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Small schools staff talk control

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet Staff
Friday January 18, 2002

Superintendent Michele Lawrence met in closed session Tuesday with about 30 teachers from the three major schools-within-a-school at Berkeley High School, where ideas for expanding the autonomy of small schools were discussed. 

Advocates say the changes would strengthen small schools and improve conditions for students and teachers, but some in the district say the proposed reforms are flawed. 

Representatives from the three programs – Common Ground, Communications/Arts/Science and the Computer Academy – focused on six proposals or areas of concern. 

• First, teachers talked of developing a consortium of the small schools, with its own administrative structure, that would be on par with the high school’s central administration. 

• Second, several teachers said they would like small schools classrooms to be in closer proximity to each other. This proximity, they say, would help to develop a sense of community and encourage inter-classroom collaboration. 

• Small schools representatives also called for greater power over curriculum development, hiring decisions and scheduling.  

• In addition, several teachers suggested that the schools-within-a-school should have control over a share of the high school budget commensurate with student enrollment in Common Ground, CAS and the Computer Academy.  

Currently, the programs serve about 800 of 3,200 students at BHS. Each small school emphasizes core subjects like math and English, but organizes itself around a different theme. Common Ground focuses on environmental issues, CAS is centered on social justice and emphasizes the humanities and media literacy and the Computer Academy hones technological skills. 

Several teachers in the existing small schools have clashed with Lawrence this year about a proposal, offered by a community group called the Coalition for Excellence and Equity, to shift BHS to a wall-to-wall small schools model by 2003. Advocates say the reform would help to ease the “achievement gap” separating white and minority students.  

Lawrence has voiced her support for the concept of small schools, but has also argued that a district in budgetary trouble, with basic systems broken, is not yet ready for wholesale change at the high school level. 

Despite the conflict over wall-to-wall reform, several teachers who attended the Tuesday meeting said they were pleased with the Superintendent’s response to their proposals for the existing small schools.  

Lawrence, who convened the Tuesday meeting, has repeatedly indicated that she believes the existing small schools should receive support, even if a rapid, wholesale shift to small schools is not in the cards. 

“I was pretty impressed, actually,” said Bill Pratt, a history teacher in the CAS program, discussing the Superintendent’s conduct in the meeting. “On both sides ... the sense of good will and ability to work together is going to depend on what we’re actually able to accomplish. But, overall, I thought she listened well.” 

The Daily Planet could not reach Lawrence by deadline Thursday, but several people who attended the meeting said the superintendent repeatedly expressed support for the concept of small schools, while warning that the budget crunch might prevent any costly reforms. 

A team of fiscal crisis managers, composed of state and county officials, just announced last week that the district is facing a $1.6 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year. The managers are projecting a $7.8 million deficit next year. 

Joaquin Rivera, vice president of the Board of Education, said the deficit would make the creation of a small schools consortium, with its own administrative structure, difficult. 

“At this point, I do not see how the budget situation would allow us to do that,” he said. 

But Dana Richards, a social sciences teacher and director of Common Ground, said that all of the small schools proposals, including the consortium initiative, are cost-neutral. He said that, with administrative responsibility for hundreds of students moving to the small schools office, BHS could simply transfer the appropriate administrative resources from central administration to the small schools. 

Mike Hassett, vice principal at BHS, said he was amenable to some of the proposed reforms. He said the small schools could have greater control over their own curricula, for example, as long as their classes met state standards. 

But, Hassett said he had a problem with the proposal for greater scheduling control. He said the high school’s experience with Common Ground, which moved to a block scheduling system this year, illustrates some of his concerns. 

Students at Common Ground take a limited number of classes each semester, with double periods, finishing a year’s work in several months time. The idea is to focus students attention on a few subjects at a time. 

Hassett said the clash between the Common Ground and larger high school schedules has created a number of problems, particularly for students who want to move in or out of the program at mid-year. 

“There are issues with inconsistent schedules between schools,” Richards acknowledged. “But we’ve been down the path of uniformity, one size fits all, and the result of that is bureaucracy and multiple kinds of failure: The failure of students ... and the failure to inspire.” 

Rick Ayers, head of the CAS program, said the cumulative effect of all the reforms would be to strengthen small schools programs that do not have the autonomy they need to survive. 

“We’re not institutionalized,” he said. “We’re not viable long-term. We’re dependent on the hard work of a small number of teachers.” 

But, not all the small schools teachers are ready to hop on board with the reforms just yet. Leaders of CAS and Common Ground, which are relatively new programs, are actively endorsing the proposed reforms, while acknowledging that there is still much to be worked out. 

Flora Russ, director of the Computer Academy, which has been in existence for 12 years, is more circumspect. She said many of the issues raised Tuesday are important ones, but she emphasized that the discussion has just begun.  

“There were not solutions,” she said, describing the back-and-forth at the Tuesday meeting, “this was opening the discussion.” 

Russ added that the computer Academy has tended to work within the high school system since its inception. 

Lawrence will meet with the small schools teachers again on Jan. 22.