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Board lone ranger ends fight for small schools, talks compromise

By David Scharfenberg Berkeley Daily Planet staff
Monday January 07, 2002

These days, Terry Doran is the lone ranger on Berkeley’s Board of Education. He stepped down as board president last month to make way for Shirley Issel, but has been the sole voice on the committee in support of the hotly-debated small schools policy put forth by the Coalition for Excellence and Equity.  

The coalition, a community group that counts Doran as a member, has asked that Berkeley High School be divided in the fall of 2003 into a series of small learning communities. Coalition leaders say the reform will help to address safety and accountability issues at the high school, and work to shrink the “achievement gap” separating white and minority students. 

Doran says his greatest regret during his time on the board, which began with his 1998 election, has been his inability to convince his colleagues of the merits of a rapid move to small schools. 

“It’s very frustrating,” Doran said. “I have always felt that I had the ability to work with a lot of different people, and I really feel disappointed that I wasn’t able to convince more members.” 

But the other four boardmembers contend the high school has too many fundamental problems to engage in a radical restructuring at this point. They have, instead, called for a reform of basic safety, maintenance and attendance systems at BHS in the near term, and they have advocated for a more gradual and partial shift to small schools. 

aaBut, if Doran has been unable to win a consensus on small learning communities, he has enjoyed many other successes on the board – rallying his colleagues around the selection of two new superintendents, initiating a child nutrition program with a national reputation, and pushing for the passage of multi-million dollar school maintenance and construction bond measures in 2000. 

Some community members say that Doran has also built a reputation for caring about kids and schools and listening.  

“I have such regard for him,” said Stephanie Allan, a community activist who has been focused on school maintenance issues in recent years.  


“It is not about Terry’s ego, it’s only about the schools and the kids,” she added. 

Teachers and activists say he developed a genuine rapport with students while he was a teacher at the high school. 

“He was really a stellar teacher and really connected with students,” said Rick Ayers, an English and journalism instructor at BHS, “especially students who are often left out of the system.”  

“We have a very unequal society and the schools can 

play a key role in changing that,” Doran said. “I was 

lucky to do that for a number of kids.”  

But Doran does have his detractors, particularly among small schools opponents, who charge that he is embracing an unrealistic vision for the high school, and in some cases, failing to address concerns about the coalition’s proposal. They are concerned about shifting towards small schools and say Doran has been less than willing to listen to those concerns.  

Jenny Harrison, a math professor at UC Berkeley with a son at BHS, says she is worried that the change would be very expensive, and would limit students’ ability to choose from the wide range of classes currently available under the large school model. 

She also says that she has raised these concerns with Doran and that he has been less than responsive.  

“It’s hard to have a dialogue with him,” she said. “Some of us have tried and haven’t had too much luck.” 

When told of Harrison’s complaints, Doran said “I’m sorry that hasn’t happened. I did try to respond to as many people as I could who sent messages.” 

Doran says he is committed to community dialogue on a range of issues, and his claim resonates with many in Berkeley.  

Still Doran argues the high school’s large, unmanageable structure has allowed too many students to fall through the cracks. Small schools, he says, are a way to remedy that problem.  

But he concedes that the chance for small schools dialogue on the board may have passed. He says he will encourage allies to run for the school board this fall when Doran, along with Issel and school board member Ted Schultz, are up for re-election. 

“One of my obligations as a board member is to get people I can work with,” said Doran.  

In the end, he argues, the board’s responsibility is 

to serve Berkeley’s students, and implementing small 

schools, he says, is a vital part of that mission.  


The path to Berkeley 

Doran was born in 1943, and raised in south-central Los Angeles, the son of a nurse and union activist. In 1960, Doran left behind a “non-descript childhood” in a white, working-class neighborhood, headed off to UC Berkeley and “never looked back.”  

In 1964, he married Lenore Merzon, whom he’d met at summer camp at age 16. The couple would later have two sons who were educated in the Berkeley Unified School District.  

In 1966, Doran began a lengthy teaching career in the Berkeley schools when he took a job at the now defunct McKinley School.  

In 1969, he moved to BHS, where he would remain until 1998, teaching everything from photography, to history, to sex education, and winning a battle with cancer in 1993 and 1994 that left him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. 


The small schools debate – next steps 

With the board unwilling to engage in a rapid restructuring of BHS, Doran says he is thinking about making a deal.  

“Maybe a compromise is that we do it in stages and see what happens,” he said.  

Doran acknowledges that some members of the Coalition for Excellence and Equity may be unhappy with a slower movement to small schools, but he suggests that debate and compromise may be the best route available. “Right now, we have nothing,” he added.