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Principal Starts School With a Bang

Tuesday May 20, 2003

Don’t be surprised if Berkeley High School’s newly appointed principal, Patricia Christa, shows up at work next fall in a helicopter. 

Christa, who served as an assistant principal and principal at Newark Memorial High School for 12 years, has a reputation for making a splash on the first day of school. 

“When I started [at Newark Memorial], everybody was down and I thought, I’ve got to be a little goofy,” she said. 

So the principal, a petite woman, arrived at her first all-school assembly on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, engines roaring. Not content with one jaw-dropping stunt, she turned up in a race car and a helicopter in subsequent years. 

Unexpected entrances became a tradition, one Christa promises to continue at Berkeley High. “But I won’t tell you what I’m going to do,” she said. 

Berkeley parents and school officials, who are just getting to know Christa, say they are impressed with her spunk and hope she will succeed in a post with notoriously high turnover. 

“It’s a very tough job,” said Marisita Jarvis, who served on the parent committee that screened the final nine candidates. “But she has a little touch of craziness, which is good ... She would be willing to do something a little off to get the attention of the students.” 

Christa, who grew up in Sacramento and San Jose, will be the fourth Berkeley High principal in six years. She said she plans to stick around, brushing aside concerns about a sprawling school that some consider unmanageable. 

“To me, it’s a travesty that principals have left,” Christa said. “That’s absurd. I had a hard time leaving my school after 12 years.” 

When Christa left Newark Memorial at the end of the 2001-2002 school year, she took a job as director of educational services for the Newark Unified School District. But she said the central office job was not as rewarding as her work as principal. 

“It was fine,” she said. “But I missed the kids.” 

Last week Christa began splitting her time between Berkeley High and Newark Unified. She plans to spend two days a week at the high school until July 1, when her responsibilities as full-time principal begin. Christa said she wants to familiarize herself with staff, parents and students, and learn about what issues the high school faces, before taking the helm.  

Christa will fill a post that has been vacant for two years. Co-principals, Mary Ann Valles and Laura Leventer, have been running the show in the interim. 

“The two co-principals have been doing a wonderful job at the school,” said Joan Edelstein, president of the Berkeley High School Parent Teacher Student Association. “Nonetheless, parents felt there needed to be an identified person in charge who had authority and could bring a vision to this school.” 

Christa sums up her vision neatly: “Every school needs to have five things: leadership, culture, infrastructure, educational program, and professional development.” 

Newark Memorial is in some ways quite different from Berkeley High. Newark Memorial has 2,100 students this year, compared to 3,200 at Berkeley High, according to data from the California Department of Education.  

The school also has a much smaller black population — 6 percent of students versus 32 percent at Berkeley High. But Newark Memorial’s Hispanic population is significantly larger, 34 percent versus 12 percent. 

Christa isn’t overly concerned about the differences between the two. “Kids are kids,” she said. “High schools are very similar.” 

Newark Superintendent Ken Sherer, who served as Berkeley High principal in the late 1980s, said what really separates the Berkeley campus from Newark Memorial is the deep gap between its high-achieving and low-achieving students. 

Sherer said Christa understands the challenge and is ready to face it. 

“We talked long and hard, before she went down there, about what she can expect,” said Sherer. “She’s tenacious.” 

The long-standing “achievement gap” at Berkeley High breaks down along racial lines. Last year, white students at Berkeley High averaged 882 on the state Academic Performance Index, far exceeding a state target of 800. Asian students averaged 759, while Hispanics scored 550 and blacks averaged 512. 

“You’ve got a community that is reaping the benefits of the high school and a community that is just struggling to be there,” said Michael Miller, a member of Parents of Children of African Descent. 

Newark Memorial’s scores, by contrast, clustered in the middle last year. Asian students scored highest, at 724, followed by whites at 718, Filipinos at 668 and Hispanics at 590. The number of black students was too small to generate a score. 

Christa said she needs to take a close look at the Berkeley gap before charting a course of action. 

“I don’t know a lot about how big the gap is, who the gap is. I cannot proceed until I know that,” she said. “That’s why I’m getting into the school a little bit earlier than most people would, so I can do a lot of analysis and then, with the staff, make a plan.”  

Berkeley administrators want to close the gap by placing 50 percent of Berkeley High students in small, themed learning communities by 2005. The proposal, not yet approved, is a modification of a more ambitious plan, approved by the Board of Education last year, to move entirely to “small schools.” 

Negotiating the transition to small schools, each with relatively autonomous administrative structures, will be one of Christa’s chief challenges, school officials said. 

English teacher Rick Ayers said it’s important that the leadership transition doesn’t delay the reform effort. “We’re hoping there will be continuity with this process and it won’t be held up,” he said. 

Christa, who created small learning “clusters” at Newark Memorial, said she likes the concept and looks forward to getting small schools in place at Berkeley High. 

She added that communication and cooperation will be hallmarks of her administration. 

“We’re going to do everything as a team,” she said. 

Look out — there may be a fleet of Harleys in the parking lot next year.