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Parents continue movement toward small schools plan

By Hank Sims, Daily Planet Staff
Monday December 03, 2001

By Hank Sims 

Daily Planet Staff 


Saturday’s storm may have greatly diminished the attendance of a community rally in support of the “small schools” movement for Berkeley High School, but organizers scrambled to make sure that the weather did not hamper the rally’s impact. 

“There are many empty seats here, but they are empty of bodies, not of spirits,” said Alex Papillon, president of the Berkeley chapter of the NAACP.  

Papillon said that when community rallies are disrupted by poor weather, attendees shouldn’t lose heart — they should mentally multiply their numbers by ten. 

About 200 people came to the BHS’ Community Theater for the rally, which had been intended to introduce the Coalition for Small School’s platform to the public. Organizers had hoped to draw at least 1,000 people. 

The winds and the rain, though, did not change the message of the rally. The Coalition for Small Schools hopes to persuade the Berkeley Unified School District board, the City Council, local educators and a good portion of Berkeley citizens that BHS should be dramatically reorganized into a number of small “learning communities.” 

The change is needed, they say, because of the long-standing “learning gap” between white students and those of African and Latino descent. 

Melela Willis-Starbuck and Tara Singh, two students in the Communications, Arts and Sciences learning community at BHS, spoke in support of the proposal. The CAS program is one of the few “small learning communities” already at BHS. 

Willis-Starbuck, who has been in the CAS program for there years, said that the program fosters a sense of belonging in the school, which motivates students to work harder. 

“I still take some non-CAS classes,” she said. “I still don’t know the names of some of the students in my Spanish class, and they don’t know mine.” 

“How can we expect to create a learning community when you don’t even know everyone’s name?” 

Singh said that because of the intimacy of the CAS program — the same students are in the same classes together, year after year — the students are able to have “college-level” discussions of material. 

“I feel that CAS has made my high school experience 100 times better than it would have been at normal Berkeley High,” she said.  

Councilmember Linda Maio told the crowd that she was a strong supporter of the movement, and that something dramatic had to be done to address the problems at BHS. 

“In order to have a healthy neighborhood, every child must succeed,” she said. “We’ve made a lot of tries to stop kids from falling through the cracks, but they haven’t been quite right.” 

“With small schools, you can get your arms all the way around the schools, and around all the children.” 

The relatively small attendance at Saturday’s rally is not the most serious challenge facing supporters of the small schools proposal. 

The Coalition for Small Schools had hoped to get the approval of the school board before Dec. 31. The U.S. Department of Education has offered substantial grants for schools who wish to transition to small learning communities, and the application deadline for that grant is the end of the year. 

However, it appears that the proposal will not be approved at the school board by that date, as several members have recently expressed their opposition. 

Michael Miller, a member of the coalition, said on Saturday that the end-of-the-year deadline may not be as solid as had previously been presumed. 

“The federal government deadline seems to be moving, so we don’t know exactly what the date is,” he said.  

In addition, the coalition hopes to secure a grant from the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES), which recently received $15 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the “small schools” concept in the Bay Area. 

Though there is no hard deadline for the BayCES grant, Victor Cary, director of the Community Partnership Academy at BayCES, has said that the entire community — the City Council, churches and community groups as well as the school board — would need to demonstrate their approval of the small schools proposal before the money could be awarded.