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Student gap top issue in district search

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday February 27, 2001

There is a growing consensus that the top issue for the next superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District will be tackling the achievement gap between white students and students of color. 

There is less agreement, however, about how this ought to be accomplished.  

Leadership Associates, a search firm hired by the board in January to recruit candidates for the superintendent position from all over the country, will take applications for the job until April 6. The board hopes to hire a new superintendent by July. 

A series of community meetings held by Leadership Associates consultants revealed the school board and the public are looking for much the same characteristics in the next district leader. They want someone who has been successful working in a diverse, urban community, someone who will be highly visible and accessible as a superintendent, and someone who can be a consensus builder in a city where school policy is often a divisive political issue. 

Above all, they want someone who can put an end to a long-standing trend of minority students underperforming their white peers on standardized tests.  

“The overriding theme that came through...from virtually all the groups was this whole issue of the achievement gap,” Jake Abbott of Leadership Associates told the board at its regular meeting last week. 

Just what the new superintendent ought to do to address the achievement gap, however, is an issue still open to debate. 

For Corinne Thompson, member of the parents group Parents of Children of African Descent, the best thing the board could do to address the achievement gap is to hire a minority superintendent who will make opening channels of communication with minority students and their parents a top priority.  

“We need someone who can relate (to minority students),” Thompson said, adding that many teachers in the school district “have no idea how to relate to those kids.” 

“The new superintendent needs to tell the teachers, ‘Please change the way you react and talk to these kids.’ ” Thompson said. 

Since more than half the district’s students are minority students, Berkeley School Board President Terry Doran said he considers it very important to find a person of color for the superintendent position if possible. 

“If we have three candidates who all look good and one is a person of color, my preference would be to hire the person of color,” Doran said.  

Doran said finding candidates from school districts that have dealt effectively with the issue of the achievement gap is just as important. 

The school hired Superintendent Jack McLaughlin who left the district at the end of January. Doran said McLaughlin was hired shortly after the district launched a major effort to rebuild many of its buildings in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It chose McLaughlin, in part, because he had experience with overseeing a major school building project.  

Similarly, today the school district is looking for a candidate who impresses the board with his or her knowledge of strategies for addressing the achievement gap, Doran said. 

More than just programs, however, the district needs someone who can rally support for those programs in the minority community, Doran said. 

“All over the country, the programs that get more parental buy-in are more successful,” Doran said, citing the REBOUND! program recently instituted at Berkeley High as an example. 

When 242 students were failing ninth grade English or math in the first semester this year, many parents said school efforts to help failing students – a schoolwide tutorial program in all subjects, math tutors for all Algebra I classes, an extra period of English – were a failure themselves.  

Desperate for a solution, Parents of Children of African Descent proposed the REBOUND! program, where failing students could opt to attend special classes all day long. There is one REBOUND teacher for roughly every 10 students, and math and English are taught in double periods to give the students more instructional time. 

Although many “institutional” programs have tried to help students failing multiple classes at Berkeley High, Doran said, none have succeeded in involving parents to the extent that REBOUND! has in the last several weeks. 

“The REBOUND! program was put together and promoted by the parents themselves,” Doran said. “That really is the key.” 

School Board Vice President Shirley Issel takes issue with the REBOUND! program being offered as the model for success.  

“The REBOUND! program was designed to engage disengaged students and their parents,” Issel said. “It really doesn’t address academic standards. It doesn’t relate to any other aspects that I think are critical to affecting students’ achievement.” 

Issel was dismayed by the parents’ rush to judge existing programs for struggling students a failure and their demand that a program of their own devising be implemented instead. This approach to the problem of the achievement gap leads to “polarization rather than partnership” between parents and school administrators, Issel said. 

Issel said the first job of the new superintendent will be “to build consensus as to what’s the problem and what will work to solve it.” 

“We need to get agreement among leaders, and then we need to support the agreements that we make,” Issel said. “That’s the framework for working together.”