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Program aims to build community within BHS

By Kimberlee Keala Bortfeld Special to the Daily Planet
Friday September 28, 2001

“Community” is not usually a word used to describe 3,400-student Berkeley High School. 

But for 250 students and teachers, community is what high school is all about. 

“We’re much more of a family,” said Dharini Rasiah, who teaches in the video program. “We take responsibility for each other.” 

Junior Mercedes Ruiz agreed. “It’s tight-knit. We know each other really well.” 

Rasiah and Ruiz are part of Communications Arts and Sciences, a school-within-a-school program established in 1997 as a means of personalizing the often-impersonal Berkeley High experience. Head teacher Rick Ayers explained that the program is based on the philosophy that all students can do well in a small learning context. Ayers also believes that the program can serve as a model for transforming all of Berkeley High into a community of schools-within-a-school. 

A transformation of this sort is currently among the top questions before the school community and policymakers.  

“Education happens in a community, out of relationships,” said Ayers. “There is peer motivation, and students get engaged and go deeper. They can get passionate about something.” 


Small schools might help 

With Berkeley High suffering from an achievement gap between minority and white students, and concerns from board members and teachers that truancy is a problem, many parents and teachers are taking a close look at what can be learned from the experiment.  

They may be on the right track.  

According to Ayers, Communications Arts and Sciences, which graduated its first class of 60 students in 2000, has higher graduation and college admission rates than Berkeley High overall. And while the white students in the program still outperform African American students in terms of grades, he said that the average GPA of African American students in the program is higher than that of the high school. He also believes that the graduation rate for African American students is double that of the school. Neither Ayers nor the Berkeley High administration had exact figures on GPAs or graduation rates. 

“We haven’t erased the gap, but we’re making progress,” Ayers said. The program reflects the ethnic makeup of the school with approximately 39 percent white, 36 percent African American, 15 percent Asian, and 10 percent Latino. 

Ken Garcia-Gonzales, who teaches ethnic studies, thinks that the community structure is one reason that students do better. “There’s more accountability for both students and teachers,” he said. Students cannot cut class, for example, without one or more of the 10 program teachers finding out.  

In addition, parents are more involved. Garcia-Gonzales said that even though school just started, he already received e-mail from parents introducing themselves.  

In the past year, more than 140 entering freshmen applied for the popular program and 80 were accepted. The students will now embark on a four-year curriculum that emphasizes media literacy, communication skills and social justice. Students take courses in English, history, science and video production together. They enroll in math, foreign language and other electives through the high school. The program aims to reflect the population of the school and seeks diversity in skill level and ethnic make-up. 


Teachers know students  

History teacher Bill Pratt, who has been with the program from its inception, explained that the small learning environment allows students and teachers to build ongoing relationships.  

“An integral part of what we’re trying to do is personalize the education all kids get,” he said. Through the program, Pratt hopes students will find “at least a few and hopefully many adults who know them well, care about them as people and are dedicated to them as teachers.”  

Students appear to be hearing the message. “Teachers (in the program) help a lot and care more than other teachers do,” said senior Haben Godefa.  

Although Pratt said that strong student-teacher relationships can develop in the larger school, it is more difficult because teachers have different students in class each semester. Communication Arts and Sciences, on the other hand, is structured so that teachers get to know students over longer periods of time.  

“The kids that graduated last year, I taught them since they were in ninth grade,” said Pratt. “So I knew them. I knew their families. I had dinner at their houses. I’ve been on field trips with them. I’ve been through hard times and good times with them. I saw them grow up in those four years.” 

Pratt has continued to remain in contact with students, even after they graduated. One of them, Carl Nasman, class of 2001 and a freshman at UC Santa Cruz, said that he used to play basketball with Pratt and other program teachers on a weekly basis. “I can’t imagine doing that with any other teachers.”  

Teachers in the program believe that the strength of their relationships with students, as well as students’ relationships with each other, not only creates a sense of community but facilitates classroom learning.  

“There’s a broader sense of community that comes into play among groups of students who are in multiple classes together,” said Pratt. “You walk into a senior class where 80 percent plus of those kids have been in three or more classes a day together for three years, and we are able to build on those dynamics.”  

Aquanetta Brooks, class of 2001 and a freshman at San Jose State University, remembered the depth of classroom discussions about such issues as race and civil rights. “We went deep with it. We didn’t just talk about how (Rosa Parks) just sat on a bus, but how she was involved with everything. We went into the details.”  

Alumni also say that the program prepared them for college in unique ways. For David Grunwald, class of 2000 and a sophomore at UC Berkeley, the internship experience required of all seniors served as a “bridge” to college. “It gave me a lot of freedom,” he said. “Senior year, I left campus three days a week and was on my own to deal with people on my own.” 

Among the program’s greatest advocates, though, are its teachers. Many say that the interdisciplinary nature of the program allows them to collaborate with each other and support one another. “Teachers can feel the same isolation and alienation as students if they don’t find a niche, especially in a big school like Berkeley. CAS allows me to collaborate with teachers who share the same values and commitments I do and who inspire me,” said Pratt.  


Problems persist 

But despite rave reviews by alumni, students and teachers alike, it is unclear whether small learning communities like Communication Arts and Sciences can solve all of Berkeley High’s problems. 

Ethnic cliques persist despite the close-knit and ethnically mixed nature of the program. “We’ve been with each other for all four years, but we still choose who to hang out with (people of the same ethnicity),” said senior Julian James.  

In addition, there are scheduling problems. Communications Arts and Sciences classes meet during the same periods as some Advanced Placement and African American studies classes, which has caused a few students to drop out of the program.  

Although most students are able to fit the classes they need into their schedules, Pratt said that conflicts are inevitable. 

Despite the logistical difficulties, most students and teachers agree that the program offers a quality of education lacking in the rest of the high school. “You really get a chance to explore education in CAS,” stated CAS student James.