School Superintendent Michele Lawrence told parents and community advocates of Latino students that she opposes the breakup of Berkeley High School into small schools within the 3,400-student school.
“I’m a little hesitant to open another system when I see this one so in need of repair,” Lawrence said to the group of about 80 people who gathered at Rosa Parks Elementary School on Sunday for a forum organized by local Latino organizations. Lawrence also cited possible budget cuts as one of the reasons she hesitated to begin the process of rearranging the high school.
The superintendent, herself a Latina, met informally with leaders of a number of Latino organizations before the larger meeting to discuss some of the most pressing concerns for Latino parents, particularly the high drop out rates and lack of preparation for college.
Mercedes Sanders, a guidance counselor at Berkeley Alternative High School and member of Chicanos/Latinos for Academic and Social Success, said the forum was intended to inform parents about Lawrence’s vision for the Berkeley schools.
“The large high school is our concern,” Sanders said. “Students are getting lost because they don’t feel comfortable, they’re alienated and they choose to leave.”
Lawrence said that although smaller schools create a more intimate atmosphere for students, they do not guarantee quality teaching.
“Unless you look and make certain that we have effective teachers who are well-trained and delivering good information, whether it’s big or small it has to be effective teaching,” she said.
Lawrence said the focus should be on the California High School Exit Exam, which students from the class of 2004 will be required to pass in order to receive a high school diploma. The legislature approved a bill last month that would allow the State Board of Education to postpone that date, and the bill is awaiting the governor's signature.
The superintendent said she is opposed to giving out different types of diplomas to different students, something that has been suggested by some educators as a way of providing challenging requirements to students with different abilities.
“I think that’s going to be bad for minority children,” she said. “I think what we really have to do is make certain that we have Saturday programs, after school programs and summer school to make certain that these students are staying on track.”
One parent expressed concern that minority students in the district are being neglected. Her daughter, a freshman at Berkeley High School who is in the Spanish for native speakers’ class, said students in the class had been without textbooks since the first day of school. Lawrence said that she would follow the issue up on Monday.
Lawrence said she is particularly concerned about school attendance, noting that Berkeley High does not do a good job alerting parents about student attendance because of its inefficient system. Nonetheless, she told parents it is up to them to make sure their children are at school and that they should call the attendance office at least once a month to check on their child’s attendance.
“Don’t let your child fall through the cracks while we’re fixing the system,” she said.
Lawrence told the groups that she and the board had set five goals for the school district: security and safety of students, communication, accountability, school maintenance and understanding of the school district budget.
Lawrence said she is investing lots of time in reviewing the budget because the majority goes to pay personnel.
“You must know where those people work, who they are and what they get paid,” she said. “We’re very sloppy; records have just not been kept up.”
The superintendent said budget cuts are likely in December. “It’s not awful but it is serious and we’ll be (spending) time on the budget,” she said.
Lawrence said she hopes that once the five goals she has set have been accomplished, the district will be able to look at more specific problems.
“We can’t get diverted from the five things,” she said. “We must build upon those five things so that all the children in this school district can achieve much better than they are now. And I think we can do this together.”