Education

Pasadena schools turn realtors into allies

Pasadena realtor Del Lile is now an enthusiastic proponent of public schools through the school district's Realtors' Initiative.
Pasadena realtor Del Lile is now an enthusiastic proponent of public schools through the school district's Realtors' Initiative.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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A realtors’ outreach program created two years ago by Pasadena public school advocates is starting to show results as school administrators work to recruit middle class families to public schools.

“We felt that realtors were sort of the front lines of meeting people in the community who were exploring their options for schools and their opinions were not always positive towards the schools themselves and they were communicating this to future residents,” said Dawn O’Keeffe, who's on the board of directors of the Pasadena Educational Foundation, the school district’s independent fundraising group.

She and another member of the foundation drew up plans to meet with realtors at their offices, poll their opinions of the public schools, and ask them what schools can do to help realtors.

The proposal hit close to home for Superintendent Brian McDonald.

He’d had a troubling experience six years ago when Pasadena Unified hired him away from his job in Houston, and he hired a realtor to find a home.

“I had explained to her that I was here to start a new job as the Chief Academic Officer for the district,” he said.

She asked how many kids he had. Five, he said, to which she recommended he stay away from Pasadena public schools.

“Her recommendation was Arcadia or even Glendora. She thought that it was OK to tell me that I should put my kids in another district. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. My jaw dropped,” he said.

McDonald said that views that the school district as low performing are rooted in a contentious 1970 court order that ordered desegregation through busing. The order led to white flight from public schools and left public schools to serve mostly African American and Latino students. The superintendent said that 45 percent of the kids who live in school district boundaries attend private school or a school outside the district.

McDonald has been trying to close that gap by starting magnet programs, dual language immersion schools, along with accelerated math programs.

The Realtors’ Initiative appears to be working by targeting the realtors who years ago may have recommended that well off clients budget for private school tuition if they were to buy a house in Pasadena.

“I perpetrated the past perception at the time,” said realtor Del Lile “I have to be forthcoming with my clients and I have to tell them, give them what I know, give them the information that I have.”

Lile grew up in Pasadena and attended public schools when middle class, white families like his were leaving the school district. His mother was a public school teacher. He moved to Arcadia when he had kids, he said, in part because of the poor reputation of the schools.

The foundation recruited him to join the initiative. After meetings with school officials and hearing first-hand about school improvements at the monthly “Lunch with the Superintendent” event held for realtors, business owners, and other professionals.

Lile’s ready knowledge about Pasadena schools was in evidence recently at his open house for a four-bedroom, three-bath house in the hills above the Rose Bowl. The price tag: $1,365,000.

“It doesn’t make sense that you can have these great homes… great for raising families but everyone is saying you have to go to private school,” said Lauren Lofton, who came with her husband and four-year old daughter “I think if you’re house is worth a lot of money in good neighborhoods you should be able to go to the neighborhood school.”

Friends and family, she said, have told her that Pasadena public schools aren’t very good. Lile stepped in to explain that judging schools is complicated.

“So often people just look at a score from [greatschools.com] or whatever, a number. And that really doesn’t tell the story. Those numbers can be skewed for a variety of different reasons,” Lile told Lofton.

He goes on and on about new dual language immersion programs, new magnet programs, and growing college admissions at his alma mater, Muir High School. Lofton, a lawyer by profession, likes what she hears and asks how she can visit the schools.

“The Realtor Initiative is a part of our desire to attract a more diverse group of kids into our school system,” said Superintendent McDonald.

By “diverse” he means more professionals like Lofton.

The population of white and Asian students has been rising in the school district in recent years. That’s at the same time that the populations of Latino and black students has been declining.

School district officials would not say what role the initiative, school improvements, and or rising housing costs are having on those demographic shifts.

Pasadena graduation rates was 81.9 percent in the 2015-2016 academic year. It rose at a faster rate than the state as a whole.

Superintendent McDonald does point to one clear sign that the Realtors’ Initiative is working. He’s looking for a new home and this time the realtor recommended Pasadena public schools.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Brian McDonald and Dawn O'Keeffe's last names. KPCC regrets the error.