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A remarkable turnaround at Pasadena's John Muir High School

The campus that for years was under state monitoring has improved test scores, attendance rates and student participation.

November 01, 2009|Nicole Santa Cruz

With each click of his mouse, Sam Picture wondered if John Muir High School was a good career move.

Stories of high dropout rates, low test scores and violence popped on his screen when he researched the 55-acre campus in northwest Pasadena in January 2008.

He didn't see it as a deterrent, but rather, a challenge.

Picture, now the school's athletic director, is one of the many teachers, administrators and counselors hired to turn around the troubled high school, which since 2001 has cycled through five principals. This year is the first in five that the state is not monitoring the school for failing to increase test scores.

In spring 2008, John Muir began an academic remodel. Teachers, administrators and counselors were forced to reapply for their jobs. About half of Muir's teachers returned that fall.

Today, 1,165 students are divided among four more personalized academies. And more students are taking Advanced Placement courses designed to help prepare them for college.

Muir has done a good job of enforcing basic policies related to safety and attendance, but the struggle to improve the school isn't over, said Bob Harrison, a member of the Pasadena Board of Education who has had children attending Muir since 1997.

"We've just got to do a better job of reaching our kids," he said.

The 86-year-old Muir is attempting to rekindle its long-lost school spirit with more students participating in after-school clubs, sports and tutoring.

"They're accepting the fact that they are part of the Muir community," said Picture, who also teaches freshman geography and a freshman seminar. "I'm not really sure that kids felt that way before."

Teachers are reporting fewer absences, said Timothy Sippel, an assistant principal. "The students are showing up consistently," he said. "We don't have students wandering around as was the case two years ago."

Because of its attendance boundaries, Muir has a more diverse and impoverished student body than Pasadena's three other high schools: 97% of the students are minorities and 18% are learning English. About 68% qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, an indicator of poverty, according to state data. Muir also has a high number of children living in foster or group homes, school officials said.

Muir showed a 34-point gain over two years on the Academic Performance Index, which rates schools based on standardized test scores. In spring, Muir had an API of 603 points. The prior spring, the school made a 31-point jump, from 569 to 600. Schools must show growth for two consecutive years to exit state monitoring.

The academies employ a team of teachers who meet twice a week to discuss curriculum and student progress. Classes now are on a block schedule with 93-minute periods four days a week. Students say it's harder if they miss class, because it's as if they're missing two days instead of one.

In spring 2008, the school couldn't get enough students for junior varsity softball and baseball. It canceled the girl's winter soccer season because of lack of participation. Late in the season, Muir ended junior varsity football games because of the team's behavior. A swim team hadn't existed in years.

"They had just kind of lost that Mustang spirit," said Principal Sheryl Orange. She is in her second year as principal, a rarity given the school's track record. She also has served as an interim principal and assistant principal.

On a recent afternoon, Orange was surprised at the number of students practicing on the field. She laughed and pointed, "Those are my soccer babies," she said excitedly.

This year, there are enough students for both a junior varsity and varsity soccer team. Forty-three students have signed up for swimming. And junior varsity baseball and softball have full rosters.

The differences on campus aren't lost on the students.

Danny Huerta, 16, said his teachers are more enthusiastic. As a result, he is too.

"I'm more excited because I know we're going to learn something without all the troubles," said Danny, a varsity football guard. "This year, there's a lot more people involved," the junior said. "People actually care about their grades and stuff."

Now, it's not considered dorky to be involved with school.

"When the culture changes like that, everybody else buys in," said Lorena Guillen, who teaches AP literature and sophomore English. She's been at the school since 2004. "It isn't the weird thing that only 10 kids do."

The school has seen a 33% increase in students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses in the last year. The year before, the school saw a 36% increase, according to school records.

Students are more excited about classes because they're able to make connections between core courses and specialized electives such as graphic design and animation.

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