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Concerns raised over future of independent study program

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Thursday May 30, 2002

Teachers and administrators in the Berkeley Unified School District’s Independent Study program are concerned about proposals to alter its administration and reduce its classroom space, but Superintendent Michele Lawrence says the issues are still unsettled.  

“No decisions have been made,” she said. 

The program, which shares space with Berkeley Alternative High School at 2701 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, serves 200 K-12 students. The pupils receive one-on-one instruction at the site but do most of their schoolwork independently. 

Independent Study staff said the district has proposed taking one of the program’s three classrooms to make space for a third academy on the site – a “continuation school” that would provide academic support and vocational education for struggling students. 

But Lawrence said the classroom issue is far from settled. 

“I think they need the space they have,” she said. 

“That’s very encouraging,” replied program director Carl Brush, who assumed the shift to two classrooms was a foregone conclusion.  

Brush, who plans to retire at the end of the year, currently shares administrative duties with Sara McMickle, who serves as a manager 60 percent of the time and an English teacher 40 percent of the time.  

In a meeting two months ago, district staff suggested that McMickle continue as a 60-40 administrator after Brush leaves, with significant oversight from the Berkeley Alternative High School principal. 

“It’s just not realistic,” said McMickle, arguing that Alternative High School principal Alex Palau has his hands full already and will be even busier next year with the addition of the continuation school. 

McMickle said the program needs a day-to-day administrator 100 percent of the time to function properly. 

Independent Study math teacher Pam Drew, who helped found the program in the mid-90s, said a full-time administrator is particularly important to keep track of Independent Study’s extensive paperwork and ensure continued funding. 

Traditional schools receive state funding based on attendance figures. Because students in the Independent Study program only meet with their teachers a few hours a week, instructors must quantify the work that students do on their own in order to develop attendance records.  

The director must get all the paperwork in order to ensure that the program passes muster in state audits. An audit of the 1997-1998 program cost the district almost $200,000 in funding because of poor record-keeping, according to Drew. 

“What’s to prevent the same exact thing from happening?,” she asked, suggesting that the district could pay, in the long-term, for hiring a part-time administrator. 

Lawrence confirmed that the district had floated the 60 percent administrator-40 percent teacher model for next year, but emphasized that no decision has been made. 

“They’re just a little impatient now and that’s understandable,” she said, referring to Independent Study staff.  

Lawrence argued that the program’s administrators, like everyone else in the district, will have to be patient while Berkeley Unified sorts out its fiscal mess and decides how to allocate funds next year.  

Board of Education member John Selawsky said budget problems may prevent the district from meeting Independent Study’s request. 

“I think every program deserves a full-time administrator,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have a $5 million shortfall.” 

Lawrence said part of the problem is that Independent Study “is not paying for itself.” She said the program has spent $50,000 to $118,000 more than it has drawn in state revenues, depending upon how one examines the numbers. 

“I would be happy if those numbers were shared with us, because they haven’t been,” replied Brush. Independent Study’s own analysis suggests that the program has a surplus of over $30,000, dating back to its inception. 

Independent Study proponents planned to appear before the school board Wednesday night, after the Planet’s deadline, to express their concerns.