A lot has been written about the just-completed year at Berkeley High: the school’s rocky start, the near-revolt of students, the departure of yet another principal from a campus that many would describe as dysfunctional, the ongoing struggle to bridge the academic achievement gap.
In the middle of it all for nine months was Meredith Maran, a local author who spent the year following the daily routines, the challenges, the travails and the accomplishments of three Berkeley High students.
She’s no stranger to the campus: Her two sons attended Berkeley High, and she’s been writing about the school off and on for the last 14 years. Her first article, back in 1986, focused on a girl who wanted to take a female date to the prom, and Maran has written two previous books about her experiences at the high school.
This time around, the author is a silent observer until the final chapter. Maran’s upcoming book, “Class Dismissed: A Year in the Life of an American High School, a Glimpse into the Heart of a Nation,” follows three BHS students through the 1999-2000 school year, three students who “beat the odds.” A bi-racial, African-American-identified super-achiever, who has cared for her younger brother since she was 10, on her way to UC Berkeley this fall. An affluent, white, half-Jewish son of a computer consultant mother and a drug-addicted father who died mysteriously last year – a teen who hangs out with the wealthiest, most privileged kids at Berkeley High. A football star who’s functionally illiterate but still dreams of being the first in his family to go to college, a student who fits and fights the stereotype of the African-American male athlete.
“I wanted kids who both seemed to match and fly in the face of stereotypes,” Maran said during an interview last week in her North Oakland home, just a pebble’s throw away from Berkeley. “Ultimately, my goal with this book is to challenge readers to challenge their stereotypes.”
Maran began working on the project last July, months before she had a contract from a book publisher. She called several BHS teachers she knew and asked for the names of students who might be appropriate “candidates” for this kind of book. By the time the school year began, that list was narrowed down to eight students, though one dropped out early in September.
Once she got a book deal – from St. Martin’s Press, which will publish her work in October – Maran quickly realized that there was no way she could follow seven students for the whole year, or effectively capture their stories in one book. She and her assistant sat down and independently came up with the same list of three students to include in the book.
While the stories of those three teens are the heart of the book, it’s Maran’s final chapter that is likely to generate public discussion. In her “afterword,” she offers five recommendations for improving public education in America – and here in Berkeley.
• Abolish private schools.
Private schools, Maran contends, are the “escape hatch” that allows society’s wealthiest and most privileged families to avoid public education, thereby maintaining inequity.
• Make public schools more like private schools.
“Everything parents pay for when they write a check to private schools is replicable in public schools, if America is willing to write the check,” she says.
It’s a matter of how the country uses its resources, Maran said, advocating an exponential increase in per-pupil spending. She also recommends smaller high schools, ideally, of no more than 1,000 students; smaller classes, with no more than 20 students; and more counselors, who can be genuine allies with students.
• Abolish segregated schools and segregated classes.
Continued use of “neighborhood schools” around the country maintains uneven economic and social playing fields, Maran believes. She advocates adoption of plans similar to the one used by the Berkeley Unified School District, using busing and parent choice, even though the BUSD’s system could face legal challenges in the months ahead.
• Pay teachers what they’re worth.
Again, this is a question of how America uses its resources, Maran says. Should a teacher earn as much money as a sales clerk, or a prison guard, or an advertising executive, or a senator?
• Get families into schools.
While the other proposals may be too “ideological” for some people to accept in other parts of the country, particularly the first and third recommendations, this seems to be a universally accepted concept – yet it’s not universally practiced.
In most schools, Maran says, families that come from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to get involved. They have the resources, the time and the motivation to work with the PTA – it’s actually PTSA at Berkeley High, for parents, teachers AND students – volunteer in the classroom and keep their kids accountable.
That corresponds with more student involvement and often results in higher student achievement.
“Kids who push themselves to the front of the line usually come from families already at the front of the line and who have taught their kid to do that,” she said.
So, Maran offers several tangible ideas to encourage more parental participation: Require employers to give parents and guardians an hour off each week to volunteer in their children’s schools, a policy already in place in the U.S. military; provide child care, food and translations for evening events, and make sure information is distributed to all parents, which means not using e-mail until all families are online; turn high schools into community centers, where families can get the help they need to assist their students; and encourage community use of school facilities.
And as Berkeley High prepares for yet another year of major transition – a new principal, three new vice principals, a fire-damaged B Building whose fate remains unclear – it’s likely you’ll find Maran around the campus, volunteering in the classroom and helping the school move ahead.
“I just can’t leave that school alone,” she said. “It’s America. It’s a cliché to say Berkeley High is a microcosm of American, but it is".