McDonald Steers PUSD Down Right Path


It’s not very often that a child with attention deficit disorder grows up to become the superintendent of a large school district. It’s even less likely when that child is born in Jamaica and that school district is nearly 3,000 miles away in the United States. But for Brian McDonald, overcoming daunting statistics is a welcome challenge that has guided his work for more than 20 years.
As chief executive officer of the Pasadena Unified School District, McDonald is responsible for the academic and operational management of an organization that educates nearly 20,000 students and employs nearly 1,000 teachers.
“We want to make sure that we’re the best we can be for families,” McDonald said while sitting in his office on a recent afternoon. “If we’re the best that we can be, then more families will end up choosing us.”
The irony here is that McDonald did not originally choose a career in education. After emigrating from his island nation during high school, he eventually settled in Texas and graduated from the University of Houston-Downtown with a degree in accounting. McDonald landed a banking job out of college, but the work wasn’t fulfilling. There was, however, one company perk that did invigorate him. Known as Project Apple, the initiative paid for local teachers to attend professional development activities while bankers like McDonald substituted for them.
“Just based on how [the students] responded to me, I decided that this is really what I want to do,” said McDonald, who saw an ad for an alternative teacher certification program in the Houston Chronicle and decided to apply.
Once accepted, he quit his banking job to begin teaching math and coaching soccer at Lee High School. This was the start of an extensive career in the Houston Independent School District, where he held several leadership positions both inside the classroom and as an administrator.
Pasadena appeared on his radar during family road trips to Southern California in the summers of 2009-2011. At the end of one of these vacations, McDonald told his wife that he’d love to move to the region if opportunity presented itself. Not more than a few hours later, as the family crossed the California-Arizona border on their way back to Texas, McDonald received a phone call from Jon Gundry, the PUSD superintendent at the time and his former colleague from Houston. Gundry’s serendipitous offer to McDonald was the PUSD chief academic officer position. Opportunity had presented itself.
When McDonald moved to Southern California, he joined a district that was dealing with declining enrollment and an achievement gap related to the many nonpublic K-12 alternatives in the area. McDonald decided to hold several focus groups with students in the district. During one of these sessions, a Washington Middle School student told McDonald that she wanted to be an engineer, but that nothing in the district prepared her for that career. McDonald and his team soon spearheaded a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) initiative, connecting the science, research and business resources of Pasadena with the students, teachers and classrooms of PUSD schools.
“You have to bring that outside level of expertise when you’re trying to implement a program that will be successful,” said McDonald, who was appointed superintendent after Gundry departed for the Santa Clara County Office of Education in 2014.
“As a school system, we can’t do it alone. We need the support. We need the assistance of parents, all of the community partners, all of the service providers. We have to do it together in order to find success.”
McDonald likes to call it “collective impact.” In 2013, he ensured that this philosophy was manifested through an initiative known as Collaborate PASadena. The framework was designed so that PUSD, the city of Pasadena, the unincorporated community of Altadena and the city of Sierra Madre could work together to establish a commitment toward better outcomes for children and families.
“It doesn’t matter what you do in the classroom and in the school. If that child, when he or she gets home, doesn’t have a safe place, doesn’t have enough to eat, doesn’t have the basic services that he needs,” said McDonald, “the likelihood of him being successful is pretty low.”
Working in tandem with PUSD during McDonald’s tenure has been the Pasadena Educational Foundation. For more than four decades, the organization has provided enrichment opportunities for PUSD students. PEF Executive Director Patrick Conyers said that he has “profound respect” for what McDonald has meant to the district.
“It’s great to have a partner like him, who, on such a personal level, is able to express the importance of public education to our community,” Conyers said. “What I see from him, working with him day-to-day and over the years, is he’s a person who’s deeply motivated by the desire to help every single child in the district.”
McDonald, who has a master’s degree in education administration from Texas Southern University, a certification in principalship from Harvard Graduate School and a doctorate in educational leadership from Sam Houston State University, also expanded the PUSD’s dual language immersion programs and was responsible for leading early implementation of new Common Core standards at the 30 district schools.
Associate Superintendent Mercy Santoro has worked with McDonald since his days as chief academic officer. She echoes Conyers’ sentiment about McDonald’s unwavering belief in the students and their ability to reach full potential.
“It’s an attribute that I see in him that I think inspires him to behave in a leadership role where he is courageous,” Santoro said. “He is consistent in his commitment and in his decisions. He also is willing to grow and acknowledges — as any leader — areas where he can improve in and seeks out those opportunities to learn from others.”
Listening and learning are two of McDonald’s most important job responsibilities. Besides catering to students, he must also maintain a certain standard in the eyes of his board. McDonald stays abreast of any concerns through weekly lunch meetings and phone calls. He also regularly visits school sites to stay connected on the ground level.
McDonald believes that PUSD has been able to stabilize its declining enrollment because programs are becoming more attractive to local students and families. His experience saving Jackson Elementary School and Washington Middle School — institutions that were scheduled to close — has instilled a sense of hope for the future of PUSD. These long-term goals are featured in the recently released Master Plan, a data-driven blueprint highlighting community, instruction, leadership and facilities.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’re working on an educational master plan that will lay out what we hope to accomplish in the next five years in terms of our academic programs,” McDonald said.
“What it has taught me is that you have to be persistent. But more than anything else, you have to keep your eye on the prize. What is the prize? The prize is what’s best for kids. … That’s my compass. That’s my guide.”