The Newly Redefined John Muir High School

Reflections of a parent after the first “back-to-school night” after the reorganization of John Muir High School in Pasadena, CA over the summer of 2008



The John Muir High School teaching philosophy has been thoroughly renovated this semester with the creation of four “small learning communities,” each with it’s own administration., which, together with substantial staff replacement, are intended to improve this often sub-par secondary school. Their “Back to School” night on October 16 was an opportunity to see the new educational process in action and assess its potential. It is perhaps to early to evaluate the success or failure of this program, but there are certainly some startling early indications.

I was profoundly impressed by the the teachers themselves. With no exceptions, those we met were competent and energetic individuals, clearly intent on doing the very best job they could do in the classroom. However, just as striking was how utterly insurmountable their task seemed to be. While these teachers were putting in an amazing level of effort, one could sense in every case an atmosphere of frustration and futility. To be sure, the student demographic at John Muir High School reflects a troubled society, one in which academics is disparaged and scholarship ridiculed. This factor, however, did not seem to be the primary causes of teacher despondency.

An alumnus of Muir myself, I found it surprising how little had changed in the past several decades. Indeed, the classrooms were much the same as they had ever been. White boards had largely replaced blackboards and xerox copies had supplanted the old smelly blue mimeographed handouts. but the mode of instruction, overhead projector and board, was identical to that which took place many years ago.

Education tools have changed radically during recent decades. Nearly every current textbook discussed by the Muir faculty comes with extensive online support facilities ranging from Powerpoint presentations to quizzing software, research resources and, in at least one case, an online copy of the entire text itself. These texts assume the presence of a computer and projector in the classroom and, in many cases, one computer per student. All of this ancillary material contributes to the cost of the textbooks but is of little or no value in a school whose classrooms and library do not have networked computers. Not only has Muir not changed over the past decades, but its failure to adjust to the modes of modern education have resulted in a serious waste of money – resources are being paid for that simply cannot be used in Muir’s ill-quipped classrooms.

The teachers we spoke with all seemed to be lacking meaningful support – a lab teacher who had to buy laboratory supplies out of his own pocket, an English teacher who had to print her own overhead transparencies in order to use the PowerPoint presentations that came with the text.

Only in place for a couple of months, it remains to be seen what effect Muir’s new “small learning communities” approach will have on education. Some things are very clear however: with the new academies, John Muir High School now has one more layer of administration than it had before, but the support teachers are getting is abysmal. Two teachers we spoke with confided that they weren’t sure whether they would be able to handle the burden and pressures through the entire school year.

Funding is of course a perennial problem in education and it’s certainly tempting to postulate: “One administrator’s salary for a year would probably supply computers and projectors to the entire school.” This is a conservative estimate. Perhaps such an adjustment would be worth considering if a real effort to improve education were contemplated.

One could not but be encouraged by the competence of the teachers we met during the John Muir Back-to-school night, but I did not perceive any sense of optimism in them.