Desegregation of Pasadena schools -- 12 years later

In 1970, US district court judge Manuel Real found that the Pasadena Board of Education had ''knowingly assigned'' blacks and whites to separate high schools. He ordered this quiet Los Angeles suburb to desegregate.

The times were tumultuous, but, says Ramon C. Cortines, superintendent of schools. ''We probably had one of the smoothest openings - no turning over of buses, no violence.''

Twelve years later, the children who were in kindergarten that year are now seniors. How have they, their parents, and the schools fared?

That depends on whom you talk to.

The desegregation plan is ''a dismal failure,'' according to Dr. Henry Myers, long-time conservative school-board member. He says the plan did not close the gap between the academic scores of blacks and whites and did not achieve racial harmony. ''I drive past a high school every day, and still see minority kids talking in one group and white kids in another.''

Marjorie Wyatt, a liberal school board member disagrees: ''The quality of instruction in the classroom has improved steadily year by year - the increase in test scores is a testimony to that. Part is due to federal funding and an increase in staff. But part is commitment by staff and parents and volunteers to make it work.''

Mrs. Jan Treister, a mother of four who otherwise supports the plan, feels that, ''The kids who were not motivated and needed some kind of careful watching . . . tended to fall through the cracks.'' Betsy Alcorn, recalling a time when her son daily came home with bruises, says flatly, ''I hated it.''

But Paula Rau, a first- and second-grade teacher, observes. ''It seems like a real healthy thing. I see kids regrouping, regardless of color, learning each other's languages.''

The Board of Education chafed under the court order, says Dr. Peter Hagen, director of planning, research, and evaluation for the board. Judge Real only gave them six weeks to come up with a plan, says Dr. Hagen. ''We're still paying for errors made in haste. You can't wipe out 100 years of segregation in six weeks.''

Their plan divided the elementary schools into grades K to 3 and 4 to 6. A school on the white periphery of the city was paired with a black school in the central area. The children in both areas would attend one of the schools for grades K to 3 and the other from grades 4 to 6, being bused to one school, and walking to the other. Neighborhoods were redrawn to include both blacks and whites in junior and senior high schools.

One major problem, according to superintendent Cortines: ''The mixing of bodies became the goal rather than mixing of children. The majority of educators felt that integration had to meet all needs. Instead of stretching students, they accepted lower standards.''

Falling test scores the first few years forced a renewed commitment to academic quality, Dr. Hagen says. Since 1975, the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) scores of blacks have jumped almost 20 points, Hispanic scores rose 16 points, and Asian 10 points. White scores have jumped 11 points, putting them in the top quarter of national performance, Mr. Hagen says. And the gap in scores between minorities and whites is closing, according to Board of Education figures.

A survey of graduating seniors shows that many of them feel positively about the integration, says one school official. Jan Treister's son, Dana, student body president at Muir High School, says: ''I feel I have gotten a much better education, all-round education, because of the plan. It was an excellent experience.''

Mildred Turner, a black community contact at Muir High School, says her two sons have both told her that they felt growing up in Pasadena's integrated school environment really prepared them for the multiethnic experience of college.

The desegregation plan worked, says Judge Real, who released the district from court order in 1980. Demographic statistics show that many neighborhoods have integrated. There is a rapidly rising Hispanic population. Whites are returning, accounting for one-third of 1,800 new pupils this year.

Next year the district will return to a neighborhood-schools system, although some children in highly concentrated areas will still have to be bused. This plan was chosen ''to meet the needs of many single-parent families by reducing the number of schools they have to relate to, and will make it easier for them to get involved,'' Mrs. Wyatt says.

Superintendent Cortines sums up the legacy of 12 years of desegregation effort this way: ''There are still cliques, but the cliques now come in different colors and same colors, and are based on interest. It's the real world.''

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