By David Scharfenberg
Daily Planet staff
The Board of Education decided to table the latest small schools proposal put forth by the Coalition for Excellence and Equity during a raucous meeting Wednesday night.
Students and activists both for and against the policy to divide Berkeley High School into small, autonomous, themed learning communities filled the board’s meeting room to capacity and spilled out into the hallway, holding signs, chanting slogans and speaking out of turn at various points in the evening.
Coalition leaders say the small schools model would reduce the “achievement gap” separating white and minority students and solve other lingering problems at the high school.
Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, and members of the Teacher Advisory Committee, a group of instructors at Berkeley High School in favor of implementing the small schools structure, presented polling data suggesting that BHS teachers support some form of compact learning communities.
“This is one of the most exciting meetings I’ve been to in a long time,” said Terry Doran, the only member of the school board who supports the coalition’s proposal.
The public comment portion of the meeting began with an impassioned speech by the coalition’s leader, Katrina Scott George, also a parent of a BHS 10th grader.
“I’m here to speak to you about faith, hope and love,” said Scott George, declaring that small schools advocates will continue to pursue reform at the high school, even in the face of opposition on the school board. “Our leadership has dismissed us, has ignored us, has tried to rule us without listening to us.”
“We will not go away, we will not back down,” she concluded, to loud applause from supporters.
But several parents argued that small schools are not a magic bullet, and that administrators should confront problems at BHS within the existing structure.
“The school district can address the achievement gap in a positive way, short of an upheaval at the high school,” said Monica Flessel, parent of a sophomore at BHS.
Elsa Ramos, a single mother with a son at Berkeley High, said the current size of the high school has been instrumental to her child’s success.
“We feel that Berkeley has a big high school where there is something good for everyone,” she said. “I love the choices my son has.”
After the parents spoke, members of the audience called on the board to allow some of the dozens of students in the gallery to speak, even though the public comment period was over.
Arose Umar-bey, a student in Communications Arts and Sciences, one of three schools-within-a-school currently in place at BHS, was the first to comment.
“As a member of a small school, I can say that Berkeley High should not break into small schools,” she said. “There are so many things that Berkeley High needs to address before small schools.”
But the rest of the students, many wearing buttons and waving signs, spoke in favor of small schools.
“As a student of color, when I came to Berkeley High, I was expected to fail,” said Hiroshi Norillo, a junior in the CAS program, who said he had no college ambitions when he entered BHS as a freshman. Now, Norilla argued, he has bigger plans.
“Why can’t I go to Harvard, why can’t I go to Yale?,” he asked.
After the public comment period, Fike presented the results of the high school teacher poll, developed by the union in conjunction with the Coalition for Excellence and Equity, and the Teacher Advisory Committee.
Respondents were directed to choose one out of three statements to describe their opinion of the coalition’s latest policy, which lays out standards, structures, admission procedures and more, in broad language, for the proposed small schools. Eighty of 162 teachers, or 49 percent, said they support the policy.
Thirty-five percent said they did not support the proposal, and would like to “pursue another vision of small schools,” which “may or may not include the existing small schools at BHS.”
Sixteen percent said they would like to organize BHS around “a large traditional urban high school model,” and phase out the existing small schools.
Leslie Plettner, a BHS instructor on the Teachers Advisory Committee, strongly urged the school board to heed the call of teachers for some form of small schools.
“You have an elected responsibility,” Plettner said. “We depend on you to listen to us.”
But Joaquin Rivera, vice president of the school board, pointed out that many teachers do not support the coalition’s current policy.
“It is true that 85 percent of the teachers are asking for change,” he said. “But it’s also true that half the teachers are saying they do not want the board to adopt the current policy.”
When it became clear that the board would not have a public debate about the details of the coalition’s latest policy, Scott George stood up, recited a speech from 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and led a dramatic march of small schools supporters out of the hearing room.
After the room cleared out, Superintendent Michele Lawrence said she could not possibly conduct a thorough analysis of small schools, and make recommendations by May, as school board member John Selawsky asked near the end of the meeting.
She said pressing concerns around the district budget, staff evaluation systems and disaster planning would make a full analysis impossible. But, she did commit to visiting other institutions using the small schools model, and evaluating the effectiveness of the current schools-within-a-school at BHS, before the end of the year.
In the end, Lawrence said the value of small schools is clear, but that they must be properly studied and implemented if they are to serve failing students.
“Without sound implementation, these kids will continue to be hurt,” she said, pointing to the recent failure of a small schools model at Piner High School in Santa Rosa.