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Ball rolling on ‘small learning communities’

By Matt Lorenz Special to the Daily Planet
Monday May 21, 2001

There were at least as many questions as there were people at the Berkeley Alternative High School on Saturday. Yes, that’s right — on Saturday.  

About 70 Berkeley residents showed up for the first Community Summit meeting to discuss the potential break-up of Berkeley High School into “smaller learning communities.” 

For 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, the place was pretty full. But it could have been fuller. 

“I was pleased at the number of people who were there,” said Michael Miller, a parent and active member of Parents of Children of African Decent. “But if you consider how (a shift to smaller learning communities) is going to impact people, it was a small turnout and not a very diverse one.” 

The project is now in the “pre-planning” stage. With the help of a $50,000 federal planning grant, teachers and parents have been organizing meetings for the last few months to promote public awareness and dialogue. 

The purpose of Saturday’s meeting was to formally introduce the idea to the community and to outline what stages have taken place so far.  

Berkeley High is considering moving towards smaller learning communities because research throughout the United States has shown that large high schools (such as Berkeley High) can combat campus violence, truancy, high teacher turnover and the racial achievement gap by creating smaller learning communities. Each community of about 500 students has a different focus to lure in students with particular needs. 

The coming months will be crucial if the Small Learning Communities Advisory Committee is to accurately gauge community support for the project.  

If there is support, then school officials can apply for federal grants this fall to create more small learning communties within Berkeley High.  

Because of the number of questions and limited time, meeting coordinators took pains to make sure everyone in the audience wrote out their questions to be addressed by the community at later meetings. 

Many of the questions asked during the lively question-and-answer session of the meeting surrounded issues of equality. 

“I want to know what is the process for evaluating underlying beliefs or ideologies — things that set us apart,” Yolanda Huang said. “In a community like Berkeley where you have such diverse communities with [diverse] opinions and backgrounds, how do you achieve a vision for all?” 

Steve Jubb, director of the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, gave an initial response. 

“Young people and families do not all learn alike — for the same reasons, in the same ways — and they don’t all have the same sets of challenges,” Jubb said. “So choice will need to be an important part of [this project].”  

At the same time, Jubb recognized that the simple fact of having choices is not enough. Students and parents must believe that these new choices make equity possible. Otherwise, people’s decisions may affirm the same inequalities that have always been there.  

“What we know is that choice without advocacy reproduces inequity,” Jubb said. “So if you just give choices, then what tends to happen is people group and regroup according to their perceptions.” 

But some parents were concerned that, though choice seems like a good thing, there may be certain decisions — serious decisions about things like subject-focus or career-track — which many students might not be willing or able to make. 

Rick Ayers, the Berkeley High teacher charged with coordinating the small learning community discussions, spoke to some of these concerns. 

“We want to organize the kinds of programs that allow students to focus on a thematic core, and something that organizes all these curricula and activities. But it certainly doesn’t mean career path in the narrow sense.” 

But there are parents and community-members who think that separating Berkeley High into smaller schools based on things like subject-interest or career-interest or skill-level will promote inequality. It may also create the perception, by certain students, of being given an advantage or disadvantage among their peers.  

“I don’t want to see the School of Social Justice, I don’t want to see Common Ground, I don’t want to see Computer Academy,” said Irma Parker, parent liaison for the Rebound program. 

“I think if there’s going to be equity and fairness in this, that it should be school number one, school number two, school number three, and that the kids are assigned to those schools the same way we assign kids to the school here in the system. Otherwise I just don’t see the equity and the fairness there.” 

Parker also raised another question that had not yet been approached head-on — Do teachers feel committed to this project? 

“It’s a given in the community that most people feel Berkeley High schools staff — the teachers in particular — are entrenched in their own ideas and their own policies,” Parker said. “Most people can just point out the teachers who they feel are very committed to the students. I haven’t heard anybody talk about the commitment of the teachers who will be teaching these kids.” 

Miller felt afterwards that some progress had been made, but that there are still many over-arching, general issues that should not be pushed aside for the more specific ones. 

“The huge issue is the inequity in education. It seems to me a simple truth that it’s our job as a community to educate the members of the community, and we’re not doing that,” Miller said. 

“In my own observation at Berkeley High,” Parker said, “it seems to me that Berkeley High is really interested in educating the kids who are on the fast track. But there’s a certain segment of kids there they seem to want to police.” 

Miller acknowledges that the kinds of issues Parker raises are very difficult to address, but he also feels that, without addressing them, creating smaller learning communities will only delay the issues that face the community.  

“There are a fair number of number of people in the community,” Miller said, “who don’t understand what Irma (Parker) is talking about – who don’t want to go to that place,” Miller said. “That’s a hard place to go to.” 

“I am all for the small learning communities,” he said. “But I still think we have to know all the dynamics that exist that force us to move in this direction.”  

Next meetings: The next Community Summit will take place on Monday, June 18. There will also be a special student meeting at La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave. (at Prince) on Wednesday, May 23.