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Program fails to help students

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Friday March 23, 2001

A program to address the high failure rate among Berkeley High School freshman – particularly students of color – has failed to yield significant gains after a year and a half, Berkeley High School teachers and administrators reported to the school board Wednesday. 

In the fall of 1999 the high school instituted Village 9, a school-within-a-school for all freshmen at Berkeley High intended to improve student performance. Village 9 offers tutoring and mentoring services to freshman. In addition, it organizes students into smaller, core groups, each with a team of three teachers, to make their first year at the 3,200-student high school less overwhelming. 

While 169 students failed freshman English in the first semester of 1999 – the first semester of the Village 9 program –167 failed the class in the first semester of 2000, said Michele Patterson, vice principal of curriculum/instruction at Berkeley High. 

In freshman math, the failure rate actually increased from 139 students failing in the fall of 1999 to 182 students failing in the fall of 2000. 

But as Patterson pointed out Wednesday, this increase is partly attributable to the fact that, in accordance with state content standards, the High School required all freshman to take Algebra this fall. In the past freshmen could choose between algebra or pre-algebra based on their level of preparation when they left middle school. The higher number of failures this year are students who may well have passed a pre-algebra class, Patterson said. 

The most troublesome numbers Wednesday, many agreed, were those showing the achievement gap between white students and African-Americans – one of the principal problems the Village 9 program was supposed to address – unchanged from this year to last. 

Ninety-seven African-American students failed freshman math in the fall of 1999, compared with just seven whites. In the fall of 2000, 97 African-Americans failed math, compared this time with 14 whites. 

In freshman English, 111 African-Americans failed in the fall of 1999, compared with 18 whites. In 2000, 92 African-Americans failed, compared with 14 whites.  

“This is a very big red flag about our achievement gap,” Patterson told the board Wednesday. 

While at least one board member reported mild disappointment with the news Wednesday, most said they were impressed and encouraged by the quality of the report. 

“I would have liked to have seen better numbers,” said Board Director Joaquin Rivera. “You always want to see better numbers. 

“But I was at least pleased to see that some of the weaknesses of the program have been identified.” 

Board Director John Selawsky said the BHS staff gave the board the kind of information they need to evaluate the programs progress – information that is often hard to come by in the district. 

“The gave us recommendations that target groups that need some extra help,” Selawsky said. “It was usable and helpful information.”  

Patterson identified a number of areas Wednesday where she felt the program could be improved.  

A back-up English class intended to keep struggling freshman from actually failing their regular English class is not having the desired impact, Patterson said. Fully 38 students who passed the backup class in the fall of 2000 still failed their regular English class, she said.  

The problem, said Patterson, is that the backup English teachers are essentially being asked to teach basic literacy, something that, as regular High School English teachers, they have never been trained to do. 

Another major problem cited by Patterson was the fact that students in the greatest need of the intervention services available through Village 9 often don’t get them because the high school doesn’t know who these students are until a couple of weeks into the school year. Middle schoolers in danger of being retained in the eighth-grade because of bad grades didn’t show up at Berkeley High this year until two weeks after the beginning of class, Patterson said, because only then did they know they had passed summer school and were eligible for high school. 

The very students for whom Village 9 is supposed to ease the transition from middle school to high school end up starting high school under the most challenging of circumstances, Patterson said. 

Patterson hopes to iron out these and other problems by next fall. 

“Any time you put a new program in place it’s going to take time to see progress and growth,” Patterson said. 

“A year from now you’ll see a significant change in the numbers. People are starting to understand what needs to be done.” 

Patterson recommended to the board Wednesday that Village 9 be enhanced by instituting a backup Algebra class; improving cooperation between Berkeley High and “feeder” middle schools; closing the campus for ninth-graders to eradicate the high rate of absences; expanding an existing mentoring program where Berkeley High seniors are assigned to counsel groups of freshman throughout the year; bringing in adult mentors to work with freshman; and creating a required summer school program for middle schoolers to prepare them for the realities of high school. 

In other news Wednesday, the board voted to enter into an agreement with the Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League to build a new softball field at Longfellow Arts & Technology Magnet Middle School; to approve a resolution calling on filmmakers and actors to support films that do not glamorize tobacco use; and to approve the schedule for the 2001-2002 academic year, setting the first day of school for August 29.