An Intellectual Legacy

An Intellectual Legacy

Pasadena’s public school system, now celebrating 140 years, was the envy of the nation


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In September 1874, 18-year-old Jenny Clapp taught her first two students — twins Jessie and Jenny Banbury — in the home of her father, William, located on South Orange Grove Boulevard. The salary of Pasadena’s first teacher was a whopping $81 per month.
According to Laura Verlaque, director of collections for the Pasadena Museum of History, by the month’s end, the new school grew to 14 students — more than Jenny Clapp could handle. So the school closed and its fledgling school board built its first school — a roughly constructed board and batten building — on land donated by William Clapp on South Orange Grove and California boulevards. But, with a burgeoning population in Pasadena, the schoolhouse still wasn’t big enough for everyone. 

In 1876, Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson, who founded much of this portion of the San Gabriel Valley, including Pasadena, donated five acres of land on the southeast corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and Colorado Boulevard to the new school district, and the schoolhouse was moved there in 1877. A year and a half later, that building was replaced with an impressive two-story structure called Central School built on that same location, which remained from 1878 to 1886.

By 1886, Southern California land and student population boomed. 

In the 1879-80 school year, Pasadena had 61 students. By the year the railroad arrived just seven years later (1887-88), the student population had swelled to 1,354 children from grades K-8. Due largely to earthquake damage, the city’s Victorian-style schoolhouses sadly no longer exist except in photographs, which are on display at the Pasadena Museum of History.

Verlaque says Pasadena has a strong intellectual legacy. 

“Pasadena’s library and school district both predate the incorporation of the city. It shows an emphasis on education and literacy in a community struggling to incorporate and establish itself,” says Verlaque.

Known nationwide in the 19th century for its temperate, healthy climate, Pasadena also established an open air school in 1926 called the Pasadena Preventorium, a school for male students whom doctors believe needed fresh air to recuperate. These students had special activities and engaged in daily sun baths. 

Also established that year was the Open Air Day School for students in grades one through six. This school for both male and female students who were considered to be “delicate of health and study.” The school was equipped with a classroom on a porch and had a modern kitchen and bathroom. 

Because of the continued population boom, the school was outgrown within 10 years and Wilson School was built. Named for the community’s patriarch, Wilson School started with just six high school students in 1890, but was not yet a designated high school in its first year. In 1891, an additional building was added to the site, which was called Pasadena High School. By 1892, the high school had a new building and 123 students.
In 1924, Pasadena Junior College was built; then in 1928, Pasadena High School merged with Pasadena Junior College and operated as a four-year school from grades 11-14. This was known as the 6-4-4 system, which was unique to the Pasadena school system. Students would attend elementary school for six years through grade six, junior high for four years through grade 10, and high school for four years through grade 14. In 1954, Pasadena Junior College merged with John Muir College and was renamed Pasadena City College. 

Lifelong Pasadena resident Sid Gally, 93, began attending Pasadena schools in 1925 as a kindergarten student and stayed through college. He attended during the 6-4-4 program, and was an Honor Society member, which he says helped prepare him to attend prestigious Caltech in Pasadena.  

While he has several unique memories of his time as a Pasadena student, one especially fun memory involved the Rose Parade.

“I attended McKinley for junior high, where I played trumpet — we got to march in the 1933 Rose Parade. Not everyone got to do that — we were really lucky. We also got a free ticket to the [Rose] Bowl Game. It was great.”

Since Gally attended school during the 6-4-4 program, his last few years of school were on the campus of Pasadena Junior College where students attended grades 10-14. He attended Pasadena Junior College just after the Long Beach earthquake of 1933, which did significant damage to many Pasadena buildings, including its junior college.

“They had to tear down buildings after the earthquake. The first couple of years [at Pasadena Junior College] we were in tents. The parking lots were filled with wooden-floor tents. Some of them were in the gym, too. They pretty much stripped the buildings down to their framework and rebuilt them to what you see today,” said Gally.

While at Pasadena Junior College for grades 13-14, Gally majored in engineering. But he wasn’t too busy to attend a few school athletic games, where he saw a legend in action. “Jackie Robinson was our star football and basketball player. I saw him play in many football games. He was quite good,” he said.

Gally, who writes a column for the Pasadena Star-News, eventually went on to graduate with honors from Caltech with a degree in engineering, a feat he largely attributes to preparation he received in the Pasadena education system.

Helen Smith, also a lifelong Pasadena resident, started kindergarten in Pasadena in 1944 and recalls her favorite elementary school teacher.

“My third grade teacher, Ms. Taylor, got me hooked on the Southwest and taught us about Hopi Indians. Every summer she’d work on the reservation in Arizona, then return to us in the fall and shared with us what she’d learned while there. She taught the boys in our class how to design quivers and arrows, and the girls how to design a baby carrier. I loved it.”

During the 1960s and ’70s, desegregation gave Pasadena national recognition in another way. One of the first mandatory busing programs in the US put the school district on the map in 1968 when Pasadena students and parents filed a class action lawsuit against the school district for unconstitutional segregation. The US District Court found the school district in violation of the 14th Amendment, leading to mandatory busing beginning in early 1970. The goal was to create racial balance in schools. Thus, the Pasadena Plan was created by the school board, which adopted a racially neutral reassignment of students to schools throughout the district. According to the court, there was to be “no majority of any minority.” This also required annual readjustment of attendance zones, so as to remain compliant with the court’s judgment. 

In 1974, the school board rejected this mandate and instead requested voluntary magnet schools to replace forced busing. The school board prevailed in 1976 when the US Supreme Court overturned the busing mandate, ruling that the District Court had overstepped its authority. The school district no longer mandated forced busing.

Today, Pasadena Unified School District is comprised of 15 diverse elementary schools, three K-8 schools, three middle schools, three high schools, and two 6-12 alternative schools (Marshall Fundamental Secondary School and Blair International Baccalaureate School).

PUSD Superintendent Jon R. Gundry, who began his term in July 2011, says he sees took the job initially because of the Link learning program, an initiative put in place by retired Superintendent Edwin Diaz. 

“Link learning provides students with the opportunity to receive specialized classes directed toward a career in which they are interested, and provides them internship opportunities, as well.”

Gundry says he is proud of PUSD’s achievements this year, including three of its elementary schools — San Rafael, Webster, and Roosevelt — all named California Distinguished Schools. 

“This is the first time the school district has had three schools given this distinction in one year,” says Gundry. 

One of Gundry’s goals involves the School City Community Work Plan, created to build a supportive relationship between PUSD and the city of Pasadena.

“We are focusing on narrowing the achievement gap and improving the quality of life in Pasadena … one of my greatest legacies is the relationship between the school district and the city, which is tremendously improved. They are now our strongest partner.”
PUSD has seen many changes through the years. And to think, all of it started 140 years ago with just two students and their teacher, in the parlor of a house on Orange Grove Boulevard. 


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