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A peek at small schools across the bay

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Thursday December 20, 2001

A glimpse of Berkeley High School’s future may be only a BART ride away. 

For months, local activists and politicians have debated the wisdom of converting BHS into a series of themed small schools. Earlier this week, the Daily Planet traveled to San Francisco’s Balboa High School, which has been divided into a series of compact “learning communities” since the late 1990s, to witness a small schools model in action. 

Parents, teachers, students, and administrators at Balboa, located in the city’s Excelsior neighborhood, said the shift to small schools has helped to engage students, encourage greater collaboration among teachers and reduce the school’s drop-out rate.  

But, they said, the high school has struggled to make improvements in vital areas, such as parent involvement and student achievement on statewide and national tests.  

“We’re far from perfect,” said Ted Barone, Balboa’s vice principal. 


Establishing small schools 

Wracked by poor student performance in the 1990s and the replacement of the entire staff in 1996, Balboa inched toward the small schools model in the early-to-middle part of the last decade. During that period, Barone said, teachers were upset with the direction of the school and worked to establish the Communication Arts Academy and the Law Academy, the first two schools-within-a-school at Balboa. 

The most dramatic shift came during the 1999-2000 academic year when Barone and Principal Patricia Gray took over and moved toward wholesale adoption of the small schools model. 

Today, ninth and 10th graders are each part of a “small learning community,” composed of 60 to 120 students and two to four teachers. The community focuses on core academic classes, community service and explorations of various career possibilities. 

In the 11th and 12th grades, students join one of five “school-to-career pathways” that provide both core classes and an emphasis on one particular career field. In addition to the Communication Arts and Law programs, pupils can choose to follow information technology, environmental science or health and science pathways. 

Students sample each of the pathways at a March fair and designate their first and second choices. The school has expanded the Communication Arts Academy because of its popularity, and Barone said most students get their first choice. 

The ethnic distribution of students among the schools, a concern for Berkeley activists and officials engaged in the small schools debate, is not an issue at Balboa, according to Barone. The school has a small white population, and relatively equal numbers of African-American, Latino and Filipino students and a relatively even racial distribution within the small schools, Barone said. 

With about 900 students, Balboa is much smaller than BHS, whose population is about 3,200. 


All at once? 

One of the most contentious elements of the small schools debate in Berkeley focuses on the speed of adoption. Members of the Coalition for Excellence and Equity, a community group, have called for the institution of wall-to-wall small schools at BHS beginning in the fall of 2003. 

Several members of the Board of Education, by contrast, have been hesitant to abandon the larger high school, and have called for the more gradual adoption of schools-within-a-school. 

Barone said Balboa opted for a rapid adoption of the small schools model in 1999-2000.  

“Some people wanted to wait,” Barone noted. “We said ‘no,’ it’s an all-or-nothing effort. Let’s get into it and iron out the kinks, because what we’re doing doesn’t work.” 

“You need to have a mass movement,” added George Lee, who has taught in the Communication Arts Academy for six years. “You need to make the leap.” 

Lee said the academy was not as effective when it was isolated within the school, without other academies around it. “We felt like a black sheep,” he said. 

Rick Ayers, who teaches at Communications Arts and Sciences, one of only three schools-within-a-school at Berkeley High, has warned that this sort of isolation is in place at BHS, and could lead to the withering of the small learning communities at the high school. 

“They are not institutionalized, they are not supported,” Ayers said of the existing small schools, at a student forum on Tuesday.  

Ayers argued that BHS should move toward full implementation of small schools. Under the current model, he said, CAS and the other existing “learning communities” do not have enough designated planning time, and other vital supports.  

Shirley Issel, president of the school board, who has called for a more gradual approach, agreed that the existing schools-within-a-school need greater backing. But, she said the high school must focus on pressing issues like discipline and attendance before it is ready for wholesale change. 


The logistics 

Students at Berkeley High School, and members of the school board have raised questions about how the small schools would fit together, and whether students in one learning community would be able to take classes in another. 

At Balboa, students take courses both within their pathways, and outside their small schools, all in accordance with a master plan developed by the central administration. 

“The master plan is certainly one of the most essential steps, but it ain’t easy,” Barone said, referring to the logistical difficulties of integrating the various learning communities. “It definitely can be done, and it’s done all over the country, but there are trade-offs.” 

Barone said that, under the small school system, student choice in electives is diminished, because pupils must take certain classes required by their specific learning communities. 

Students in Balboa’s Law Academy, for instance, are required to take pre-law courses in their junior and senior years, one taught by an instructor on loan from City College of San Francisco. 



Berkeley residents have also debated the appropriate level of autonomy for each potential small school. Members of the Coalition for Excellence and Equity have called for relatively independent academies, while several school board members have suggested retaining a centralized administration. 

Balboa has chosen the latter course, although Barone says there are examples of successful, autonomous small school systems in place all over the country. 

Shaun Bond, an English teacher in the Law Academy, said each learning community still has a good degree of latitude, even under a centralized administration. 

“We’re pretty autonomous,” Bond said. “We get our theme and we’re pretty free to set our own curriculum.” 

Still, Bond suggested that the more freedom an academy has, the better. “Any system that’s overbureaucratized gets in the way of the goals of the institution,” he said. 


The Results 

Thus far, Balboa has not made significant gains in test scores. According to school district data, student performance on the reading and math portions of the Stanford Achievement Test 9 test have remained relatively constant since 1998. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have improved incrementally in the same period, but are still below the district, state and national averages. 

Teachers and administrators say that parent involvement has not improved much either. “Parent engagement is a challenge at this school,” Bond said, citing typical barriers to involvement in an urban district.  

“The (parent) outreach, at least, is stronger, because you have two people working on it,” Bond added, referring to one of the benefits of heavy teacher collaboration in the small schools at Balboa. 

Collaboration among teachers in the same academies, supported by designated planning time, allows teachers to emphasize similar lessons in class, and collaborate on behavioral issues, said Balboa staff. 

But sometimes, full collaboration is not possible, said teachers and administrators. Teacher turnover, which has declined in recent years at Balboa, from roughly 40 percent per year in the mid-90s to about 20 percent now, prevents some people from teaming up in the summer before classes start, Bond said.  

In addition, said Barone, some teachers are not committed to their academies, or are matched up in unproductive partnerships. 

Balboa staff said that students, operating in small, focused settings, are more engaged in their schoolwork. A decline in drop-out rates in recent years, from 17.1 percent in 1997-1998, to 9.2 percent in 1999-2000, provides some support for the conclusion. 

Thadius Vinson, a senior who attended John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond his freshman year, said the small school model does add relevance to the course load. 

“If you don’t have a pathway and you just have different classes,” he said, “sometimes they don’t have any meaning to them.” 

But Lakeisha Rugley, a junior, said that students are still rowdy and unfocused in some classes. “It’s more about the teacher,” she said, arguing that it takes a compelling instructor to catch the attention of the students, no matter what the size of the school. 


The Decision 

Barone said high failure rates at Balboa High School in the 1990s, across the board, made the decision to move to small schools an easier one. Berkeley, he said, does not have the same uniform achievement level, making it more difficult to reach consensus. 

“One of the problems with Berkeley is you have a split population,” he said. “The old model does work for certain parts of the population and doesn’t for others.” 

The continued achievement of a portion of students at Berkeley High School has been a sticking point for many opponents of small schools. 

In the end, Barone said, Berkeley will have to focus on one question in deciding whether or not to move to small schools: “what is right for the kids?”