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Clash over ‘school in a high school’

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Sunday March 25, 2001

By Ben Lumpkin 

Daily Planet Staff 


Berkeley’s school board approved a new “small learning community” at Berkeley High School Wednesday despite the firm opposition of board President Terry Doran, who questioned both the merits of the program and the way it was presented to the board. 

“I really felt blindsided,” Doran said Friday, explaining that he had been told by district staff just a few days before the meeting that the board would be voting to “study” the idea of the new learning community, not to implement the new school-within-a-school.  

Indeed, the item was listed on the meeting agenda as a vote for “approval of the on-going study of the Berkeley Academic Choice (B.A.C.)/International Baccalaureate Program for the Fall of 2001.” But Berkeley High Principal Frank Lynch submitted a revised proposal Wednesday night asking the board to vote for actual implementation of the program in the Fall of 2001.  

Berkeley Unified School District Interim Superintendent Stephen Goldstone was visibly flustered by the move. 

“I have no recommendation at this point because frankly I don’t know where we are,” he said at the outset of discussion on the item Wednesday.  

Doran said Friday that there was a group of parents and Berkeley High staff members who were opposed to implementation of the program did not come to the meeting Wednesday because he had told them there would be no vote for implementation. 

“The board did not have the benefit of a group of parents and staff who had a different opinion of what was coming before them,” Doran said. “That disturbed me.” 

But other board members said at Wednesday’s meeting that they had come to the meeting expecting to vote on the question of implementation and were eager to do so. 

“I was going to make a motion like (the revised proposal) anyway,” said Board Director Joaquin Rivera.  

“We cannot let this energy just dissipate,” Rivera said, referring to the Berkeley High teachers who had drawn up the Academic Choice proposal and stood ready to begin its implementation Wednesday. 

Even after Wednesday’s vote, the Academic Choice/International Baccalaureate program is likely to remain at the heart of a simmering debate over how education reform ought to be accomplished at Berkeley High. 

Supporters say Academic Choice, the fourth small learning community to be implemented at Berkeley High, will focus on the higher level courses already available at Berkeley High, but will enhance students experience of these classes by creating a smaller, more supportive “academic” community.  

Small learning communities are en vogue all over the country as a way to give students options in school – rather than a one-size-fits all curriculum – and to increase their sense of belonging by placing them in the more intimate setting of small groups. 

Academic Choice would also eventually include the added curriculum of the International Baccalaureate program, a prestigious program in world affairs offered to juniors and seniors in more than 900 schools around the world.  

The program will be available to Berkeley High juniors and seniors next year and will expand to include sophomores the following year. 

“What we are doing is not new,” said Robert McKnight, chair of the African American Studies Department at Berkeley High and one of the first teachers to propose the Academic Choice program last fall. “It’s an affirmation of that which works at Berkeley High.” 

McKnight and other Academic Choice supporters said education reform at Berkeley High too often begins with the assumption that the school is not working. On the country, they said, Berkeley High is one of the top performing schools in the state – for many of its students. 

Still, statements like these have prompted Doran and others to wonder why the Academic Choice program is necessary at all. The idea behind small learning communities, they say, is to explore alternative curriculums precisely for those students who don’t learn well from the existing curriculum. 

“I’m still not convinced that this is different than anything that we have now that perpetuates the achievement gap at Berkeley High,” Doran said Wednesday, referring to the well established disparity in achievement between students of color and white students on standardized tests. 

Supporters of Academic Choice said after Wednesday’s meeting the group will address the achievement gap by agressively recruiting minorities into the program. It will bring minority students into a more challenging academic program than they have typically followed at Berkeley High, where AP class enrollment is overwhelmingly white and Asian. 

“We have a very high percentage of minority students who could succeed in AP classes, but these students have not been actively sought out and encouraged,” McKnight said. “It has not been expected of them to be able to succeed.” 

Berkeley High teacher Doug Powers said Academic Choice will aim to change a “culture” at Berkeley High school that takes for granted that white students achieve at higher levels than minority students.  

“At this moment Berkeley High does not provide a good community of support for all students to achieve at the same level,” Powers said. 

Still, Berkeley High parent Iris Starr said she would have to see it to believe it.  

“These teachers have been here for how many years,” Starr asked, referring to Academic Choice supporters. “What’s suddenly changed. They’ve done nothing to bring in students of color (into higher level classes).” 

Starr said the process of a group of teachers introduce an idea for a small learning community to the board for approval without any participation from parents or students is inherently suspect because these are the very teachers who’ve been unable to solve the achievement gap in the past. 

“There’s an attitude of, ‘We’re the professionals, let us do our job,’” Starr said. “And I think that’s fine if they were being effective.” 

Starr heads a committee of parents, students, teachers and administrators which, with the help of a $50,000 federal grant, has begun a comprehensive analysis of smaller learning communities and their potential uses at Berkeley High. 

Doran, a member of the committee, said the group will come up with a number of small community models by next fall that could help reduce the achievement gap, reduce violence on campus and improve student attendance, among other goals. The information will be used to apply for a $1 million federal grant next October to implement the small learning communities in the Fall of 2002, Doran said. 

“We need to not piecemeal change the school but work together in unison to change the school,” Doran said, adding that he was disappointed that Academic Choice supporters had opted to work outside of this process. 

Academic Choice supporters respond that they were simply following the same procedures other Berkeley High teachers used to launch small learning communities in the past.