Pasadena Unified School District’s flagship elementary school is Sierra Madre Elementary School. The Sierra Madre school has regularly been seen as PUSD’s highest performing school – #1 when the API scores used to come out and #1 again when the new SBAC testing regime scores came out last fall.
The Sierra Madre school is also rightfully the pride of the City of Sierra Madre. Sierra Madre enjoys an active parent support network for the school, and its citizens have long been vocal and effective proponents for resourcing the Sierra Madre school.
But now there is a question mark hanging over Sierra Madre as to whether PUSD discriminatorily protected it against disclosure of cheating at the school while taking a harsher stance toward Northwest Pasadena schools.
“PUSD wouldn’t get away doing to Sierra Madre what it did to Madison” – True or False?
A constant refrain of the grassroots coalition the Citizens’ Council for Empowerment and Justice at Madison is that PUSD would never get away with doing to Sierra Madre what it did to Madison. That refrain arises from the fact that, when Sierra Madre had to recently select a new principal, Superintendent Brian McDonald of course gave it the right to have a principal selection committee of Sierra Madre stakeholders that selected three applicants for the position — from which McDonald selected the new Sierra Madre principal.
At the same time, he refused to form a principal selection committee for Madison Elementary School; instead, he unilaterally imposed Juan Ruelas as its principal with no site input. Madison is the most heavily-Latino, most heavily English second-language, and the poorest community in PUSD, while Sierra Madre is the most heavily-White, the lowest Latino, the lowest ESL, and among the richest communities.
Saying that PUSD would never get away with doing to Sierra Madre what it did to Madison is just another way of saying that PUSD treats Madison, a Northwest Pasadena school, in a racially-discriminatory and wealth-discriminatory manner.
Some Pasadena leaders say that Madison’s grassroots organization should change its message and stop saying PUSD would never get away doing to Sierra Madre what it did to Madison. Rather than concluding that those critics are saying we should stop repeating that refrain because they don’t want to hear the unpleasant truth that PUSD is acting in a racially-discriminatory and wealth-discriminatory manner, we’ll make the more benign interpretation that they believe the accusation of differential treatment is untrue.
There’s a long history of Madison being under-resourced and Sierra Madre being well-resourced that might support the differential treatment assertion. But let’s look to a different issue to illustrate the unpleasant truth about comparative PUSD treatment of Sierra Madre and Northwest Pasadena elementary schools – i.e., the treatment of elementary schools when they are caught cheating on student testing.
The treatment of Northwest Pasadena’s Roosevelt school when it was caught cheating on state testing
On January 10, 2012, PUSD issued a press release indicating that Roosevelt Elementary School – a PUSD Northwest school closer to Madison’s demographics than to Sierra Madre’s – was caught cheating and having to forfeit its nomination as a National Blue Ribbon school. PUSD’s press release was followed by embarrassing news stories in Pasadena Now and the LA Times which reported on the Roosevelt cheating disqualification from the National Blue Ribbon honor.
Significantly, Roosevelt’s principal at the time the school got caught cheating was Juan Ruelas, the principal who McDonald later imposed on Madison. McDonald’s rationale for denying Madison stakeholders’ involvement in selecting a new principal was that Roosevelt’s test scores during Ruelas’ tenure showed that he had accomplished educational miracles at Roosevelt and that he could do the same thing for Madison.
The 2012 bad publicity has come to haunt Ruelas because it has led to the recent more searching examination of Ruelas’ record that is the basis for the grassroots coalition’s contention that Ruelas’ reputation for educational achievement at Roosevelt is built on quicksand.
Unlike Roosevelt’s cheating, Sierra Madre’s is kept under wraps
Our public records requests for documents related to the cheating at Roosevelt forced PUSD to disclose to us a smoking gun – a September 2, 2011, email that PUSD’s Chief Technology Officer at the time, Dr. Gary A Carnow, sent to 6 other PUSD administrators. In Carnow’s email was the following statement: “Roosevelt, …, and Sierra Madre will not be eligible for any awards for two years based on the filing [sic-finding] of irregularities.”
Based on Carnow’s email, we realized that Sierra Madre had cheated on test scores like Roosevelt had, so we filed a public records request with the California Department of Education. A document produced to us by the Department of Education confirmed that Sierra Madre was caught cheating around the same time that Roosevelt was caught cheating.
But unlike the public exposure of Roosevelt’s cheating, Sierra Madre’s cheating was not publicly revealed – until publication of the February 18, 2016, Sierra Madre Weekly story on Sierra’s cheating based on documents we gave it. Its story reports that PUSD Associate Superintendent Mercedes Santoro confirmed that the Sierra Madre school was caught cheating (albeit by doing her best to minimize it).
The Board of Education was apparently informed on September 13, 2011, that Sierra Madre had been caught cheating, but they learned about it in closed session. By telling the Board in closed session, the PUSD administration prevented Board members from publicly disclosing Sierra Madre’s cheating because it is a criminal misdemeanor to disclose information learned in closed sessions unless the Board as a whole votes to release the information.
Apparently no Board member has ever thought that Sierra Madre’s cheating was important enough for the Board to publicly disclose it like Roosevelt’s was disclosed. Insofar as we can determine, PUSD never issued a press release on Sierra Madre’s cheating like it did for Roosevelt, so there was no media coverage of the cheating like there was for Roosevelt until 4 ½ years later on February 18.
Thus, PUSD’s Sierra Madre flagship skated through the last 4 ½ years without its reputation for sterling educational achievement soiled by the fact that some of that achievement was earned only through cheating. The Northwest Pasadena school Roosevelt was accorded no such protection from public disclosure. PUSD would never get away with doing to Sierra Madre what it did to Madison.
The grassroots Madison coalition is going to keep repeating that PUSD would never get away with doing to Sierra Madre what it did to Madison.
Mod: This piece was written by Dale Gronemeier and Skip Hickambottom. They are described as "local civil rights attorneys who represent the Citizens Council for Empowerment and Justice at Madison." Dale Gronemeier lives in Sierra Madre. Link to the original here.