“Welcome to my chaos,” said Katrina Scott-George, as she watched a reporter walk into her Berkeley High math classroom a few weeks ago.
It was a perfunctory greeting.
Not that Scott-George wasn’t willing – eager, really – to explain how she and five other first time teachers have done more in six months to chip away at the “achievement gap” than the school district has managed in years (at least by their estimation).
It’s just that she’s seen it all as far as the media goes: the San Francisco Chronicle, the online magazine Salon, the Berkeley High Jacket.
She’s watched her students squirm in their seats as photographer flash bulbs lit up the room like an electric storm.
And it hasn’t made a bit of difference. The Rebound program, of which Scott-George is a part, is slated for termination at the end of this summer, unless the school board comes up with more money at the final hour.
Even more hurtful for Scott-George is the feeling that, despite the media frenzy, her work at Berkeley High has somehow escaped the notice of Berkeley school administrators.
Two weeks after this reporter’s visit, Scott-George would stand in front of the Berkeley School board and say, with an air of total resignation: “I’m feeling that there isn’t much point speaking to this body. I feel that this body doesn’t listen.”
And the thing is, it’s just so obvious to Scott-George, and other supporters of the Rebound program, what needs to be done.
A civil engineer by training, Scott-George moved to Berkeley from Connecticut recently and enrolled her child in Berkeley High School. She’d heard about the achievement gap separating students of color from their peers at the school, but she was “shocked,” she said, to see how little was being done to address the gap.
Last fall Scott-George joined a group called Parents of Children of African Descent (PCAD) to demand that the school district institute special classes – with fewer students and more instructional time – to keep freshman students of color who were failing their classes from falling further behind at the school.
In the smaller classes, teachers could meet these students where they were, build relationships of trust, and get the students to truly engage in their academic work at the high school for the first time, PCAD members argued.
The school district approved the Rebound program in January to run though the second semester and into the summer. When it proved impossible for the district to find experienced teachers to staff the program on such short notice, Scott-George volunteered.
After six months as a Rebound math teacher – she received her emergency teaching credential midway through the semester – Scott-George has seen her worst suspicions about what happens to students of color who arrive at Berkeley High unprepared confirmed.
To begin with, Scott-George has seen just how unprepared many of these students are when the step onto the Berkeley High campus. Rebound administered a math preparation test to its 50 students back in January, testing the most basic concepts they should have picked up from the sixth grade on, Scott-George said. Only eight out of 50 got more than 50 percent of answers correct.
Other Rebound teachers tell stories of students who couldn’t write a complete sentence in English being asked to read, discuss and write about English literature in freshman English classes.
“My experience has been that the greatest reason that they have not engaged in math (before Rebound) is that the preparation has not occurred,” Scott-George said.
“If they can’t engage in it, there is nothing else for them to do but horseplay,” she said.
Scott-George and other Rebound supporters understand that the reasons these students have fallen so far behind are numerous and complex. What they don’t understand, they have said again and again, is how the school district can stand by and watch as these kids are assigned to classes at Berkeley High where they have little hope of success.
As long as this continues to happen, they argue, a large part of the African American and Latino communities will remain alienated and marginalized at Berkeley High, feeling that the school consistently fails to serve their interests.
“Parents feel like they’re giving they’re children to the school and getting back garbage,” said an exasperated Scott-George. “And the school, I guess, feels that they’re getting garbage and what can they do?”
After this summer, the 50 Rebound students will resume their place in regular Berkeley High classes as sophomores. PCAD members are already worried about their transition. Debrah Watson, a member of the PCAD Steering Committee, said the group is in the process of hiring a counselor to work closely with the 50 PCAD students for at least for the first couple months of school – until funds run out.
With only 50 students to look after, instead of the 500 students assigned to each of the school’s existing guidance counselors, PCAD members hope this temporary employee will be able to make the move from the close-knit Rebound community back into the huge, comprehensive school a little less abrupt.
For her part, Scott-George tried to prepare her students for the tough transition ahead by giving them an challenging, double-period test a few weeks ago.
Some of the students registered their discontent with a return to the horseplay and willful disobedience they have indulged in so often before Rebound.
“This is how they act when they’re angry,” Scott-George said.
To the students, she said: “I know that was tough. I knew it would be tough. Why am I giving you challenging problems? Because I expect you can do challenging work.”