The Berkeley Unified School District’s Board of Education is responsible for the education of more than 10,000 students in 13 elementary schools, three middle schools, a high school and alternative high school as well as an adult school.
Berkeley High School alone is host to over 3,200 students.
Scorched by fires, a counselling problem and a grade-changing scandal, the high school is in the process of picking up the pieces and starting over with a new principal – the third in five years.
Five candidates for two open School Board director seats hope to bring calm to the high school and lead the district in bridging the long standing achievement gap between African American and Latino students and their Asian and Caucasian counterparts.
Two candidates on the ballot – Irma Parker and Murray Powers – declined to be interviewed or didn’t respond to the invitation.
In this politically fickle town, where elected officials don’t agree on much, School Board President Joaquin Rivera points out that they come together on one thing – that he ought to be re-elected.
Endorsed by all of the current school directors, the mayor, five city councilmembers and a list of parents, community leaders and former PTA presidents, Rivera is the only school board incumbent on the ballot.
A chemistry professor at Skyline College in San Bruno, he points to a long record of accomplishments, including the implementation of the District’s Early Literacy Plan, of which he is especially proud.Implemented in September, district officials said they hope the plan will make every child a reader by the third grade, by starting such classroom activities as reading aloud, guided reading, independent and interactive writing and reading and writing assessments.
“I can’t stress enough how important reading is,” Rivera said.
The Early Literacy Plan is a first step in closing the achievement gap, Rivera said if elected, he’ll expand the plan with the goal of ensuring that every student who has been in the district for three or more years will perform at grade level or better in reading and writing.
“Studies show that minority kids are strong in math and science, but weak in reading,” he says. “That’s what’s slowing them down.”
Rivera said that he would like to set up a writing center at Berkeley High, where community people – trained professionals such as UC Berkeley professors and skilled writers, can help students with assignments.
“Once we have that piece in place, we can look at a math center and science center,” he said.
Rivera also said that it’s critical to stabilize the volatile high school, and make sure the basics work.
“The bells, the schedules. Just the basic things that make a school work effectively,” he said.
One of the things Rivera says is sorely missing from the high school is a sense of community. He says putting a stop to the revolving door for the principal position is imperative.
“The principal needs to listen to the community, and Frank (Lynch) has been doing a great job,” he said. “It sounds simple, but it’s really not. We all have to support him and succeed in really looking at reform.”
Rivera added that he worked to get a federal grant to explore small learning communities at the daunting high school of 3,200 students.
In his campaign literature, he writes that he will work to restructure Berkeley High to “provide a more personal environment so all students can succeed.”
He also says that he’s spoken with state and area representatives and legislators to work to get more funding in special education, for which, he says the federal government is “not paying its full share.”
One of the things that Rivera will work for is an expansion of after-school programs, something that he says that the current school board has worked to accomplish.
“We need to work on continuing and improving the early intervention programs, the after-school programs, and summer school,” he said. “But we need more of these.”
Rivera also said that he would try to implement a targeted plan to recruit minority teachers.
“It’s a problem everywhere,” he said of the lack of minority teachers. “One of the things I want to see is a targeted recruiting plan to go where minority candidates are to actually recruit them.” Kids need to see people like themselves, he said, noting that the district has not targeted plan to recruit teachers of color.
He also plans to continue building the district’s accountability system, but says that they have been doing a good job with past measures.
“Throughout the (expenditure process of Measure A) there has been a community advisory committee watching over (expenditures),” he said. “Any decision the board makes is public.”
He said that as more money became available in the budget, the district worked to expand library and music programs, but said that he would like to do more.
“We have to get back to the basics, but we need money to do these things,” he said. “If (Measure AA and Measure BB) don’t pass we’ll have to go after more money. We’ll have to find a new source of funding, get some savings, and really look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and look at ways to reorganize.”
Rivera said that he worked to improve teacher salaries and bring them up to the 55th percentile of the national average.
“Right now we have the next two years covered in a contract,” he said. “Our teachers will be at the 55th percentile, but we want to improve this. We need to be able to provide high salaries to get the best teachers. It’s my goal not to stop at the 55th percentile.”
Sherri Morton says that one of the major reasons she decided to run for a seat on the School Board was to bridge the achievement gap.
The senior business consultant and mother of three says she personifies another kind of bridge – she believes she can span the gap in parental involvement in the Berkeley Unified School District, especially in the African-American community.
“I want there to be representation of the African-American community on the board,” she said.
Currently there are no black board members.
“I feel like I can speak to the community as a whole, and African Americans specifically,” she said. “I want to see more African-American parental involvement and more diversity in parental involvement.”
Besides, she says, her children asked her to run.
“My children were noticing that their classmates were falling behind,” she said. “They came home and asked me to help.”
And after a meeting with some other parents, she said her daughter demanded that she throw her hat in the ring.
Morton has served as vice president of the Cragmont Elementary School PTA and participated on the Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program and with the Retentions Forums.
She has the endorsement of the Berkeley Democratic Club, Mayor Shirley Dean, two city councilmembers, two current school board directors and a long list of past PTA presidents.
Next year she’ll have a child in high school, middle school and elementary school, “so I’m really, really concerned,” she said.
In her campaign literature, Morton writes that the achievement gap is “systemic and permeates all educational levels. The problem is individual, the fault belonging to each of us. The problem is historic. While no single factor is adequate to explain the disparity. One thing is certain, it’s time for a change.”
She said that, if elected, she would take steps to close the achievement gap, including diversity training for teachers, something that she says has taken place at Cragmont. Also, she would like to start tutoring and mentoring for teachers as well as students.
