It was a meeting of the minds. And these days, the minds tend to meet on the sticky question of small schools.
Thursday afternoon, during a regular conference of top city and school district officials, known as the “2 X 2 Committee Meeting,” the conversation focused on the simmering controversy on whether to divide Berkeley High School into a series of small, relatively autonomous learning communities.
Katrina Scott George, leader of the Coalition for Excellence and Equity, a community group calling for the establishment of small schools by the fall of 2003, was the catalyst. Scott George said this debate has reached a critical, new stage.
“Only a battle remains,” she said, speaking of a “chasm” between coalition leaders, the superintendent and several members of the Board of Education, who have called for a more gradual adoption of small schools. “Things will get worse before they get better.”
Coalition leaders argue that the creation of more intimate learning environments at BHS will engage failing students and help close the “achievement gap” between white and minority pupils. Scott George said the so-called gap is actually an “abyss,” and the school board has failed to recognize the urgency of this problem.
Shirley Issel, president of the school board, said the coalition’s concerns have not fallen on deaf ears.
“I think you have been, Katrina... much more successful than you know in getting across the importance of the district taking a credible approach to addressing the achievement gap,” she said.
“I think the coalition has been immensely successful in shining a spotlight on how we need to better support our existing small schools,” she added, referring to the three schools-within-a-school already in existence at BHS.
Mayor Shirley Dean, also in attendance at the meeting, suggested that Superintendent Michele Lawrence establish a working committee with leaders of the coalition to open lines of communication. The committee would meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
“It can work if you bring people to the table and leave your anger outside,” Dean said. “I really want to avoid a mess. It doesn’t help this city.”
Lawrence endorsed the idea. “I see the anger, I see the focus,” she said, referring to coalition members. “But I also see this tremendous energy that I don’t want to lose.”
Scott George dismissed the proposal after the meeting. “I think people are not listening at all to what I am saying,” she said, arguing that parents need to be more than “passive advisors” at this juncture.
Kalima Rose, another coalition leader, said in an interview with the Daily Planet after the meeting, that the proposed committee would only be productive if it included all the players, teachers and administrators included.
School and city leaders also discussed ongoing concerns with community access to playgrounds and other portions of seven schools in Berkeley that, by agreement between the city and district, are supposed to be open to neighborhood use after school and on the weekends.
Neighborhood groups have long complained that the district has failed to unlock gates, at various schools, at the appropriate times, while school and city officials have raised concerns about community access to secluded areas, like the inner courtyard at Rosa Parks School, and the possibility of vandalism.
Terry Doran, school board member, said it may be time to rehash the agreement between the city and district on the issue. He said after-school programs are going later and later, leading to overlaps with designated community time on school grounds, and creating confusion.
Meeting participants agreed that the city and the district may have to modify the agreement in the near future.
“I think it was clear that there will have to be a revisiting done,” said Dean, after the conference.