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Teachers: Small school concept needs support

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Monday June 25, 2001

School board members and proponents of sweeping reforms for Berkeley High School found a lot to agree on last week, but they seemed to part company with considerable confusion and disagreement about the next step in the process. 

“If you’re willing to do something fundamental, something serious, instead of just tinkering with the current model and allowing the drift to continue, small schools is definitely the way to go,” Rick Ayers, the Berkeley High teacher charged with coordinating the reform planning process, told the school board at their regular meeting last Wednesday. 

Since the school district received a federal $50,000 grant last year to study how the “small learning community” model could be applied at Berkeley High School, Ayers has worked with an advisory committee of school staff and parents to compile research on the topic, and to lead weekly discussion groups.  

The group has also convened a number of larger community meetings to disseminate information on small schools and solicit input and how the model might work in Berkeley. 

Over the course of the last 15 years, a number of large urban high schools around the country have implemented some kind of small learning community model to combat problems with truancy, violence, low student achievement and high teacher turnover. Public schools can better meet the wildly varying needs of their students, the argument goes, by dividing “factory model” high schools into small learning communities of 500 students or less — each with dedicated teaching staff and a degree of governing autonomy. 

It simply creates “a scale where parents and staff become more engaged” and are able to give students the personal attention they need, Ayers argued Wednesday. 

Berkeley High itself has been implementing small learning communities over the last five years or so, but in a piecemeal way. Core groups of like minded teachers have bonded together to launch their “schools-within-a-school,” fighting the district bureaucracy every step of the way for the resources they need to do so. 

Dana Richards, director of Berkeley High’s “Common Grounds” program, a small learning community with an anticipated enrollment of 400 students next year, told the school board Wednesday