Leaders of Common Ground and Communications/Arts/Sciences, two schools-within-a-school at Berkeley High, said they are seriously considering a break from the high school and formation of a charter school in fall 2003.
“Berkeley needs qualitative, serious alternatives to Berkeley High School,” said Dana Richards, co-founder of Common Ground. “We want to provide one small alternative.”
Richards and other small schools leaders have complained for months about a lack of support from district headquarters and the high school administration.
They said the last straw was Superintendent Michele Lawrence’s recent decision to reject a series of requests they made in January for greater autonomy. CAS and Common Ground called for their own separate administration and greater control over curriculum and staffing decisions, among other things.
“She came in really ‘rah-rah,’” said Common Ground co-director Tammy Harkins, discussing Lawrence’s initial response to the proposals. “What followed was dilution and then nothing.”
“In terms of autonomy over curriculum, it seems they’ve had that for some time,” said Lawrence.
Lawrence added that the current fiscal crisis and a vacancy in the high school principal’s office made the request for a separate, small schools administration impossible.
“We have unions we have to deal with, and we’re in the middle of layoffs and we have no principal,” she said, explaining her decision.
“I support the superintendent,” said Board of Education member John Selawsky. “I think some of that stuff was premature.”
Selawsky said once the district gets its finances and business systems in order, it should be able to lend more support to the existing small schools.
But small schools leaders said they are tired of waiting.
“The only thing we can look at is actions and not words,” said Rick Ayers, who heads CAS. “And our small schools have not been given the support they need to stay viable.”
Richards said Common Ground will lead the effort to establish a charter school, initiating a year of planning and dialogue this fall. Ayers said he might join several other CAS teachers in moving to the charter school if it gets off the ground.
The fate of the five year-old CAS program would be “a question mark” at that point, Ayers said.
“We could just declare that we’ve had a great run and we’re done,” he said.
Ayers added that CAS’s future is in doubt even if small schools leaders do not form a charter school. A lack of administrative support and the inherent scheduling difficulties of operating a school-within-a-school have become significant burdens, he said.
Richards, Ayers and Harkins discussed a range of possible models for the school, which would serve about 250 students, according to Richards.
The school could focus on Common Ground’s theme of environmental justice, or mix that theme with CAS’s emphasis on social justice and the humanities, Ayers said.
Harkins raised the possibility of functioning within the district and sharing programs like athletics with BHS.
Charter school proponents can apply to their local school board, county school board or the state board for approval. California law favors the formation of charter schools, and school boards are only supposed to reject a charter bid if it lacks an adequate number of signatures, a viable academic plan or other basic requirements.
“I’m very open to people exercising their rights,” said Berkeley school board president Shirley Issel, indicating that she would not stand in the way of the charter school movement. “(But) I would hope we could make these two schools comfortable within Berkeley High School.”
“I can understand their frustration,” added school board member Terry Doran. “But I don’t want them to form a charter school.”
Doran was the only member of the board who endorsed a push, earlier this year, to convert BHS into wall-to-wall small schools. The board majority tabled the proposal in December, arguing that it needed further study and the district, which faces a $5.4 million deficit next year, needed to face its fiscal crisis.
“I want to believe our position on small schools will prevail,” said Doran, encouraging the schools-within-a-school to hold tight. But, he said he would strongly consider the charter request if it was clear that the board was not going to move on wall-to-wall small schools.
“If that’s what people decide to do, that’s their priority,” said Selawsky, referring to the charter school push. “But I’m not going to go out of my way to support it.”
Selawsky raised concerns about the charter school diverting state funding from the high school. Per pupil funding would go to the charter school if it siphoned off BHS students.
But Issel said the district should be willing to absorb the cost if the move served the best interests of the students.
Eileen Cubanski, who manages the charter school office for the California Department of Education, said the two biggest hurdles most charter schools face are securing a building and learning the administrative ropes.
“I think it’s biting off more than they realize,” said Berkeley’s Associate Superintendent for Instruction Chris Lim.
Richards acknowledged the difficulty, and said he does not yet have any solid leads on a building. But he said he was confident of success.
“My hope is that we look back in 10 years when we have an extraordinary charter school...and we say, we sure are glad we persevered through those hurdles,” Richards said.
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