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BHS Small Schools Plans Gather New Momentum

By Matthew Artz
Tuesday November 04, 2003

When Berkeley High School sophomore Ian Ericksen first enrolled at the roughly 3,000-student school, he didn’t like what he found. 

“I was really scared,” he said. “It’s big and there’s nobody to welcome you.”  

Ericksen quickly retreated to independent study before returning to the high school and enrolling in Communications Arts and Sciences—an independent, tight-knit collection of teachers and students that the district hopes could be a model for the school’s future. 

“It’s such a good community,” Ericksen said. “It may as well be its own school.” 

Soon it will be. 

Last week, Berkeley High School took a big step towards becoming a much smaller place. 

With the goal of placing half the students in autonomous small schools by 2005, 29 teachers, administrators, students and parents spent Sunday and Monday attending a two-day retreat that generated four ideas for small schools that could round out the new face of Berkeley High. 

But Jack Jennings, a researcher with the non-partisan think tank Center on Education Policy, said that the small school trend is still too new for authoritative nationwide studies equating smaller schools with equal higher achievement. 

Small schools first sprang up in big cities during the early 1980s, but the movement has mushroomed during the past few years, bankrolled with hundreds of millions of dollars from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. 

Participants in the Berkeley retreat called for small schools focusing on social justice and the environment, international studies, visual arts, and the already established program Community Partnership (formerly known as the Computer Academy) to join CAS as future independent schools. 

CAS received district approval to become a small school earlier this year, and will soon provide offerings in all core classes. 

Berkeley is on course to join hundreds of school districts across the country in subdividing mega high schools once touted as beacons for scholastic opportunity and choice, and replacing them with autonomous schools with enrollments between 250-400 that proponents say will give students and teachers an added sense of community and accountability. 

The plan calls for divvying up the high school into one large school and four to five small schools, each reflecting the larger school’s ethnic diversity. 

There are as many rationales for going small as there are small schools, but Berkeley administrators say their move is geared to address one of the district’s most intractable dilemmas. 

“The goal is to decrease the student achievement gap,” said Matthew Huxley, a vice principal helping to coordinate the transition to small schools. 

On most student scorecards from standardized tests to honors classes to grades, African American and Latino students have lagged behind whites, with Asians somewhere in the middle. 

Small schools’ emphasis on personal relations between students and teachers and a community of people dedicated to supporting students can help stop minority and poor students from falling through the cracks, said Victor Carey, Berkeley’s small schools transition consultant. 

Already some research supports Carey’s claim. A study by the Northwest Educational Laboratory found that the bigger the school the bigger the test score differential between rich and poor students. 

“The students who are most adversely affected by attending large schools are members of racial minority groups and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds,” wrote researcher Kathleen Cotton. 

Carey’s nonprofit Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BAYCES), which is helping to fund Berkeley’s transition, counts Gates’ foundation as a major donor and is helping 34 local schools go small, with the former Fremont High School in Oakland the first to complete the transition this year. 

Ben Schmookler, a former vice principal at Fremont and now Principal of Media Academy—one of Fremont’s six successor schools—said going small has invigorated parent involvement, improved teacher collaboration, decreased discipline problems, and, perhaps most importantly, improved attendance, which the state factors in determining money allocated to the schools. 

“It’s been a positive experience so far,” said Schmookler who serves as principal and dean for the 400-student school. 

Like Fremont High, Berkeley has decided to form focused schools that appeal to students and teachers with similar interests. Huxley said that, for example, a school with an environmental focus would not just offer electives on environmental topics put would weave environmental issues throughout the curriculum, including non-science core classes. 

Kalima Rose, mother of a CAS student and one of the parents pushing hardest for small schools, envisioned future schools partnered with Berkeley organizations that fit the school’s specialty. 

Noting that CAS—which focuses on media and social justice—has collaborated with the Pacific Film Archive and Youth Radio, she said, “The idea is to create an interesting curriculum combined with partnership institutions to provide students with a lot of skills.” 

Teachers and students appear open to the idea. A teacher poll conducted last year found 85 percent favored some form of restructuring the BHS into smaller schools.  

An unscientific poll conducted in 2001 by Bradley Johnson, Berkeley High’s current student representative on the Board of Education, found that 55 percent of the students “think that small schools are better in providing education than large schools,” while 86 percent “feel that there is more one on one contact with teachers in small schools.” 

Bill Pratt, a history teacher who helped found CAS after several years at the high school, is convinced small schools will benefit everyone. 

“It’s hard to overstate the difference for me,” he said. “It’s deepened my experience as a teacher. One key thing is to work with talented teachers and have a real collegial community to develop curriculum. 

“It’s also transformed my personal relationship with the kids,” he added, pointing to a trip to Cuba he organized in which wealthier kids raised money alongside other students to ensure everyone could participate. 

“I don’t think that would happen at Berkeley High at large,” he said. 

Nick Streets, one of Pratt’s students, said the small school has given him a sense of belonging. “I can name all 90 people in my CAS Junior Class, but I probably can name only about five people in my math class,” he said. 

A small band of parents has pushed for small schools, but Rose acknowledged they would have to increase their ranks to make future schools successful. 

“It’s been 2 million hours to form CAS,” she said. “Finding other people willing to put in those hours will be the challenge. 

“In Berkeley parents tend to be really involved in elementary school, in middle school less so, and by High School they get more and more alienated,” she added. 

Carey agreed that any successful Berkeley small school requires parent support. “There has to be a real partnership between the school and community,” he said. Schools that can’t sink their roots deep enough won’t be successful.” 

A 2000 study by Bank Street College found that while Chicago schools did raise achievement for minority students, many schools-within-schools were fragile. 

“The minute they became more successful than the host school, things like this happen,” researcher Patricia Wasley told Education Week. “The principal will want teachers to come and do coaching with the larger school faculty, or the host school staff becomes resentful of the smaller unit and works to undermine it.” 

Implementing small schools presents logistical quagmires. Will small schools be in charge of discipline? Will they have their own counselors? How will teachers be assigned? Will they cost more? What if some small schools are more popular and some students are forced into less popular ones? How about students who need English training, advanced or remedial classes? 

“There’s absolutely no way to answer them right now,” Carey said, noting that each school will negotiate its autonomy with the larger high school. 

On the issue of class choice, Berkeley’s grand plan calls for granting students “passports” to take advanced or specialized classes if their school doesn’t offer them. CAS, for example, does not offer students Advanced Placement classes. 

Filling in the details starts Nov. 5, the deadline for teachers to submit a letter of commitment to form a small school. From there, a design team of teachers, parents and students will work to build a curriculum—and, if all goes well—by next year the program will emerge as a “learning community” within the high school gearing up for small school status the following year. 

Huxley said the proposals generated at last week’s retreat might offer a head start, but that the administration is still open to more ideas. This week, new Principal Jim Slemp—who oversaw a similar transition at his last school in Oregon—will discuss the small schools transition with faculty. 

Streets, the CAS junior, said he was all for the switch. “You need [the community] to succeed,” he said. “I don’t know where I’d be without it.”