“We do things differently here.”
That’s not a statement heard often from a public school principal, but then again, Rose City High School Principal Brian Stanley is not a typical school head, nor is Rose City a typical public school.
As a continuation school for Pasadena Unified School District, it strives to offer exactly what public schools can’t to students who need that learning difference.
“These are some of the most talented and amazing kids you’ll ever meet,” he said. “If you can help them on an individual level, we really see them exceed and soar. I’m blown away every single year by our students — I think this is the best-kept secret in Pasadena.”
Typically, students transfer to Rose City in grades 10-12 because they’re behind on credits, in danger of failing or not graduating. The school works on an accelerated quarter system, offering as many as 100 credits in one school year. Apart from direct classroom instruction, Rose City offers work-based learning support, daily tutoring, independent study and an online computer-based program that allows students to work at their own pace. The school is also open year-round.
With a current total of 211 students and a student/teacher ratio of about 18-to-1, there is much more individual attention than in a typical public high school class, which might have a 40-1 classroom ratio at its smallest. Students can stay until they’re 20 years old, if necessary.
“These are students that are falling through the cracks; they don’t have a supportive home environment,” Stanley said.
Way back when, Rose City High garnered a reputation as a school of hard knocks, a place where the “bad kids” had to go when they got kicked out of school.
But under Stanley’s leadership, he’s drawn attention to the reality of his student population: These are kids who have simply fallen behind in school, and often because of some kind of trauma in their lives. About 10% of his kids come to the school as foster youth, but others need to be referred to the foster system with the help of student counselors.
“There are some very sad stories here,” he noted.
There are stories of sexual and physical abuse. One girl testified against her father, after years of abuse, for raping her, but she had to continue living with a family that blamed her for his incarceration. Another boy was in mourning after being told his mother died. Later, he had to assimilate her reappearance after it turned out she had only disappeared to get out of some trouble. And then his father was incarcerated. Other children are homeless or don’t get enough to eat.
Stanley has helped to intensify the support services at Rose City with a highly trained staff to provide a trauma-informed environment. There is an on-site case manager, counselor and substance-abuse intervention. There is a healthy start program, a school-based family support center that offers resources and referrals for food, clothing, housing and utility assistance; referrals for mental health care, parent education and health insurance outreach. There is a mandatory empowerment course and an elective called Students Make a Change that focuses on critical life issues such as decision-making, self-esteem, anger management and sobriety.
Stanley said being principal at Rose City High is his dream job. He sought out the continuation school after teaching at McKinley School, eager to work with at-risk youth, and worked up the ranks from teacher, dean and assistant principal before becoming principal. A high school dropout himself, Stanley suffered at the hands of an abusive father, and later a broken home. At one point, he also attended a continuation school.
“I had a very rough time growing up … but people came alongside me and helped me. I’ve always wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives, just like the people in my life made a difference,” said Stanley, who ultimately earned his master’s degree. “With their help, I was able to get myself together and graduate high school and then go to college, and in college, I was very successful.”
Part of reaching the students is to build relationships, gain their trust and have honest conversations, he said.
“If they are here, they have all experienced failure; and so many of them have experienced failure because of trauma, so we have to address that head-on,” he said, noting that smaller class sizes are critical to achieving that.
One of the mandatory classes, the Empowerment Course, provides a platform for different speakers and leaders from the community, connecting students to adults with similar backgrounds and success stories.
One of those people is the Rev. Eric Johnson, director of partnerships and collaborations at Lake Avenue Community Foundation. Johnson, who does a lot of collaborations with nonprofits for underserved and at-risk youth, has worked with Stanley to organize an orientation for kids new to Rose City High, what he calls an “A-Team” of mentors.
“There can be a real cloud around these kids when they come in because they weren’t passing or missing credits. We have to address the elephant in the room first,” said Johnson, adding that Stanley has really helped in turning around the school’s focus.
“The Rose City of today is not the Rose City of the past. Now, students chose Rose City because it works better for them; they prefer it,” he said. “Brian is the perfect person to lead it — he’s exceptionally big-hearted. He’s a youth pastor in the form of a principal.
“These are kids who have come through terrible things; they’ve come through a hard, young life. But if you engage them you will see the diamond and not the coal, and that’s what Brian and his staff do.”
One of the speakers Johnson helped to recruit is a former Rose City High success story, Dominick Correy, who now is the Altadena/Pasadena representative for state Sen. Anthony Portantino. Correy grew up in Northwest Pasadena and was sent to Rose City High after being in and out of the juvenile detention centers. He was raised by a single mom with two jobs who was trying to support four young boys. Eventually, Correy was lured back into the neighborhood gang life, stealing cars and fighting, and went to jail.
After a rough go at a California Youth Authority facility, he was able to complete his GED, and later had an opportunity to work at an alternative educational program as “a chaser,” the person in charge of tracking a caseload of high-risk students. It helped Correy get his life on track and ultimately graduate from Cal Poly Pomona.
Correy said the kids at Rose City High don’t get much good publicity because they’re not the students getting into top schools or earning top test scores.
“These aren’t the students that everyone wants to talk about [in PUSD]; these are kids who have different crises every day, a kid who’s worried about getting home safe, about where they’re going to sleep that night,” he said. “But you have to define a school by the lives they are changing, and that is what Rose City and Brian are doing.”
Correy now dedicates a lot of time to volunteering, mentoring and bringing publicity to programs that support the public school education model, including Rose City High.
“I try to let kids know there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I know their struggles. I tell them that if I can go do it, after going through everything I have with all my hiccups and mistakes, not being a dummy but not being the smartest kid either, they can do it too.”
The Rose City High success stories are multiplying every year, with as many as 80 kids graduating each year. PUSD Superintendent Brian McDonald highlighted Stanley’s work, calling him “a champion” for getting his students the best opportunities for success.
“Brian has built a system that gives students the academic and social-emotional support they need to get back on track to graduate and ready for college and careers,” McDonald said, adding that under Stanley’s leadership, Rose City has been named a California Model Continuation High School.
Going forward, Stanley hopes to strengthen his students’ internship opportunities and collaborations with other programs and nonprofits. Through a grant from the Pasadena Educational Foundation, the school is building a library. Another grant will be used to build an art and a dance room. He hopes to repeat collaboration with the Tournament of Roses, which helped sponsor a college tour for the kids, something the whole school loved, he said.
“We want them to think big, dream and swing for the fences,” Stanley said. “The goal is to get them inspired to go to college and to think about their future. It might not happen right away, but it gets them on the right path.”