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Learning centers may help ease BHS problems

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Saturday May 19, 2001

Battle lines are being drawn in the discussion about whether “small learning communities” could help Berkeley High School tackle problems with truancy, campus violence, teacher turn-over, and the achievement gap that separates Asian and white students from their African-American and Latino peers. 

With the help of a $50,000 federal planning grant, some Berkeley Unified School District teachers and parents have organized meetings in recent months to examine the potential of small learning communities at Berkeley High. One is taking place at the Alternative High School, 2701 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today. 

If enough community support for the small learning communities’ model emerges, the Berkeley school district could apply for implementation grants in the fall. 

Small learning communities have been used at large high schools in Chicago and other cities to make education more relevant to students by allowing them to choose among a diverse array of learning communities, rather than forcing them to conform to the traditional curriculum of one “comprehensive” school. 

Berkeley parents and teachers who support small learning communities for Berkeley High say they would allow teachers to give more individualized attention to struggling students, deepening their interest in academic topics. 

“It’s an incredible opportunity to turn people on to education through personalization,” said Berkeley High teacher Dana Richardson at a recent community meeting. 

Over time, such an approach would improve the attendance, behavior and test scores of students who have historically had problems in these areas, small learning community enthusiasts argue. 

But skeptics say Berkeley High could deal with these problems today, without reforming the entire school, if teachers and administrators would summon the will to enforce existing rules and lend support to programs already in place for addressing problem areas.  

“Give me one or two individuals beside myself and within two weeks you would have almost zero truancy on campus,” said Robert McNight, chair of the African-American Studies Department at Berkeley High. “We’re not doing anything to deal with the truancy problem.”  

McNight said attendance rules simply are not enforced for certain groups of students, whom he called the “academic untouchables”.  

“Nobody wants to teach them, nobody wants to deal with them,” McNight said. 

“I don’t see the reform movement as necessarily the answer is addressing the problems in education that we face today,” McNight added. “If anything it may prolong (those problems).” 

McNight said the current movement in support of small learning communities was alarmingly disconnected from the African-American community it purports to serve. He said all the talk of the “achievement gap,” for example, glosses over the fact that Berkeley High is preparing many of its African-American students for college and successful careers. 

“We just go all over the country looking at models that have worked in those communities, but we’re facing different kinds of challenges (in Berkeley),” McNight said. 

“Of course there needs to be improvements in the system,” he added. “If you want to put forth an effort, you support programs that have a history of being successful with this group of students.” 

McNight said the vast majority African-American students at Berkeley High who’ve passed through the African-American Studies program have gone on to four-year colleges. Students in the program are engaged in what happens in the classroom because they study the important contributions other African-Americans have made in American history, he said. 

“What would you want to reform an entire institution in order to correct a problem that could be affecting 5 percent of the students,” McNight said, referring to the estimated number of Berkeley High students who skip class habitually. “It doesn’t make sense.” 

But Berkeley High Social Living teacher John Fike, while he agreed that better enforcement of rules is part of the solution to Berkeley High’s problems, said he believed nothing short of comprehensive reform can rescue Berkeley High from its current “dismal state.” 

“I think it’s the only thing that will save Berkeley High,” Fike said. 

Fike said it is not just the habitually truant students who aren’t served by Berkeley High’s current structure, but a “majority” of the school’s students. 

“There’s a large group of students who are enduring high school,” Fike said. “They’re not really anywhere near meeting their potential of really having a constructive use of their high school years.” 

The research suggests to him, Fike added, that small learning communities “have a huge impact on issues of violence, on issues of truancy, and on issues of student and staff morale.” 

A recent community meeting to consider small learning communities at the high school drew many Berkeley parents who share Fike’s views. 

Berkeley High Parent Malcolm Howells admitted that he was “still mystified by some of the practicalities” of implementing small schools, but he said he thought small learning communities could make certain students feel less alienated. 

“Everybody agrees that Berkeley High is too big,” Howells said.  

“Our school is hemorrhaging teachers,” said Rick Ayers, the Berkeley High teacher charged with coordinating the discussions around small learning communities. “You can go down the list of great teachers who are leaving.” 

Small learning communities will help retain good teachers by freeing them to work more closely with students so they can feel they making a difference in those students lives, Ayers and others argue. 

But at least one parent in the audience that night echoed McNight’s concern that the discussion around small learning communities had not, to date, included enough input from parents of African-American and Latino students. 

“This is not a representative group here tonight,” said Beatriz Leyvva-Cutler. “Not at all.” 

Joan Blades, a Berkeley parent-activist helping to organize discussion of small learning communities, said she hoped more African-American and Latino parents would turn out for today’s meeting at the alternative high school. 

But even if a consensus in support of small communities emerges among Berkeley High parents in the months ahead, getting Berkeley High faculty to push ahead with the model will be difficult, Fike said. The school has a “track record of being resistant to change,” he said. 

For three years running some Berkeley High staff have been unable to come up with the votes needed to set aside minutes during the school day where teachers could work on collaborative strategies to meet students needs. It takes the vote of three quarters of the schools faculty to implement such a change and, although a sizable majority of teachers favor the plan according to Fike, the votes came up short. 

“A lot of teachers get really burned out trying to make change at Berkeley High” because it takes so long, Fike said.