Why I Value Public Education

PUSD Parent Norah Small Delivers Key Note Address: Altadena Town Council Public Education Committee Town Hall - Jan. 30, 2018

My name is Norah Switzer Small and I am a life-long Altadena resident and a product of Pasadena Unified School District schools. In fact, my children are fourth generation PUSD students, which means that I have a very long institutional memory when it comes to public education in Altadena and of course Pasadena. I am an unapologetic public school advocate. I attended PUSD schools during the busing era, from the mid-70s to 1989, and I would say that I got a great education. And today, my daughters are getting a great education too.

Even if you don’t have a child in the public school system, it benefits you to have a strong public school if only for two reasons – to increase the value of your home and to make sure that your community has an educated, capable workforce. In fact, economy and education are inextricably linked – looking around the world, you might notice that countries with strong economies where there is opportunity for advancement and a strong middle class all share one thing – they have strong public education systems. But apparently this is not enough to entice local families to support their public schools – and by support I mean use their services.

The biggest difference between public and private schools and even between public and charter schools is that public schools have to take every child, with all their abilities and disabilities. So, what does this mean? It means that there will be children with all levels of education in a single class, it means that there will be disruptions if a child decides to throw a tantrum, it means that the teacher may need to spend more time with some kids than others, it means that your child may be exposed to something that you would rather they not be exposed to. But guess what? The real world is not perfect. The real world is full of challenges and surprises and disappointments, too. But it is also full of unexpected connections and unexpected lessons to be learned. For example, some of the things my family learned in school were: just because a child has a severe physical disability does not mean that their mind is disabled; a child who shows up to school every day in dirty clothes, unwashed and uncared for can sometimes be the most caring child on the playground; that students who do not look like you, do not share your culture or your religion can sometimes have exactly the same passion for an esoteric band that you have and that true caring and support can change a child’s life forever.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say anything about academics. Why is that? Well, research shows that if you are a child that comes from a middle class, reasonably educated family, it doesn’t matter what school you go to. You’re going to do fine. It doesn’t matter if you go to an elite, expensive school or an underperforming school. But research also shows that students who attend schools with a high degree of diversity actually do better! And not just those from low-income families (which is what people always expect) – every student does better, including those from middle and high-income families. Upon examination, it is exactly that imbalance, that chaos, if you will, that creates the opportunity to challenge ideas and to make new exciting connections. So, the beautiful thing about PUSD schools (at least when I attended them) is that this diversity and integration already existed. In Altadena, this is particularly true. Altadena is and has always been an incredibly diverse community.

So why do our schools not reflect this? They did at one time. But why not now? Why are Altadena parents not sending their kids to public school?

Some people give test scores as a reason, without understanding anything about what goes into that score, or worse, they don’t understand test scores are a better proof of a student’s family’s economic status and education level than they are of a school’s success.

Or perhaps they buy into the idea that my child deserves better, and they object to the condition of facilities or the amount of opportunities. So families turn away from public schools and in doing so, compound the problem, becoming complicit in the degradation of our school system rather than working towards a solution. And that’s ironic because public schools are a mini-democracy. It is an institution where you can have a direct influence on the outcome. You can effect change. The two schools I have been fortunate to have my daughters attend, Willard Elementary and Blair School, have been dynamic hotbeds of democracy, problem solving and action, where there has been wonderful collaboration between staff, parents and students. I have seen programs developed, funding deficits eliminated and through it all I have been witness to incredible educators who are inspiring, smart and caring.

We are at a pivotal point in public education. Many families with younger children are moving into Altadena. And those families carry on the Altadena tradition of being diverse. How lovely it would be to once more have our schools reflect the true demographics of our Beautiful Altadena. How great would it be to return to our local heritage of embracing diversity and ensuring that our students, too, can benefit from what only a public school can offer – the challenge of the real world.

There are two reasons schools in Altadena close, the first of which we can’t do anything about, but the second of which we can: (1) The schools are small. (2) We don’t send our kids to them.

If all the schools in Altadena closed I hope that you would still consider sending your kids to school. For all the pain of the 12 years I have schlepped my kids to the far reaches of Pasadena, if I had to make the choice again I would do it in a heartbeat. Public school has benefited my kids and my family in more ways than I can name.

Norah Switzer Small is a lifelong Altadena resident, currently living in the house where she grew up.