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Small schools debate continues

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Wednesday December 19, 2001

Berkeley High School students called on the district to put effective leadership in place at their school and to address the “achievement gap” separating white and minority students, during a student forum on small schools held Tuesday. 

“If you’re good at your job, then help us out,” said Joseph Abhulimen, a junior at BHS, addressing Shirley Issel, president of the Board of Education. 

The event, sponsored by Youth Together, a leadership group focused on school reform, drew about 30 students and a handful of teachers and activists. 

Participants questioned four panelists – Issel, Terry Doran, another school board member, Rick Ayers, a teacher who heads up the BHS Communication Arts and Sciences school-within-a school; and Dana Richards, director of Common Ground, another small school at the high school 

Kye Tavernier, a junior, and member of Youth Together, said the group sponsored the forum to give students a chance to influence the hotly-debated small schools’ policy put forward by the Coalition for Excellence and Equity. 

The coalition, a grassroots group of parents, teachers and education leaders, has called for the division of BHS into a series of compact, relatively autonomous “learning communities” with different themes. Activists say the creation of small schools will help to address the achievement gap and other lingering problems at BHS. 

“There’s been a lot of debate about small schools,” said Tavernier, “and a lot of students felt our voice...wasn’t coming across.” 

Students took the opportunity to tell panelists that the district needs to stop talking about solutions to the achievement gap and take action.  

“I’ve been in meetings like this since freshman year,” said Joy Broussard, a senior, “and nothing ever gets done.” 

Issel said she shares the students’ concerns, but has reservations about moving forward with small schools at this point. She said the district must have adequate time to assess the financial ramifications of changing the high school structure, and evaluate the successes and failures of the schools-within-a-school already in place at BHS. 

“It’s not the goal (that is the issue),” said Issel, “it’s how you get there.” 

Bradley Johnson, president of the high school’s sophomore class, said that if the school board rejects the small schools approach, it must come up with a plan to address the achievement gap within the existing, larger school. 

Issel agreed. “You are right to want that blueprint,” she said. “It’s been very distressing to all of us that we haven’t had leadership in this area.” 

Students also said they were frustrated with constant changes in leadership at the high school, including the departure of Principal Frank Lynch earlier this year. 

Issel said the selection of a new principal is a top priority, but she added that the current leadership team, composed of four vice principals, has been effective. 

“You have a darn good crew right now that’s doing an excellent job,” she said. 

Richards, director of the Common Ground program, sharply disagreed. “They’ve been putting down the leadership of the (existing) small schools,” he said, “and they’ve been elevating people who are into numbers and accountability and systems.” 

“These people are working on a kind of top-down, intimidating, fear style that shuts people up who are trying to be innovative,” he continued. 

Students voiced general support for the small schools concept, arguing that pupils in the existing schools-within-a-school have developed better relationships with teachers than those in the larger high school. 

But some said that ultimately, the quality of teaching, no matter what the school structure, will make the difference. 

“The main thing is for us to get better educated,” Broussard said, “and we can’t get better educated if the teachers don’t want to be there.” 

Ayers said poor teachers currently escape scrutiny in the larger BHS. If small schools are put in place, he said, unqualified teachers will not be able to hide, and teacher accountability will improve. 

The school board is set to consider the latest version of the coalition’s small schools policy at its bi-weekly meeting tonight. 

The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. at Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. It is broadcast on KPFB-FM 89.3 and Ch-25.