Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A penchant for PUSD

With just over 500 subscribers to their online newsletter, the Pasadena Education Network <> 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 <>. 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.

1 comment:

  1. Re: "word of mouth should not be
    underestimated". I could not agree more, and have been wanting to say for some time, that PEN will never be able to measure the impact they are having.
    Without ever going to a PEN meeting, I was encouraged just knowing that PEN exists.
    My son will start McKinley in Sep. and like many, I began
    'freaking out" (as I now like to call it), about Kindergarten almost two years ago.
    I started with the assumption that the public schools would be overcrowded, understaffed, and did not have enough parental involvement, etc.
    As I said, I myself, have not yet made it to a PEN meetings, but I talked to many PEN members and current PUSD moms through my MOMS club. Seeing the growing enthusiasm for public school from other moms first hand, was so
    encouraging! I saw that public school was a very attractive option, and I was grateful for the readily available PUSD tours (facilitated by PEN) I
    went to 3 tours this year, and I'm very happy with our choice.
    I then also passed the enthusiasm on to my sister -who as far as I know
    doesn't even know that PEN exists. Last year when their private school closed without warning, they enrolled their 1st grader at McKinley. Trust me, they were in the category that would NEVER even consider public school,
    but out of desperation, and with my encouragement, they took a tour. Like so many others, they were pleasantly surprised, and have been very happy there.
    They will be enrolling my niece in Kindergarten at McKinley next year as well.
    I just wanted to use these personal examples to say that PEN may never get a quantitative measure of their success, but I feel it, and I have seen it.
    As more parents feel that they are not alone in wanting a great public school, and believe that they can collectively make a difference in their own schools, the open enrolment process will also improve. There will be
    more and more "first choice" schools. Keep up the good work PEN!

    Ann Webb