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Low performing Pasadena middle school transforming itself into arts magnet

Pasadena Arts School

Mary Plummer/KPCC

Eliot Middle School dance students get ready to perform at Madison Elementary in Pasadena. The students are helping Eliot recruit more students to attend the new arts magnet.

Pasadena Arts School

Mary Plummer/KPCC

A student from Eliot Middle School, located in Altadena, plays the keyboard.

Pasadena Arts School

Mary Plummer/KPCC

Seventh grader Miguel Navarro rides the bus as part of Eliot Middle School's field trip to recruit elementary students in the district. Navarro is a visual arts student - this is his second year taking classes from Eliot art teacher Robert Moya.

Pasadena Arts School

Mary Plummer/KPCC

Eliot Middle School students perform. The students are part of the school's arts expansion - this year Eliot added theater and dance classes.

Pasadena Arts School

Mary Plummer/KPCC

Eliot Middle School students perform as part of a field trip to recruit students to attend their school. Eliot has been informally renamed Eliot Arts to reflect the school's new arts focus.

Pasadena Arts School

Mary Plummer/KPCC

Music teacher Karen Klages, of Eliot Middle School in Altadena, leads her students through a performance at Cleveland Elementary School.


Of the Pasadena Unified School District's seven middle school options, Eliot Middle School is the lowest performer on the most recent statewide tests, scoring about 150 points below the statewide goal of 800. Some students there say the school is known for fights.

For years, it's had a reputation with some as a struggling school, and its enrollment has suffered as a result. About 600 students currently attend the school - nearly twice that many went there ten years ago.

But Eliot is hoping to make a big comeback. Backed by more than $1.5 million in federal grant dollars, teachers and administrators have turned the school into an arts magnet, informally renaming it Eliot Arts.

"We're just trying to grab those kids that really, you know, watch somebody up on stage doing a dance saying 'That's me, I could do that,'" said Karen Klages, a music teacher at the school who helped apply for the grant funding along with visual arts teacher Robert Moya. 

"I see the arts building leadership," Klages said.

It's not a new strength for Eliot. It has offered good visual arts and music instruction for years. What's new is an effort to expand those offerings and make them the focus of the school.

The school added dance and theater classes this year and plans to redo its auditorium and add a multimedia lab over the next couple of years. It also plans to hire a learning coach and a technology specialist.

In three years, when the work is done, Eliot will be the largest visual and performing arts school in Altadena, according to district officials. Every one of its students will get the chance to experience more than one art form.

Klages hopes the school will also become a vibrant arts center for Altadena. 

"Our community will be able to use our school," she said. 

Pasadena Unified received a total of $7.9 million from the U.S. Department of Education last spring to create and expand its first-ever magnet schools at Eliot and three other campuses - the money will be dispersed over three years. (Nationwide, 27 schools were awarded the grants.)

"I really think that this is a golden opportunity for parents," said Lori Touloumian, Pasadena Unified's magnet program coordinator. "We have never had an opportunity like this before where a parent has the choice for sending their child to a school that is going to offer these thematic choices."

To transform the school, Eliot has asked for help with lesson plans and professional development from Art Center, Huntington Library, Pasadena Education Network, Lineage Dance, Music Center and Little Kids Rock, among other private art groups. 

One key piece of the grant is to recruit more students to Eliot and diversify the school's ethnic minority to mirror the rest of the district. So Eliot art teachers have been on a recruiting campaign, busing their art students to Pasadena elementary schools to showcase their talents.

"People should know more about Eliot. That it is not just a really like poor school," said 8th grade acting student Ase Fisher, as she prepared to give a performance at Madison Elementary School. "It is also like full of great teachers and students who want to work hard to achieve their dreams."

Cleveland Elementary fifth grader Patricia Romero-Cortez said she liked what she saw when students performed there two weeks ago. Her favorite part was watching the dancers.

Until now, Romero-Cortez had planned to go to middle school at Blair, but after watching the assembly, she said she's going to try to talk her mom into letting her go to Eliot. 

"I thought it was amazing," she said.

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