In advance of a communitywide meeting on May 19 to consider a major overhaul in the way Berkeley High School delivers its academic programs, small groups of high school staff and parents have met weekly to ponder the question.
At issue is whether the school could address chronic problems – truancy, violence, the achievement gap and high teacher turnover, to name a few – by dividing the school’s 3,200 students into a number of “small learning communities.” Such communities allow teachers to give students more individualized attention, the argument goes, so those with special needs are less likely to “fall through the cracks.”
At a Thursday meeting at the North Berkeley Senior Center, about 25 people, mostly Berkeley High parents and staff, listened to an informal panel describe what Berkeley High was like in the 1970s, when the school launched a dozen short-lived small learning communities with the help of a $7 million federal grant.
Most of the panelists either studied or taught at Berkeley High in the ’70s.
“A school as large as Berkeley High has to be broken down into smaller schools,” said panelist Arnold Perkins, a Berkeley High parent, who taught at a couple of the experimental small-learning communities in the ’70s.
“Something different has to be done at Berkeley High,” added Perkins. “It is not working. It is actually destroying (kids’) lives.”
Perkins said the small learning communities of the ’70s gave teachers a unique opportunity to make classroom lessons more relevant to students. Through a program known as Black House, Perkins and other teachers worked to give African-American students a broader exposure to black history than they would have found in the school’s existing history classes.
“If you think you don’t come from any place but slavery,” then there is a limit to how much American history you want to learn, said Perkins who is African American.
Former Berkeley High teacher Susan Groves, another panelist, said student attendance problems in the ’70s were even worse than today, with up to a third of the school’s students skipping class regularly. Groves said she and other like-minded teachers got together on their lunch breaks and formed a radical plan to re-engage students by creating a small learning community.
Such communities give teachers the flexibility they need to respond to students’ needs, Groves said, recalling how she and other teachers in the program created individual projects for students who were missing class to draw them back in.
“We have to develop courses that both students and teachers feel is appropriate for this period in time,” Groves said Thursday.
It was experiments in small learning communities that forced the high school’s curriculum to expand into new areas of particular interest to students in the later half of the 20th century, Groves argued, pointing to courses in black studies, women’s studies and environmental studies that were offered for the first time in the ’70s.
“The feeling of being in a huge school but having a small community was really fantastic,” said another panelist, a woman who studied at one of Berkeley High’s former small learning communities .
But she added an important caveat.
“I’m not sure it actually gave us the best education,” she said. “I think it might have been a scramble for a lot of kids when they got to college.”
The trick, according to Perkins, is create small learning communities that give teachers the freedom to innovate, but aren’t so amorphous that less disciplined kids lose focus altogether.
“How do you not be so liberal (that) you let them do anything they want?” Perkins asked said.
Groves said the communities have to be held accountable. School district administrators never supported the small learning communities in the ’70s, she said, with the result that no evaluation process was ever put in place to see where they were succeeding and where they were failing.
The school district “has never really cared very much about evaluation,” Groves said.
“It becomes anecdotal. How can we move ahead if we don’t have some kind of formal evaluation?...We forget what has already been tried (and) keep reinventing the wheel.”
Rick Ayers, the Berkeley High teacher who is coordinating the discussions around small learning communities, said that today, unlike in the ’70s, both the school board and the teacher’s union have shown interest small learning communities and their potential.
Still, Berkeley High parent Jahlee Arakaki wasn’t convinced Thursday. While she conceded that the school was in “dire need” of some reform, she said it was too early to say if the small communities offered a solution to existing problems.
What happens, she asked, if “some kids get totally immersed in (a small community) and then others feel they can’t join?”
Berkeley High teacher Judy Bodenhausen said specialized programs already in place at Berkeley High, like the Communication Arts and Sciences program (whose limited spaces are highly coveted by students each year) have already created a two-tier system at the school.
If small learning communities are to be implemented, Bodenhausen said, they ought to be done in such that students can participate in some of a community’s offerings regardless of whether they are fully enrolled in that community.
Ayers said small learning communities would be “a disaster” if certain programs were identified as the elite programs while others became “default” programs. But he said Berkeley High has historically had a two-tier system, with whites and Asians dominating the higher-level course offerings. Small learning communities could undo this segregation by actively recruiting students from different backgrounds and working to unite them in a common endeavor, he said.
All community members are invited to weigh in on small learning communities at the high school at the May 19 meeting, scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Berkeley Alternative High School, 2701 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. For more information contact Rick Ayers at 644-4586.