Nearly two years after a committee warned Berkeley High School that the elevated failure rate of its students of color, among other concerns, could jeopardize its accreditation as a public school, there is still no coherent, schoolwide plan for addressing the problems, according to a recent report.
“Progress is at best spotty and fragmented,” according to the report issued by a Western Association of Schools and Colleges committee last month. “It’s sad to see the lack of progress made by a staff and community so rich in talent and resources.”
WASC is one of six associations in the United States, responsible for accrediting schools in California, Hawaii and U.S. territories throughout the Pacific.
While the report praised the high school’s “solid core of very experienced teachers,” “rich program of electives”, and standardized test scores “far above the average in the state,” it said there was as yet no effective process in place for addressing problem areas.
Based on interviews with long-time Berkeley High staff, the report criticized the school for failing to make progress in a number of areas identified as problematic by the WASC committee two years ago, including the achievement gap, student attendance, staff development, and curriculum alignment with state academic standards.
In particular, the report cited a lack of leadership and collaboration as potential reasons why there is still no clear schoolwide plan of action.
“The school still appears to address issues in a fragmented manner and this fragmentation, in the judgment of this committee, prevents any significant school-wide progress addressing (trouble spots),” the report said.
WASC accredits schools for terms of anywhere from one to six years, with shorter accreditations intended to put schools on notice that their progress has not been satisfactory. Last spring Berkeley High received a one-year accreditation.
Despite the strong criticism in the recent report, Berkeley High Principal Frank Lynch said Tuesday that he believed the school would get another one year extension this June, giving Berkeley High next year to improve its response to the WASC critique.
“What we should do is take a look at the recommendations and just move forward from there,” Lynch said, adding that the school had to be careful not to “process it to death.”
In the past, the school district may have “shot itself in the foot,” Lynch said, by talking about improvements without actually making a decision about the best course of action.
But Lynch said the school has taken concrete steps to deal with some WASC concerns. In response to criticism that BHS teachers made little use of technology in instruction, the school has, with the help of a new technology grant, installed 250 new computers, hired a technology coordinator and begun training teachers to use computers in class.
As for the achievement gap, Lynch pointed to the Village 9 program, which supports Berkeley High freshmen with student mentors and tutors and encourages teachers to meet weekly to identify collaborative strategies for boosting student achievement.
The WASC report credited Lynch with moving “slowly, but consistently” to deal with the school’s critical weaknesses. And it acknowledged that Berkeley High has been hampered by a turnover in leadership in recent years, citing the fact that there have been no less that four principals at the school in the last five years.
“Nobody has time to get on board and get up to speed before they’re cleaning up their resumes and looking where they’re going next,” said Berkeley High teacher Rick Ayers Tuesday. “The leadership has to come from the top.”
Stephen Goldstone, interim superintendent of Berkeley Unified School District, said Tuesday that he believed principal Lynch had initiated a process that would eventually solve the school’s accreditation problems.
“Frank Lynch takes it very seriously and is providing the leadership that is going to be needed to address (WASC) concerns,” Goldstone said.
The WASC accreditation process begins with “self-study,” where the school does an extensive assessment of its own strengths and weaknesses, based on class observation, interviews with students, samples of students work, and careful study of school records, among other criteria.
“We look at the overall program,” said Marilyn George, the associate executive director of the WASC Accrediting Commission for Schools. “We don’t just look at the (standardized test scores) in isolation.”
Next, a WASC “Visiting Committee” of teachers and school administrators drawn from throughout California visits the school to make their own assessment. Other visits will follow if the school’s progress is judged to be lacking.
George said WASC criteria for judging schools changed in the mid-nineties to place more emphasis on student achievement.
“Everything is student centered,” she said. “How do you know students are achieving, and is the school doing everything possible to support that?”
Goldstone said this change could explain why Berkeley High’s achievement gap had become a major sticking point for accreditation.
“It’s harder and harder to get a six-year accreditation,” Goldstone said. “The process is becoming much more rigorous...and more meaningful.”
Ayers said the fact that the Visiting Committee is made up of educators gives the group’s findings added legitimacy.
“These aren’t some bureaucrats up in Sacramento,” Ayers said. “They got a good look at the school, and they got it absolutely right.”
Berkeley High Parent Teacher Student Association President Kristin Shepherd agreed.
“We failed to collaborate and we’ve failed to act,” Shepherd said. “We have many too many creative ideas and not enough good, solid, straight-forward taking care of business.”
Shepherd said it’s up to parents to hold the school staff accountable for making the necessary changes in the year to come, in large measure by giving principal Lynch all the support he needs.
“This school is too complex for a single administrator,” Shepherd said. “It’s our job to keep a principal for once.”
Shepherd mailed a copy of the WASC report to all Berkeley High parents this week in advance of a PTSA meeting next Tuesday, at 7:30 p.m., in Berkeley High’s Little Theater. Hereafter every PTSA meeting will focus on addressing the WASC recommendations until the process is completed successfully, Shepherd said.
“It’s nothing we can’t accomplish, but we have to focus, we have to work together.”