“Berkeley’s legendary commitment to public education” is one of the reasons Michele Barraza Lawrence cites for her desire to become this city’s new Superintendent of Schools.
Having served as Berkeley’s Interim Superintendent since February, and in school districts throughout California for the last 35 years, I can affirm that the “legend” is true. Berkeley is unique in its range of resources, ideals, and activism.
Its schools could and should be the best.
I hope these parting thoughts will encourage all the talented people I have met here to continue working together to develop first-class schools for all of Berkeley’s students.
First, it’s important to recognize the vast support this community gives its schools, which can be seen in so many ways.
The Berkeley Schools Excellence Project, a parcel tax routinely approved by over 80 percent of the voters, adds $9 million to the district’s annual budget.
This has sustained small class sizes and important academic enrichment programs even in the bleakest days of state funding. The recently passed Measure AA and BB bonds will make sure our newly rebuilt schools are kept in safe and attractive condition.
Organizations including the Berkeley Public Education Foundation, the Berkeley High School Development Group, In Dulci Jubilo, and active PTAs, generate hundreds of thousands of additional dollars.
Our classrooms are rich with volunteer literacy tutors, gardening instructors, and other supporters recruited through Berkeley School Volunteers and school-based efforts such as the Writer’s Room at Berkeley High. Community volunteers have saved instrumental music instruction, brought Reading Recovery to our elementary schools, and are working to bring programs like Rebound and Small Learning Communities to fruition at Berkeley High.
This range of support continues to attract the best teachers, even in the midst of a nationwide shortage. It is key to our relatively high test scores, and will help us close the achievement gap.
But everyone agrees: our schools aren’t good enough. While 54 percent of our 11th-graders scored “proficient” or better on last year’s Language Arts standards tests – close to double the statewide average of 30 percent – we aren’t satisfied with just being “above average.”
The number of African American students taking Advanced Placement classes is rising – but not fast enough. The arts are underfunded, security is a problem, and too many students are falling through the cracks.
Part of the solution to these problems lies in Sacramento. This year, California spent $1,000 less per student than the national average of $7,500 – about the same as Wyoming and Kentucky, and a full $3,500 less than the top states.
California has one of the largest economies in the world, and we can’t continue to grow if we are below average in support for schools. If Berkeley, this legendary bastion of democratic activism, doesn’t lead the way to increase school support, who will?
I believe the school district itself can improve.
Berkeley’s longstanding practice of site-based management relies on the creative, collaborative work of principals, teachers, and the larger community.
This demanding system, geared toward high expectations, requires an intense level of district support and service.
Yet, many principals tell me there’s too little time for instructional leadership because the lights aren’t working, or a vendor hasn’t been paid, or there are no janitors.
Too many teachers haven’t received the books they ordered, or can’t get their computer hooked up. Too many citizens bring great talent and commitment to bear, but cannot get the financial figures they need, or other important information.
We can do better. Our district should provide the foundation of support so that teachers and principals can educate all of our kids.
I have recommended a plan to streamline the District’s business and operations, which I believe will help. The plan was approved unanimously by the Board of Education and is currently being implemented.
I leave Berkeley with great optimism.
Your incoming Superintendent is known for bringing communities together to achieve important academic improvements. You have some beautiful new schools, and now the maintenance and security funds to keep them clean and safe.
You have dedicated teachers and principals, and a community with high expectations and the will to make good things happen for students.
Berkeley can have the best schools in California. I look forward to watching it happen, and hope I have contributed some small part to this grand effort.