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Newest school board member experienced with kids’ issues

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Saturday August 11, 2001

In a wide-ranging interview Friday, school board member John Selawsky looks back on his first eight months on the job and shares some thoughts on current school topics, including budget difficulties, the new superintendent, reforms at the high school, and some notable program successes. 

For John Selawsky, who became the newest member of the Board of Education in December, working with kids has been a life-long passion. 

The son of a lawyer father and high school teacher mother, Selawsky, 49, was born in Brooklyn and raised in Northern New Jersey, where his parents moved when he was 6. 

While studying urban education at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s, Selawsky spent his summers volunteering at an East Harlem community center summer camp, counseling and tutoring youth from a vibrant if low-income neighborhood. 

After a desperately cold winter in Vermont convinced him to seek warmer climes, Selawsky moved to San Francisco in 1981. He worked as a sixth grade teacher there until high city rents and the dream of a perfect home (with hardwood floors and a working fireplace) persuaded him and wife, Pam Webster, to hop across the Bay to Berkeley. They’ve lived on Blake Street, a few blocks from the Berkeley Alternative High School, ever since. 

Within in a few years of his arrival in Berkeley, Selawsky was back working with youth. He has volunteered four hours every week at the downtown Berkeley YMCA over the last 10 years. 

Both Selawsky and Webster became increasingly involved in local progressive politics. Webster sits on the board of the Berkeley Ecology Center and is currently serving on the city’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission. Selawsky is an active member of Berkeley Citizens’ Action and the Green Party, which threw its support behind his campaign for the school board in November. 

Selawsky’s involvement in school issues dates to the early ’90s, when his son Peter entered the Berkeley public school system at Oxford Elementary School. 

A published poet and freelance copy editor by trade, Selawsky said he had enough flexibility in his schedule to volunteer regularly at the school, whether it was to support classroom activities, found and lead a student gardening club, or help oversee a significant building project – remodeling the school’s library and classrooms. 

“That was a very exciting project, because Oxford is a much improved site because of that,” Selawsky said. 

Motivated by the belief that “if you improve the education for all kids, your own kid’s education will improve as well,” Selawsky deepened his involvement in school issues. With the encouragement of members of the Oxford school community, he joined one of the Berkeley school district’s most influential committees: the Berkeley Public Schools Excellence Project (BSEP) Planning and Oversight Committee. 

The BSEP parcel tax has raised millions of dollars each year since the late ’80s to reduce class size in Berkeley and contribute to school enrichment programs. The Planning and Oversight Committee oversees the annual BSEP budget. 

“I was snagged right away,” Selawsky said of his first several BSEP committee meetings. “They were really interesting meetings, and they still are. The level of discourse always amazes me – talking about the real issues that are important to our kids.” 

By the time Selawsky ran for the school board last year, he had established a name for himself in the city as someone who was deeply knowledgeable about school issues and committed to representing the Berkeley flatlands’ community he had called home for 13 years, said school board President Terry Doran. 

Being on the school board, said Selawsky, is “one of the most challenging and exciting things I’ve ever done in my life.” 

Selawsky cited the hiring of both Interim Superintendent Stephen Goldstone and, later, the new permanent superintendent, Michele Lawrence, as two of the most significant accomplishments of the school board during his tenure. 

“Getting the right superintendent is so important,” he said. “They really do set the tone for the whole district.” 

With the help of these two leaders, the school board has made enormous strides in identifying critical organizational problems that impede progress within the district on a whole host of issues, Selawsky said.  

With the first day of the new school year just weeks away, the district still has an unclear picture of its budget, Selawsky said – a fact that makes him nervous. 

“To be fiscally responsible:  

my No. 1 charge,” he said. Uncertainty about he district’s finances “makes us really fiscally conservative and really uncomfortable with going out and implementing a new program.” 

But Selawsky said reorganization of the district’s business office, begun under Goldstone and expanded now by Superintendent Lawrence, had the potential to clear up much of the confusion and get the district operating more smoothly by the end of the year. 

Selawsky said he was also impressed by how quickly Lawrence identified a need to improve communication in the district, between teacher, parents, students, school board members, committee members, community members and more. 

Too often in the past the Berkeley school district has operated like the “Russian Economy,” Selawsky said, with people frustrated by the slow-moving bureaucracy using back doors to get the programs they want funded and implemented. 

“What we have is an organization where someone goes out and plants a redwood tree right about where the tulips are growing,” said Selawsky. “There’s no communication. No one knows what’s been planted.” 

In the short term, Selawsky said the most important issue facing the school board this fall will be fulfilling the Western Association of Schools and Colleges committee’s list of improvements that must occur at the high school if the school is to maintain its accreditation. 

The school board must take more of a leadership role in setting clear and consistent expectations for the high school staff, so they in turn can create and implement policies for dealing with discipline, truancy, and the achievement gap, Selawsky said. 

In the long term, Selawsky said he believes the district needs to focus more of its resources on bolstering its middle school programs. The achievement gap which causes so much trouble at the high school begins long before the students ever get to the high school campus, he said. 

“Sixth, seventh and eighth grades are critical, because that’s where we start losing kids,” Selawsky said. He said one solution could be creating smaller classes for students during those critical years, and enhancing arts, music and other enrichment programs that contribute to making students more engaged in school.