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Study small schools seriously, now – not some future time

Barry Fike Berkeley Federation of Teachers president
Wednesday December 26, 2001

The Daily Planet received a copy of the following statement delivered to the Board of Education Dec. 19. 

With an exceptionally high turnout of 162 Berkeley High School teachers recently, 80 voted to support moving ahead with the Small Schools policy developed by the Parent/Teacher Small Schools Coalition, 56 voted to pursue another vision of Small Schools that may or may not include all BHS students attending Small Schools, and 26 teachers voted to organize Berkeley High around a large traditional urban high school mode, phasing out existing small schools. 

Where does the vote leave us? Berkeley High is at a critical moment in its history, a potential turning point, an opportunity for real structural reform. This kind of moment is precious. There is a sense of urgency one has when these moments arise before us and it is our responsibility – those of us in leadership positions – to state a position and justify it. A decision a few weeks from now is not too late, but this moment will not be with us months from now. 

In a sense you now find yourselves in the role of architects remodeling this high school - a figurative remodeling project neglected for quite some time. We are one huge extended family, the Berkeley Unified community, turning to you as the architects of this remodeling project, asking for a blueprint that is feasible, a framework that incorporates our needs, a structure that results in a finished project which functions effectively. 

We already have a strong foundation - the teachers, support staff, administrators, students, and parents. We already have contractors ready for direction from you. In fact, our new superintendent is already moving to address the contractor type tasks that administration is responsible for: fixing the the attendance record-keeping system, making the schedule and class selection system work for students and teachers, maintaining high standards for all.  

However the blueprint design for all of this is up to you. It is a common dilemma for an architect working with a large family with diverse opinions to come up with a design that pleases everyone. Keep in mind though, that there is indeed a large consensus within this family, advocating for an authentic remodeling - not just a few repairs. Most agree that the current structure with assorted small schools housed alongside a large school was never designed in a cohesive way. It crept up in an anarchic way. There is concern that a continuance of such a structure, with an undefined number of small schools added on or separated away from the large traditional school, may end up looking more like a “Winchester Mystery House” than a functioning school. There is a concern that Berkeley High’s current schizophrenic design and structure creates such a schizophrenic design that it may, in the long run, contribute to, rather than alleviate, the huge problems all agree must be tackled: truancy, violence, anonymity, lack of accountability, the achievement gap.  

I can almost hear a collective sigh coming from the board. Don’t despair, architects have structural engineers to assist. Your superintendent has already begun to contact school researchers, superintendents, principals in communities where school-wide small schools exist. I applaud you for taking steps to investigate this thoroughly and for establishing tough criteria that this school-wide small schools draft proposal must meet.  

However, it would be highly disingenuous, hypocritical, and cowardly of you to then turn around and adopt a hybrid small schools proposal of your own, such as you presented at the board workshop last month, without forcing it to meet the very same criteria. If this is the direction you are leaning in, then you absolutely must apply the same research and criteria to communities where such hybrid models are in place. This question before us is simply too monumental for you to simply give an ay or nay to one draft proposal. There is no default button on this one. 


Barry Fike 

Berkeley Federation of  

Teachers president