The growing movement to create distinct “small schools” within Berkeley High School got a boost Wednesday night as the school board held its first wide-ranging public discussion on a formal policy.
“We feel like we’re in a whole new era now, because a year ago it was hard to get it on the agenda at all,” said Rick Ayres, coordinator of the Communication Arts and Sciences, a small school at Berkeley High. Ayres is also a leader of the small schools movement.
Berkeley High currently has four theme-oriented schools, launched by parents and teachers as part of a national movement to alleviate large-school problems, such as racial segregation and student anonymity. Parents cite better and more intimate interactions with teachers and other students as advantages of small schools.
However, board support was thin on Wednesday for fully abandoning the current “comprehensive” high school model. Most small schools advocates favor creating eight to 12 largely autonomous learning communities of 250 to 400 students. Only Board President Terry Doran supports a full conversion to small schools.
“I just don’t believe our comprehensive traditional model at Berkeley High School is capable of addressing the broad issues that are confronting urban education,” Doran said in a recent interview.
The other four board members questioned how far to go with the new policy, and how fast. Another major goal of the movement — board approval of a draft policy by early December, to meet grant deadlines — appeared uncertain.
“I really don’t know at this point how it’s going to unwind,” said board Director Ted Schulz on Thursday.
The board spent most of Wednesday’s conversation discussing language in the six-page, 10-section policy draft. For example, whether 70 percent of each school’s students should be required to “meet or exceed the school’s identified student outcomes” for the school to continue the following year.
“That 70 percent makes me nervous,” said Board Director Ted Schulz, adding that he didn’t see it as an effective means toward the more important goal of continued academic improvement.
The question of small-school choice, by both students and teachers, also came under the microscope.
“I don’t think it’s good to have solutions which split up the community,” said board Vice President Shirley Issel.
Schulz said he wanted small-schools to begin in 10th grade because the district had just launched a ninth-grade retention program. The program, Critical Pathways, is designed to identify low-achieving students before they enter school and support them with tutoring and extra classes.
Doran has argued that the small schools model would provide the individual attention that Critical Pathways is meant to compensate for.
The adoption of a new policy will require the board to agree on and commit to detailed guidelines for individuals small schools’ purpose and core principles, accountability mechanisms, admissions criteria, community governance structures and financing.
Tensions were on display at Wednesday’s meeting between a revved-up community movement and a board responsible for crossing every “t” and dotting every “i” on the new policy. Fidgeting reached a crescendo among the 44 people in attendance as the board put off public comment for the first two hours.
“There are a lot of people who want to speak,” Larry Bilick, a Common Ground small school parent, interrupted as the clock neared 9 p.m. “We have a time schedule, you know.”
When the board members agreed to continue their discussion, Superintendent Michelle Lawrence noted that any policy the board adopted would be subject to public comment at two more board meetings.
The most common message among speakers was that the community groups were far ahead of the board in weighing the issues and even setting out policy plans. A “sample policy” document with twice the volume of the board’s draft policy has been posted on the Berkeley Small Schools website (www.berkeleysmallschools.org).
“What I would hope you would do is really respect the work that’s been laid down,” said Chico Mario, a Berkeley High parent.
“There’s no way we’re going to fail ... if we are all doing it together,” said Michael Miller, a parent active in the small-schools movement and the chair of Parents and Children of African Descent, which advocates for improvement of the school’s performance among minority students.
Ayres called on the board to simply be done with the existing large-school model.
“[Small schools] depend on the insane work of a few people who want to do it,” he said. If they have to continue competing for resources with a still-intact comprehensive school, he added, “they’ll either be reabsorbed, or they’ll go charter and leave.”
The small schools supporters hope to apply for two major seed grants that would help enable full implementation for 2003-2004: $500,000 from the federal Department of Education, and $700,000 from the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools.
The move toward board approval of a small-schools policy comes as Berkeley High struggles to renew its accreditation next fall with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
“The plate is fairly full,” said Lawrence, but she acknowledged the community’s frustrations and tentatively agreed to identify and visit another district that had already successfully made the switch.
The majority of the board members remain hesitant to jettison the options and variety of a large high school. Issel, the most vocal skeptic, has expressed pointed concern over both WASC and the nature of the grassroots effort behind small schools.
“I frankly don’t see that we’re having a collaborative consensus-building discussion,” she said. “There’s a lack of collaboration and an effort underway to ram an agenda down the throat of a community that will end up splitting [it] into camps of those for and those against. ... I do not see the gathering of petitions and the generating of a political campaign on behalf of small schools to have anything to do with sound educational planning, and I think it’s a highly questionable use of public funds.”