Pablo Miralles didn’t think there was anything remarkable about his education while attending Pasadena’s Muir High in the early 1980s. Like most teens, he made his way through four years of academics and activities mixed with the social scene and went on his way to an out-of-town college.
Years later, he came to realize that he was going through the school at a remarkable time in its history. A member of the Class of 1982, Miralles had become a documentary filmmaker, and after having lunch with a friend named Cameron Turner, a journalist and activist who had graduated a year before him, he came to realize there was a rich story to be told about his alma mater.
The resulting film, a 45-minute documentary called “Can We All Get Along? The Segregation of John Muir High,” was screened as a work in progress on Saturday afternoon before an appreciative audience of about 50 people at the Donald R. Wright Auditorium at the Pasadena Central Library. Miralles still has some final tweaks to complete on the film before submitting it to film festivals starting in October, but the event proved to be an inspiring validation of an effort that began in 2011.
“Cameron noted that we were lucky to go to school in Pasadena in the ’70s, and that first coffee with him became a yearlong conversation,” said Miralles, who is keeping the film near its present length because it enables him to market it to ad-supported television networks. Turner died on Sept. 12, 2016 after a bout with pneumonia led to lung surgery followed by severe septic shock. He was 52.
“He informed me about our own history and the busing decision and how we had a pretty amazing education,” Miralles said of his friend’s influence on the project. “That led me to do a short documentary on his class, on the 30th anniversary of the Class of ‘81 called ‘Children of Desegregation: John Muir Class of 1981.’
“I did it for no money, just for fun, and interviewed members of their class,” Miralles added. “My friend Hector Tobar of The New York Times Sunday Review saw it while he was with the LA Times in 2011 and wrote a blurb about it in his column and I got an amazing response from my class and Cameron’s. I decided to do a doc on the whole school and not just the classes of desegregation, and that history is the first part of the film before I focus on what happened with desegregation and where it is today.”
John Muir High first drew significant attention regarding racial issues in 1963, when La Cañada Flintridge opened its own high school after African-American families began moving into Northwest Pasadena. More than 800 children were pulled out of the PUSD and placed in La Cañada High School.
In a failed effort to stop white flight, the district built Blair High School for white families still living in Pasadena who didn’t want their kids going to Muir, which by that time was 60 percent black. Soon, Blair and Pasadena high schools were overcrowded by white children whose families did not want to send them to the “minority school.”
In 1970, US District Judge Manuel Real backed families suing the Pasadena Unified School District, who claimed the district was maintaining a racially segregated school system. Real found that the school district was guilty of committing “intentional segregative acts,” which led him to order students bused from one school to another to balance the racial makeup of each school.
Yet in doing his research into the desegregation era at Muir, Miralles found that the school had been historically integrated with “an amazing list of noteworthy alumni well before the busing decision.” In fact, Muir was “the only truly integrated school for 20 miles.”
As a result, Miralles’ original intent was to make a feature exploring the notable people who had graduated from the school, and spotlighting the fact that diversity in education “can produce some pretty amazing people.” He finished that version of the documentary in 2013 and screened it for the Muir community in the campus auditorium. The feedback made him realize he was only scratching the surface of the school’s desegregation history.
“It wasn’t the history that mattered, it was the present,” said Miralles. “Many of the filmmakers who watched the film are going through the question of where to send their children to school and why are public schools are so looked down upon. There’s a sense if you care about your children you shouldn’t’ go to public schools, and that’s pretty much anywhere in California.
“The segregation of John Muir High School is the subject now,” Miralles continued. “A school that had benefited from desegregation was now socioeconomically and racially segregated. Currently it’s a poor school which is 90-something percent Latino and black. It’s not that they’re segregating them by race, but to be poor is to be black and brown.”
Among the prominent local officials who attended the screening were PUSD Superintendent Brian McDonald and Board of Education member Scott Phelps. Both had glowing reviews for the project, boding well for its future on the festival circuit and beyond.
“It’s a gripping film that chronicles the history of John Muir High School and the powerful impact that a diverse and well-funded public education can have on generations of students,” said McDonald. “It is an important addition to the local and national conversation on the true value of public education in Pasadena, the state of California and the country. The film affirms my work as an educator and motivates me to do my very best for the students of Pasadena and for public education in general.”
“His film captures the positive atmosphere and great experiences he and others had at Muir after growing up in schools integrated by busing,” added Phelps, who once taught at the school. “It was normal to them to be with peers from all backgrounds. There was a unity in the diversity and all students benefited. That consciousness of the oneness of humanity that they had is a very precious thing that has been sadly degraded by the segregation that has occurred since those times.
“His film also captures the loss that has accompanied segregation,” Phelps concluded. “The loss of friendships that could have been, of understanding that could have developed, of opportunities to forge enduring bonds of unity in the city, to the detriment of the city.”
To learn more about the film, visit getalongfilm.com.