With just over 500 subscribers to their online newsletter, the Pasadena Education Network <http://penfamilies.org> may seem to have a small footprint relative to the 20,000 families in the district, but I don't think the impact of word of mouth should be underestimated. Word of mouth is how I first heard about PEN (before the even had a website). It seems to me that PEN families ripple the PEN message out to other families in their neighborhoods via the "mommy network," as I have heard it called. Many of these families may never subscribe to PEN's email announcement loop, but the advice of a family friend is far more robust than any form of parent outreach the district could hope to engage in itself.
This kind of message spreads slowly, but is strong if it takes root. Other parents we know started considering their education options years before they were ready to make a commitment. In my family's case, we started looking at schools almost three years before we were ready to enroll in kindergarten. According to a recent PEN newsletter, they are just two years old, so if my observation is true, the district should just be starting to reap the benefits of the seeds that PEN has planted.
Before I had children approaching kindergarten age, Pasadena school politics were completely off my radar, and the meager information I had was third hand at best. When I started looking for firsthand information, I was lucky enough to find PEN relatively early in my search. Their "see for yourself" message encouraged me to go have a look at individual schools.
As simple as this sounds, many families who have a private school option might never consider it. For those who do, it can be hard to figure out where to start looking. PEN realized that if they could aggregate existing tour schedules from the individual school sites, and to republish existing enrollment-related documents, they could providing a one-stop shop for prospective parents, improving the "shopping" experience. I see their website as a "Consumer Reports" for PUSD schools.
When I went and toured schools, I was surprised and pleased with what I saw. I count myself lucky that I didn't first come across some of the critics who espouse a consistently pessimistic message about PUSD. If I had, I think I might have been dissuaded from considering public school at all. My oldest daughter will be starting a PUSD kindergarten in the fall, and I have started to become active in PUSD matters.
Some time ago I volunteered to help PEN set up a broad PUSD-themed online discussion as a counterpoint to more critical forums, but PEN decided to stick with a dissemination approach. I think the organizers feared a general discussion might be co-opted by the critics who have dominated online discussion about district politics for years.
After attempting to engage constructively in existing online discussions, I felt discouraged. The only things out there either strictly limited the scope of the discussion, or were hostile and counterproductive. I felt the desire for a moderate, broad discussion forum: not expressly hostile and not expressly supportive of the district administration. Unable to find such a resource, my neighbor, Isaac Garcia, and I have collaborated to create one at <http://pasadenaschools.info>. While in no way affiliated with PEN, I credit the efforts and enthusiasm of PEN members for inspiration.
PEN's primary recruiting tactic is to invite parents to go to the schools and see for themselves. I think anyone who heeds this simple advice will be pleasantly surprised by what they see. It's true, there are some problems yet to be solved, but if you are like me this could be all it takes to get you involved with Pasadena public education in a constructive way.