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Small Schools movement readies plan for board’s eye

By David Scharfenberg Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday December 01, 2001

Leaders of the Berkeley Small Schools movement looked to middle school parents and teachers to help strengthen their base of support during a meeting at Longfellow Middle School Thursday where they geared up for a possible political battle with the Board of Education. 

Movement leaders, who are calling for the division of Berkeley High School into a series of small, relatively autonomous schools with different themes, will present the board with findings from their research. 

The activists said they hope to present a sample policy detailing a broad vision of their plan on Dec. 19.  

Movement leaders said they will seek an official vote on that policy early next year and hope to implement their Small Schools plan in 2003. 

But the board stands 4-1 against a rapid, wholesale reorganization of BHS, according to Board President Terry Doran, who supports the Small Schools policy, and Vice President Shirley Issel, who opposes it. 

In a Nov. 14 workshop, over Doran’s objections, the board endorsed an alternative draft policy, which would maintain the current comprehensive high school, strengthen the handful of schools-within-a-school already in place at BHS and create a set of criteria for gradually bringing more schools-within-a-school on-line, Issel said. 

These new Small Schools would be different from the proposed mini-schools, Issel said, because they would not be autonomous, and they would not replace the larger high school. Instead, they would function within the framework of the existing, comprehensive BHS. 

Issel said a gradual, schools-within-a-school approach is necessary because BHS is struggling with attendance, discipline, professional development and other issues, and is simply not prepared for a complete makeover. 

“I think you need to have a higher level of functionality to implement a plan like this,” Issel said. “If you can’t take attendance and don’t have a discipline policy, you don’t have the administrative capacity to implement this.” 

“I’m not prepared to wipe out the whole high school and start all over,” added Board member John Selawsky. He said he could envision the gradual emergence of a high school composed entirely of schools-within-a-school, but only if that’s what the parents and students of Berkeley truly want. Selawsky said that, at present, there are many people who do not want to abandon the comprehensive high school. 

Issel suggested that Small Schools leaders should work with the School Board on its alternative, gradual, schools-within-a-school approach, rather than put their own policy up for a vote. 

“I don’t know whether they’re actually going to put their policy on the board’s agenda,” she said. “But it will almost certainly be voted down.” 

Friday afternoon, Doran said Small Schools would like to work out a compromise policy that everyone finds agreeable, and avoid an up or down vote on the group’s plan. But in the end, he said, he would not accept a compromise that shut down the possibility of establishing autonomous small schools at BHS.  

Any compromise, Doran said, must include criteria for the establishment of small schools, giving proponents an opportunity to actually set up small schools at BHS if they can meet the criteria.  

No matter what the political odds, Small Schools leaders, on Thursday, were optimistic about the power of their idea and its chances for success. 

“We can grab these kids and get them passionate about something,” said Rick Ayers, a teacher at Berkeley High School’s Communications Arts and Science, one of the schools-within-a-school already in place. “You know that point when they stay up all night to finish a paper? We can get to that point at the high school.” 

Ayers added that Small Schools is the most powerful education movement he has encountered during his time in Berkeley. 

“This is the most thorough reform movement I’ve seen,” he said, citing broad support from parents, teachers, students, the mayor, the head of the teachers’ union and the School Board president.  

“But we still have a real hard row to hoe,” Ayers acknowledged, referring to the hesitancy of the superintendent and the majority of the School Board. 

Middle school parents and teachers in attendance Thursday night reacted to the small schools presentation with a mix of optimism, skepticism and simple curiosity. 

George Rose, a teacher at Willard Middle School said the idea was interesting and appeared to have community support, but he wondered about its political viability. 

Joanne Groce, mother of an eighth-grader at Longfellow put it plainly. “I think it’s a good idea if it works,” she said. 

Today, Small Schools will attempt to turn out 1,000 people to surround the high school in a human chain in support of its movement. The event will also include music, poetry, dance and speakers. Attendees will meet at noon in the Civic Center Park adjacent to the high school, or in the Community Theatre building in the event of rain.