MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to Pasadena, Calif., which is one of California's wealthiest cities. Affluent neighborhoods often go hand in hand with sought-after public schools, but in Pasadena, nearly half of the school district's students attend private school or a school outside the district, more than any district of its size in the country. Public school leaders have been trying to recruit more students in recent years by enlisting an unlikely ally - real estate agents. They say the effort is starting to show results. From member station KPCC, Adolfo Guzman Lopez has this report.
ADOLFO GUZMAN LOPEZ, BYLINE: Real estate agents help families choose a home, and to a degree, schools. Brian McDonald, Pasadena schools' superintendent, found that out firsthand six years ago. He says when he told the real estate agent helping him find a home that he had five school-aged children, she said, don't enroll in Pasadena public schools.
BRIAN MCDONALD: 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.
LOPEZ: The National Association of Realtors advises realtors not to tell clients whether schools are good or bad because that might steer them away from a community, a violation of federal fair housing laws. McDonald says that agent's recommendation is part of an outdated view that the city's public schools are poor quality, and it's a point of view that persists. Just ask the Lofton family. They've been house hunting for months.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Daddy. Daddy, I got her.
LOPEZ: Their search has led them to this four-bedroom, three-bath house in the hills above the Rose Bowl. Price tag - $1,365,000. Lauren Lofton looked into the public schools for her 4-year-old daughter and found low test scores.
LAUREN LOFTON: It just - it almost seems to me incredulous, doesn't make sense that you have these great homes, great values, great for raising families but everyone is saying you have to go to private school. And I think if your house is worth a lot of money and you have good neighborhoods, you should be able to go to the neighborhood school.
LOPEZ: Friends and family also told her that Pasadena's schools aren't very good. But on this occasion, she's met Del Lile, a real estate agent with a very different view of public schools.
DEL LILE: So often people just look at a score from GreatSchools or whatever, a number, and that really doesn't tell the story. Those numbers can be skewed for a variety of different reasons.
LOPEZ: He goes on about bilingual programs, new magnet programs and growing college admissions at one of the high schools. Lofton likes what she hears and asks how she can visit the schools. Lile is a new convert to Pasadena public education. He grew up here but moved out when he had kids, in part because of the poor reputation of the schools.
LILE: I perpetrated the past perception at the time. 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.
LOPEZ: Lile says his turnaround happened after he joined the realtors initiative, a program created two years ago by the school district's independent fundraising foundation. The goal of the realtors initiative is to give realtors up-to-date information about new programs and results and to ask them what schools could do to attract families like the Loftons. School officials met with hundreds of agents at their offices, asked them to volunteer in the schools and pulled the curtain back on decision making in the school district.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Come on. Come on in. Join us.
LOPEZ: Real estate agents, business owners, bankers and scientists munch on brown-bag lunches in a corporate meeting room for the monthly lunch with the superintendent. Pasadena graduation rates have been improving faster than the state average, and enrollment isn't dropping as fast as it was four years ago. Unlike the city as a whole, Pasadena's public school population is predominantly black and Latino and low income. Superintendent Brian McDonald says the changes are meant to help make the school district more integrated.
MCDONALD: And so the realtor initiative is a part of our desire to attract a more diverse group of kids into our school system.
LOPEZ: By diverse, he means the type of families who've moved away from Pasadena schools for decades - professionals, white and Asian families. Those student populations have been growing in recent years. McDonald says there's another sign that the initiative is working. He's looking for a new home. This time, the realtor recommended Pasadena public schools. For NPR News, I'm Adolfo Guzman Lopez in Los Angeles.
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