“And an increase in teacher salaries, period,” she said forcefully. “I’m glad to see that the district did something and it’s a good first step.”
She said she thinks there are funds to raise salaries. “Someone should take a look at the budget and make it more user friendly so we can get a better grasp on what we’re dealing with.”
She further argued that the state should give the district more money, as long as teachers are held accountable for test scores.
By raising teacher salaries, she says, the district can attract more teachers of color. Also, it ought to do more focused recruiting of minority teachers by holding job fairs in locations where minority teachers live.
She also called for more district accountability, and said that there should be more community involvement in the budget process, so that “we know what every penny is going to.”
She went on to say that she would like to see mentorships for teachers that are new or relatively new.
“If they had mentors within the school system, we could probably have greater participation from them and a sense of loyalty and longevity.”
At Berkeley High School, Morton said that a collaboration among parents, students, the district, the school and the city is necessary to find a “common ground.”
Morton’s suggests a broader literacy program than the one currently employed by the district.
“They’re doing a great job with the literacy plan, but we can continue to search to find a plan that helps all children,” she said. “The literacy plan catches the bottom percentage of students that are doing poorest, and there’s a segment of students above the that aren’t doing poorly, but aren’t doing that well. We need to reach those students as well.”
She also said she would like to expand the art and music programs in the district.
Morton said that during a series of meetings she had with several parents in South Berkeley, she found that the district’s retention policy is in need of tweaking.
“If a child hasn’t learned anything in nine months, what are we going to teach them in a month and a half of summer school?” she said. “Is there a plan set up for the children, or are you just going to fail them? If you retain them and you don’t train them you still have the same problem.”
“I don’t think children should be retained,” she said. “I think there should be a (safety) net in place so that we know and start to address the issue before we have to retain them.”
John Selawsky is a strong supporter of public education.
That is one of the first things one learns from reading the green flyer telling people why they should vote for him for School Board.
“Vote No on Proposition 38,” says the flyer in large type. Proposition 38 is the school voucher proposal on the November ballot that asks voters if the state should give a $4,000 voucher to each
student who attends a non-public school.
Selawsky says he fears this proposition, or another that might appear down the road if this one is defeated, will someday get public support. And that would sap public schools funds and lead to the privatization of schools, he said.
“I think it’s the really big issue that no one knows how to address because it’s at (both) the state and federal level,” he said. “But we all have to start talking about it and getting community, county and statewide support.”
Selawsky says one way to fight against vouchers is to better the public schools. One of his major goals is to make sure more state and federal funds comes to Berkeley schools.
“We’re always shifting funds around to meet the immediate crisis or the immediate need,” he said. “There’s no overriding goal. What I really want to emphasize is working with our community and working with our elected officials to get more state and federal funds. If we don’t, we’re doing a real disservice to public education.”
Selawsky, a Green party candidate, has been endorsed by the five progressive city councilmembers, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan, U.S. Senate Green Party candidate Medea Benjamin, and a host of others.
Selawsky has served on both the Oxford Elementary School and Willard Middle School site committees and the district-wide planning and oversight committee of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project. He is currently the co-chair of the BSEP planning and oversight committee reviewing the allocation of more than $8.5 million in funds.
Selawsky says that the two middle schools in the district with only six periods needs to jump to the seven period day, which Longfellow already has.
“My own son had to choose between a foreign language and music, and at that age, I think, it is an unfair choice,” he said. “I’d also like to make sure all our kids in middle schools have access to band or orchestra.”
Selawsky said that he supports strong academic programs and will work for academic achievement at all schools, particularly the high school.
“The high school is a big issue and the achievement gap is a big part of the issue,” he said.
He went on to say that the rapid principal turnover “doesn’t make a educationally conducive atmosphere.”
“We really need to get some support from downtown and the board for the principal,” he said. “It’s probably the most difficult job in the district.”
Success at Berkeley High has to be a collaborative effort, he said.
“We have to help get a team atmosphere together, and the board and administration need to support them,” he said. “(Former Principal Theresa Sanders) was asking for little things like clocks and she never got them. I think it’s a systemic thing, it’s a business thing. Maintenance is often underfunded, and that’s part of the problem.”
Selawsky said that teachers’ salaries should be raised, and that the current salaries – at the 55th percentile of the national average – is nowhere near what teachers in Berkeley should receive. He adds that another part of the historical turnover for teachers in the district is the cost of living.
“We need to hire good teachers, and teachers of color, and we should look into housing for public employees and teachers,” he said. “The (university) owns a massive amount of properties, the district owns properties and the city owns properties, we need to do something to ensure that teachers can live in Berkeley. Teachers can’t afford to live here. Turnover rate at the high school has been traditionally high because of this.”
He also said that the district should brace itself for an increase of students in the next few years and even begin to look into the possibility of a second campus.
Selawsky is also passionate about improving the libraries and music and arts curricula. He said that he would like to implement a kindergarten through fifth-grade music program.
“Many librarians are on the campuses for only part of the day, I think we need to keep them open all day and well after school,” he said. The libraries should be a resource for kids after school, and a community resource. The libraries should be a literacy center and a technology center for all our schools.”
Selawsky applauds the efforts of the current school board for its work to bridge the achievement gap, and says that he would work to strengthen the Early Literacy Plan.
He added that he would work for more district accountability.
“The administration has to be more accountable to the community,” he said. “Certainly at a bare minimum, I’d like to see the budget worked so that people can understand it, and they can use it.”