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Small schools leaders and board start battle

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Friday December 07, 2001

A few olive branches, and a lot of angry words were the offerings at a contentious Board of Education meeting Wednesday night, which featured a couple of overtures for collaboration and several sharp exchanges between board members and leaders of the small schools movement, or Coalition for Excellence and Equity in the Schools. 

“The situation in our schools is not right,” said Katrina Scott George, a coalition leader and parent of a 10th grader at Berkeley High School. “It’s time for us to hold you, our board members, accountable.” 

Coalition leaders, including school board member Terry Doran, want to break BHS up into a series of small, autonomous schools. They have asked the board to approve a small schools policy they prepared by early next year and implement the model in the fall of 2003.  

Coalition members argue that small schools would work to narrow the “achievement gap” between white and minority students, and improve teacher accountability. 

The remaining four school board members have embraced a more gradual approach.  

They want to maintain the structure of the larger, comprehensive high school, while allowing for the incremental addition of “schools within a school,” similar to the several mini-schools currently at BHS. They say this approach would maintain the strengths of the comprehensive school system now in place.  

Shirley Issel, the new board president, said the coalition overstepped its bounds by presenting its small schools policy. 

“You’re asking us to forfeit our policy-making responsibilities,” Issel said. “I don’t know how I’m going to explain to the public how your group made this policy, but we’re to be held responsible for it.” 

“It would seem to me that if you don’t agree with us, you would take it up with the voters,” she continued. 

“You are an extension of us,” responded Michael Miller, a parent and member of the coalition. “We elected you. You bring our needs, our desires to this forum.” 

Later in the evening, Doran and Ted Schultz of the school board said it was reasonable for the coalition to present a policy to the board.  

But several members of the board, and Superintendent Michele Lawrence, said they were concerned about the coalition’s call for a rapid move to a small schools model. 

Lawrence said she could not embrace the coalition’s proposal until she’d traveled to other districts making use of the small schools policy, and studied their finances, program quality, degree of parental involvement, and other qualities. 

“I will, in fact, be there to help move this thing forward,” Lawrence said. “But you’ve got to give me more time, that’s all I ask.” 

Doran asked Lawrence to suggest how much time she might need, but the superintendent said it would be difficult to predict until she was in the thick of the research.  

“I don’t want to make a promise I can’t keep,” she said. 

Lawrence added that she has several other priorities, like maintenance, the budget and special education programs, that require her immediate attention and cannot be ignored.  

Schultz recommended the formation of a working committee, including coalition leaders and members of the board, that would visit other small schools, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and hammer out a compromise. 

But Scott George rejected the idea of a working committee unless it had a definite timeline for producing results. “This is not acceptable,” she said, arguing that BHS students need reform immediately.  

“Children are going to jail now,” she said. “I know who got shot and who got suspended and who got pregnant. I cannot wait.” 

Kalima Rose, another coalition leader, said on Thursday that, earlier in the week, the superintendent offered small schools proponents the opportunity to take part in a working group like the one proposed by Schultz. 

“We said that we’d be perfectly happy to take part,” she said, “but it must have a commitment to a timeline and outcomes.” Otherwise, Rose said, the district could simply drag out the committee work, using it at as a tool to defer the implementation of small schools. 

Joaquin Rivera, new board vice president, said any committee must also include community members who are opposed to small schools.  

A small group of small schools opponents were in attendance at the meeting and voiced their concerns. Marcy Wong, a parent of a child in the school system raised fears that children would be “indoctrinated” in small, politically-focused schools, while Victoria Bonnell, a parent and sociology professor at UC Berkeley argued that large schools work better for some kids. 

Earlier in the evening, Bradley Johnson, president of the high school’s sophomore class, presented the results of a survey of 967 BHS students. 

Johnson said the survey was distributed in history classes, and found that 55 percent of the students “think that small schools are better in providing education than large schools,” while 86 percent “feel that there is more one on one contact with teachers in small schools.” 

The teacher’s union will be polling teachers next week. The poll will follow weeks of in-depth teacher interviews and focus groups conducted by the coalition.