“Stand up if you think students have the power to make this school a better place,” Berkeley High senior Maryan Katouli sang out over the PA system.
Of the hundred or so students gathered in the school’s Little Theater for a three period presentation/discussion on school reform, slightly more than a dozen battled up from their chairs. A few more made it about half way up before they were defeated by the earth’s cruel gravitational pull.
Most of the 50 or so African Americans in the room stayed firmly in their seats throughout.
It wasn’t exactly a ringing affirmation for the idea of student-led education reform, but Katuoli and her companions up by the stage stood their ground.
“You should all be standing,” admonished Berkeley High junior Nicole Heyman. “If we let adults make the changes, then they’re going to make the changes that suit themselves.”
In a forum organized “by the students for the students,” Katouli, Heyman and several Berkeley High upper classmen explained the academic achievement gap in excruciating detail before offering their observations and recommendations for making Berkeley High a better school.
To begin, one student did a Powerpoint presentation on the achievement gap. As statistic after statistic flashed across the screen, the increasing outrage in the audience electrified the air in the small auditorium.
“It that makes you upset, then get involved in changing this school,” Heyman exhorted her classmates.
But it wasn’t all outrage at the existence of an achievement gap so much as outrage at that these student leaders who would dare to “explain” the gap, when no one can attend Berkeley High and not know it is a place where many black and Latino students are not “performing” the way their teachers would like them to. (Last year 50 percent of Berkeley High’s African American students had a GPA of 2.0 or less, according to the students’ presentation.)
To hammer away at the point was obviously offensive for many in the audience.
“We know what (the achievement gap) is,” shouted one.
“What’s you’re point,” called out another, as the hissing and catcalls continued to mount.
The tension decreased as the day went on and different classes revolved in and out of the audience. Having finished their presentation, the student leaders began to engage the audience in a broader discussion about Berkeley High’s problems, soliciting solutions along the way.
One African American girl complained that many minority students feel like the teachers focus on the white students and are dismissive of the minority students. When there is a substitute teacher of color in these classes, students of color all of a sudden begin to talk more than ever before, she said.
Minority students end up thinking to themselves, “I’m not going to come to class if this teacher isn’t going to listen to me,” the girl said.
Matt Chavez, one of the students leading the forum, said the school desperately needs more minority teachers “so students can see, you know, that we can be teachers and we can be professionals.”
Chavez also recommended that teachers meet regularly with the parents of every student to keep them up to date on what their children need to do to get into college. To often, said Chavez, there is an institutionalized expectation that white and Asian students will go to college but African Americans and Latinos will not.
At the end of the day, students who organized the forum said they hoped it would spark a debate and encourage students to become involved in discussions of school reform at Berkeley High.
“We’re at a point where we can either go downhill or go uphill,” Katouli said. “It’s up to students right now to realize what we want our school to be.”
Currently, an advisory committee made up of parents, teachers and some students is considering a reform plan that would divide Berkeley High into “small learning communities.” In small schools of about 500 students apiece, the argument goes, students could get more of the individualized attention they so clearly need. This is turn would help combat truancy, campus violence and the achievement gap, small learning community supporters say.
Berkeley High teacher Tammy Harkins, who teachers a class on The Literature of Education Reform, said she has seen more student interest in school reform this year than at any time in here 11 years at the school.
The time has come to recognize that schools are serving a different purpose today than before, and to reform educational programs to reflect this fact, Harkins said. It’s no longer enough serve up the traditional curriculum and expect kids to take it from there, Harkins said.
“It’s almost as if the family has been shifted here,” Harkins said of Berkeley High. “Kids come here to be normalized, to have a relationship with adults.”
Many students Monday said they like the idea of small learning communities, but had questions about just exactly how it would be implemented at Berkeley High. And they said the wanted to have a chance to critique any plans before they are implemented.
“We can’t let the teacher decide what’s right for our school, because it’s our future,” said Berkeley High senior Kenyatte Davis. “It’s our lives that it really effects.”