School Life Explained: The History of High Schools in Pasadena

The long application process, the tests, and shadow days.

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The shiny online ISEE prep websites that seem to mock you with your first practice test results; the reading comprehension practice questions that are unbelievably tedious and dull; the theocratic nature of Christian schools and their tendency to choose students who are parishioners rather than those who are not of a particular denomination; the snobby prep schools that seem, to the outsider, to only admit one kind of student; the essays; the relentless advertising; the shadow days; the seemingly impossible standards of some admissions directors; the cathartic release you feel when you find out that your efforts in eighth grade have culminated into acceptance, or the tears that follow the apologetically written rejection email: these First-World problems are all part of the reality for the hundreds of eighth-graders in the Pasadena area engaged in the daunting prospect of applying to high school.

Why should applying to high school be such an arduous task? The reason for the hyper-competitive school market in this suburb of Los Angeles is inherently political. Pasadena boasts the highest number of private schools per capita in the entire United States: about 50 religious and non-religious K–8 and high schools (including Sequoyah) are scattered throughout the area, according to Emma G. Gallegos, writer for LAist.com. The reason for this high concentration of private institutions can actually be attributed to busing, which the Law Library defines as the practice of desegregating schools by sending minority students to schools in predominantly white areas that took place post Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. This led concerned parents to pull their children out of the public school system, which eventually led to the creation of private schools. There was a resulting “brain and resource drain” on the area’s public schools, and simultaneously the private schools became more elite. The demand for entrance, when balanced with the limited supply of spots for admission, means more and more competitive criteria for filling those limited spots.

Kristen Moore, Junior High lead teacher at Sequoyah, has expressed her qualms and her criticisms of this system. Though she does not believe that the application process remains inherently political, and while she feels that most high school admissions officers have a great deal of integrity, Moore also feels that outgoing, extroverted students have an advantage in this process, as they “can reveal their strengths on the spot. The truth is that those quieter students have just as much to offer, but their strengths are not always immediately evident.”

She also believes that there are many flaws with the ISEE, a commonly used placement test. Moore explained, “it is merely a snapshot of how a student did on one flawed test during a three-hour time block.” Moore added, “This test does not assess one’s critical thinking skills or creativity or ability to synthesize information from various sources and generate a new insight. I wish schools would stop using it as an admissions tool and instead rely upon a student’s previous teachers who have the most reliable feedback regarding how strong a student is in the classroom.”

The good news is, ultimately, when a student gets accepted, they no longer have to deal with this laborious journey – that is, until they start applying to colleges!