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New superintendent: coordinated effort can solve BHS problems

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Monday August 06, 2001

With a new school year fast approaching, the oft-asked question of what to do about Berkeley High is back in the spotlight.  

While the search for answers is complicated by the absence of money, new programs are being launched and, if the new superintendent has her way, existing resources will be better coordinated. 

Due to a critical budget shortfall in the Berkeley Unified School District, the high school will begin the new year with roughly four fewer teachers. The on-campus suspension program, a mainstay of the school’s discipline system for years, has been cut. The popular Rebound program for failing freshman is out of money and will not be available to ninth graders who arrive at Berkeley High School unprepared. 

There will be other new programs to help these students, however. Eighth graders at risk of failing when they start Berkeley High at the end of this month have been enrolled in a special, one-week “summer bridge” program intended to bolster both their confidence and their study skills. 

The director of the popular Writer’s Room program, which pairs Berkeley High students with volunteer writing tutors in one-on-one sessions, hopes to make tutors available to every freshman who needs one this year.  

Regular Berkeley High teachers are being trained for the first time in how to teach reading to the more than 100 students who enter the school each year with skills well below grade level – including some who have difficulty reading at all. 

The whole freshman curriculum has been reorganized to make it easier for teachers to work as a team, identifying “at risk” students from the get go and working together to keep them from falling through the cracks.  

Finally, other tutoring and mentoring programs at the school are said to be picking up steam, including one program that would have Berkeley High seniors serve as mentors to freshman, showing them how to survive in an overwhelming and often dysfunctional system. 

Some say, however, that If the year just ended is any indication, the high school is likely to remain an overwhelming and dysfunctional place for many students despite these efforts. Board of Education Vice President Shirley Issel that’s partly because the school’s infrastructure is so strained that even services, programs and strategies implemented with the best of intentions often go awry. 

“The infrastructure is too dysfunctional to accomplish anybody’s goals, and it’s affecting all the students. They’re all on their own. The school can’t really attend to their individual needs.” 

But the problems are bigger than the school, argue many, including Berkeley High School Principal Frank Lynch and Rebound teacher Katrina Scott-George. 

Research has labored to make this point over and over again in recent years. Depending on which study one reads, scholars have found compelling ways to argue that how well students do in school depends on economic factors, family structure, parent education levels, hours of television watched or not watched, participation in extracurricular activities, access to computers, class size, adherence to standards, freedom from standards, teacher quality, teacher training, teacher attitudes about race, society’s attitudes about race, and much, much more. 

Clearly, a school system can only begin to address a few of these factors. All the players, from parents to preachers to politicians, have to work together. 

And that, contends the new superintendent of schools, Michele Lawrence, is why Berkeley has an opportunity to make more progress than many schools districts. The resources are here, she said in an interview last week. There are district advisory committees to deal with everything from construction to budgeting, each of them staffed by highly skilled community volunteers. There are organized and expert parent groups in the African American community, the Hispanic community, the special education parents community and more. There are two independent foundations doing fundraising and organizing for Berkeley High. Finally, there is the Berkeley Alliance, which promises, among other things, to leverage the resources of the city and UC Berkeley to help improve Berkeley public schools. 

The missing piece, said Lawrence, is an overarching plan to unite these groups in a common crusade; to avoid miscommunication, duplication of effort, and working at cross purposes. 

Lawrence said her job will be to “work with all the groups to line up systems and processes” so Berkeley can focus its remarkable array of resources on the single greatest challenge faced by the high school: the academic achievement gap. 

Rather than having the high school administrators working to address the gap in one way, the Parents of Children of African Descent strongly advocating another way, and the school board considering the problem from yet another angle, the groups need to be on the same page, Lawrence said.  

“If an organization responds emotionally to coming up with solutions to problems without thinking through logistically how to implement them, then you end up being disappointed in the results, because you can’t deliver on your promises,” she said.