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District selects new superintendent

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Wednesday May 30, 2001

After a four-month, nationwide search that yielded 22 candidates, the Berkeley Board of Education announced Tuesday it has found its new superintendent. 

Michele Barraza Lawrence, 53, Superintendent of the Paramount Unified School District in Los Angeles County for the last 10 years, will become Berkeley’s new superintendent of schools effective July 16. She will be paid $185,000 annually during her four-year contract. 

In interviews with four finalist on May 10, Lawrence simply came out “head and shoulders” above the competition, said Berkeley Board of Education President Terry Doran. 

“She connected with (all the board members) on a personal level. And we are very different people,” Doran said. “So that leads us to believe that she will connect with this community.” 

The board followed up a second interview with Lawrence by paying a day-long visit to the Paramount school district, near Long Beach, last Wednesday. A select group of Berkeley school administrators, union representatives and other community leaders accompanied the board on the trip, interviewing their counterparts in the Paramount district and visiting various schools. 

“I’ve never seen such an orderly place,” said Berkeley PTA Council President Mark Coplan.  

Although the district is nearly twice as large as Berkeley, with 17,500 students, Coplan said the overriding sense of community and shared purpose made it feel like there were 3,000 students. 

Coplan and others acknowledged that the Paramount students are drawn from a more racially and economically homogenous community than Berkeley. Whereas Berkeley’s students are nearly one-third African American, one-third white and one-third other races, the Paramount district is nearly 80 percent Hispanic, with African Americans accounting for roughly 15 percent of the student population and whites less that 5 percent.  

Whereas Berkeley is clearly divided into affluent and less affluent communities, the Paramount area is home to mostly middle and working-class families. 

Leadership comes more easily in a homogenous community than it will in Berkeley, said Berkeley School Board Student Director Niles Xi’an Lichtenstein. 

“She definitely had control over her district,” Lichtenstein said. “But it seemed like the people down in that district were more ready to be led.” 

Coplan said, “Berkeley is going to be a totally new experience for her. But there wasn’t a person we talked to who didn’t praise her.”  

Despite the differences between the two communities, Lawrence has dealt successfully with many of the problems facing Berkeley schools as superintendent of the Paramount district, said Doran and others. During her leadership the district raised test scores and graduation rates, reduced violence and truancy and dramatically increased parent involvement in school life by building up Parent Teacher Association organizations nearly from the ground level. 

“All the things that we really want to have happen in Berkeley,” Lawrence dealt with successfully at Paramount, Doran said. 

Many who visited the Paramount district last week said they were impressed with the smooth operation of the district’s administrative office, something they said Paramount employees attributed to Lawrence’s leadership.  

School Board Vice President Shirley Issel said the Paramount district offered a glimpse of “what a functioning district looks like” to Berkeley school leaders often frustrated by their own central office’s apparent lack of organization. 

“We were looking for someone who had created that; who had an internal standard that she could bring the district to,” Issel said. 

Also significant to many was Lawrence’s depth of experience with high schools, an area of particular concern in Berkeley, where Berkeley High’s problems with truancy, violence and an academic achievement gap have endangered its accreditation as a secondary school.  

During her career, Lawrence has worked at more than half a dozen high schools, as an art teacher, councilor and principal. As superintendent, she oversaw a reform process at the Paramount High school which lead to its being accredited for a six year term instead of a three year term. 

Short term accreditations are granted when a school is perceived as having unresolved issues that require heightened vigilance. Last spring the Western Association of Schools and Colleges granted Berkeley High a one year accreditation. 

Issel said board members were impressed by Lawrence’s answers to questions about Berkeley High’s accreditation problem. 

“She conveyed confidence that, with a tremendous amount of hard work starting right now, we could...get ourselves accredited,” Issel said. 

In an interview Tuesday, Lawrence said she is proud of her work to set higher standards for student achievement in Paramount schools. In a district with math and reading test scores are well below the state average, Lawrence said she “instilled in the community a belief system that minorities can in fact achieve at high levels.” 

“When we talk about the achievement gap, it’s all my district’s students and the rest of the world,” Lawrence said, pointing the fact that 67 percent of students in the Paramount district speak English as a second language. 

Through a collaboration involving parent, teachers, union leaders and business leaders, Lawrence reformed the district’s curriculum to make it more challenging to all students. Basic math classes were replaced with a three-year algebra curriculum beginning for all students in the sixth grade. Biology and geometry were made mandatory for all ninth graders. Advanced Placement offerings were expanded. 

“The things that will improve the achievement gap more than anything else is effective teaching,” Lawrence said. “The system has to work in harmony and get behind what’s going on in the classroom.” 

Lawrence said she was looking forward to working in a high-profile district such as Berkeley, where educators have an opportunity to lead the way for the rest of the nation with reforms.  

As for the move to Berkeley, Lawrence, who has lived her whole life within a 20-mile radius of Paramount, admitted that she was a little nervous. 

“I know absolutely no one up there,” she said.