigger has grown from 2 to 4.
While accepting these trials, we should take pride in knowing that the thousands of hours that Altadena Schools volunteers donated in 2006-10 has played a role in bringing to Altadena one of the nation’s very rare operators of schools that get almost every child to grade level proficiency regardless of family background. Celerity Educational Group opened Exa Charter http://www.celerityschools.org/exa/ at Edison Elementary in August. Let’s support Exa Charter and Altadena’s future school-level reforms!
Bruce Wasson, Chief Proponent