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BHS gets mixed review

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday May 22, 2002

After a two-and-a-half-day visit, a five-member team from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges said Berkeley High School has made progress on communications and governance, but needs to improve on staff development and its approach to the “achievement gap” that separates white and Asian-American students from African-Americans and Latinos. 

District administrators said the WASC evaluation, delivered during an “exit report” Tuesday afternoon, was on target.  

“There wasn’t anything in this report I’d quarrel with,” said Superintendent Michele Lawrence. 

WASC is a Burlingame-based regional accrediting organization that has threatened to remove its seal of approval unless Berkeley High School makes progress in 11 problem areas first identified in 1999. 

The high school’s current accreditation runs through June. The team that visited this week will recommend that the WASC commission either terminate accreditation, or extend it by one, two or three years. The commission will meet June 24-25, review the recommendation, and issue a judgment. 

Hal Bush, who chaired the WASC visit team, indicated that the group will not recommend termination. But he declined to tip his hand on the length of the extension the group will suggest. 

The team arrived Sunday, meeting with high school administrators, parents and elected officials. On Monday and Tuesday, members attended a series of focus groups with staff and students and visited classrooms. 

Laura Brooke, a Stockton high school teacher on the WASC team, applauded the school for putting a new “shared governance” team in place, including teachers, department heads and administrators. 

She also commended BHS for improving communications through newsletters and an “e-tree” that distributes information via e-mail. But Chuck Gary, another WASC team member, said that some of the staff, students and parents the group interviewed felt that improvements needed to be made. 

“Communication must and will continue,” said Lawrence, in response to the critique. 

Brian Irvine, a Fremont High School teacher on the visit team, said the high school still lacks a comprehensive staff development plan. 

“We’ve made some really good progress this year,” responded BHS co-principal MaryAnn Valles. But she acknowledged that the school needs to coordinate and focus its staff development plan to have a marked impact on student success. 

Gary said a coordinated approach, starting with kindergarten teachers, is necessary to address the achievement gap. 

“The achievement gap starts before Berkeley High School,” Gary said. 

Lawrence said she will work with teachers this summer to put a “cohesive,” district-wide staff development plan in place. She suggested that the achievement gap could be the focus of that plan. 

Gary also urged the school to look more closely at research focused on intervention and instructional practices that have worked to address the gap across the country. But Miriam Stahl, chair of the visual and performing arts department, said the process has already begun.  

Gary added that BHS needs to develop concrete assessments for its programs so that it can better evaluate their success. 

“A lot of people recognize that,” said Dana Moran, an ethnic studies teacher at BHS, who argued that assessments are particularly important in an era of budget cutting, when programs are on the block. 

Moran said one problem is that the administration does not set aside time for teachers to develop assessments. 

“We’re not given institutional time to do that,” she said. “It’s nobody’s job.” 

Valles said the WASC criticism was “fair.” She said the BHS co-principals worked late into the night Monday when it became clear that assessment was a concern, developing new measures of success. 

Valles said the school will monitor the number of D’s and F’s that freshmen receive in math and English to assess the effectiveness of the BHS ninth-grade program, for instance, and evaluate absenteeism data to gauge the success of its attendance plan. 

Members of the WASC team said they were impressed with the high school’s commitment to reform. 

“We’d like to commend the administration for working hard,” said Brooke. 

“The school definitely has the capacity to make this action plan work,” added Irvine. 

The remarks came in stark contrast to a March 2001 WASC report that chided the high school for “spotty” progress. 

Now, Valles said, it’s a matter of continuing to push for change. 

“We’ve got to maintain the momentum,” she said.