Skip To Main Content

School History


We are a TK-5th comprehensive school


A Creative Approach to Learning Since 1972

Welcome to Norma Coombs Elementary School (NCES), a Kindergarten through Fifth Grade multi-cultural public school with approximately 500 students enrolled.Our philosophy is unique among Pasadena schools. NCES asks every student to engage actively in the process of learning through exploring, questioning and creative problem-solving. We believe that it's important for our children to develop their own unique voice, demonstrate respect for others and pursue a commitment to society.

Here's how we grew to be the school we are today.

It Began With an Idea

The original Pasadena Alternative School (PAS) was founded in 1972. Instruction began in a single classroom at the Washington Elementary site with about 50 students organized as a K-12 school. PAS was a cooperative venture by the University of Massachusetts and the school district, established to answer the community's desire for a school that offered a more unstructured approach to education.

Parents had asked for a school that was smaller, more personalized and a place they could work closely with teachers. In alternative schools, these families found more emphasis placed on creativity, decision making and personal responsibility.

PAS moved several times as its numbers swelled. By September 1975, it was housed at the Washington Junior High School site, which was renamed the Washington Center for Alternative Studies. An Evening High School was also located at the site, although the programs were kept separate.

Alternative Way of Learning

It was a time of openness to new ideas and experimentation in education, and although district-mandated curriculum was taught, it was done in a non-traditional manner.

Children were encouraged to ask questions, and because they often worked in cooperative groups, they developed close supportive relationships with each other and with their teachers.

Natalie Masse was a fifth-grader at PAS in 1975. She remembers that with the freedom afforded the children, they also had more responsibility. "Time management was an important part of our education," says Masse. "We were expected to be responsible and we had to deal with the consequences of not planning and getting our assignments done on time."

Numerous field trips included bicycle rides, camping trips and visits to the Grand Canyon. Once a week, Masse and her teacher drove to Cal State Los Angeles to help teach special needs children at the university's Day Care Center.

Mata Plumb's daughter, Sylvia, also attended PAS. "There was a strong emphasis on understanding people's differences - not just tolerance. That respect for diversity shaped my daughter's entire life," says Plumb, whose daughter went on to earn a doctorate in psychology.

Finding a Permanent Home

In 1982, Pasadena Alternative moved to temporary quarters at its current site on Paloma Street, adjacent to the former Hale Elementary School.

Hale Elementary was named after noted astronomer George Ellery Hale (1868-1938), who in addition to co-founding the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, also founded and directed some of the world's greatest observatories, including Mount Wilson Observatory.

Hale Elementary School had been closed for many years and was being leased by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the oldest school of drama in the United States.

But a series of important milestones paved the way for big changes at PAS.

The first was a change in grade levels. In 1996, the school was reconfigured from a K-12 into a K-8.

This enabled PAS to consolidate its resources around a smaller group of students and thereby provide all students with a top education.

Honoring a Special Principal

In 1996, Pasadena Alternative School was renamed Norma Coombs Alternative School in honor of Norma S. Coombs, who died earlier that year. She had served three years as the principal of PAS and was with the Pasadena Unified School District for 36 years, first as a teacher and later becoming a language arts specialist.

At a ceremony dedicating the new school name, friends and staff noted Ms. Coombs' passion for learning and a dedication to teaching and encouraging children. NCAS is only the second Pasadena school to be named after a woman. The other is named after Frances Willard, also a local educator. Emotionally, it was a big step for the school. It validated the work of Ms. Coombs and the teachers who had kept the PAS vision alive. But after all the years, NCAS still lacked the type of permanent buildings that characterize established schools.

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts relocated, leaving the Hale site vacant. The time was right to settle...permanently.

A New Campus for the New Millennium

In November 1997, local voters passed the $240 million Measure Y School Bond. These bonds are being used to modernize the 30 schools in the Pasadena Unified School District; upgrading electrical, plumbing, sewer, and heating and ventilation systems, renovating restrooms, replacing roofs, and installing technology infrastructure.

The former Hale Elementary site was fortunate to be the first school renovated in Phase 1 of Measure Y improvements.

When the school year began in September 1998, elementary-grade students were welcomed into the newly renovated classrooms inside the 1941 Hale Elementary buildings.

These large and beautiful rooms have hardwood floors and natural light streaming in through the original tall windows. They also have plenty of space for a variety of work centers where children still enjoy opportunities for problem-solving in small groups.

NCAS is one of the few PUSD schools that remains committed to providing arts instruction in the lower grades, with certified music, art and ceramics instructors.

Other historical campus features include the before/after school room, which is housed in a bungalow that served as the Hale Kindergarten classrooms. The bungalow was moved from Willard School to its current location in 1948.

But it's the dedication of the teachers, several have taught there for more than 20 years, that truly sets the school apart.

Where We're Going

Norma Coombs Elementary School has grown from its origins as Pasadena Alternative School, yet strives to preserve the personalized feel that has always made it a special place for children to learn and grow.

Today, NCAS is consistently ranked as one of the top schools in the San Gabriel Valley. As a school of choice, it boasts an involved parent team and teachers who are committed to providing a challenging and nurturing environment.

Come visit us at Norma Coombs Elementary School and see what we have to offer.



Norma Coombs Elementary School