An item originally placed on the non-controversial consent calendar became the biggest topic of discussion at this week’s Berkeley Unified School District board meeting, as board members sharply questioned student achievement improvement plans for several of the district’s schools.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to bring these plans up to what I think they should be doing,” said Board Director Joaquin Rivera, who pulled the item out from the consent calendar for discussion. “Some of these sites are staying in their comfort zones. We need to push them if we are going to close the student achievement gap.”
Among other things, the site improvement plans track pupil achievement and progress toward meeting academic goals, progress in reducing dropout rates, expenditures per pupil and types of services funded, and progress toward reducing class sizes and teaching loads.
BUSD’s student achievement gap was a key issue in the recent school board elections, with challengers Karen Hemphill and Kalima Rose charging that the district had not done enough to close achievement levels between the district’s white students and its African-American and Latino students. At Longfellow Middle School in 2003, African-American student average state test scores lagged more than 250 points behind white student scores (611 to 871). At Rosa Parks Elementary, white student scores averaged almost 250 points more than Latino students and 300 points more than African-American students. In the same year at Berkeley High, white student scores averaged around 300 points higher than both Latino and African-American students.
While the board eventually unanimously agreed to accept the school site plans, they did so only after receiving assurances from Superintendent Michelle Lawrence that changes will be made in the future in the way the site plans are developed.
Lawrence called the board’s concerns “reasonable requests that should be happening,” but cautioned that because the plans in the past have not been used to “drive change in the schools” but have merely been documents designed to assure compliance with state and federal regulations, “this is not something we need to tweak a bit. This involves some large conceptual changes, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
The superintendent said she would meet with the district’s principals and bring a report back to the board in late January or early February.
Annual student achievement site plans for each of Berkeley’s 15 public schools are required by the California Department of Education, which the department defines as a “plan of actions to be taken to raise the academic performance of students and improve the school's educational program.”
District Director of Curriculum and Instruction Neil Smith said that while the plans were originally designed merely to fill state and federal mandates, “we’re trying to get away from that. We want to stop the practice of merely writing a plan and then putting it on a shelf. We don’t want these things to be shelf-fillers.”
This year’s school site improvement plans, written by the school principals and site councils, were originally submitted to the board in late June, but were returned to the schools for reworking. Berkeley High School and Willard Middle School are still working on their revised plans.
But board members still expressed displeasure with the revised plans, with Rivera complaining that “some of the school sites seem to have set the same goals, even though they’re coming from different situations; there seems to be a little bit of boilerplate language.”
Director Shirley Issell added that the plans did not include “goals for all students at all schools,” and that there was no district-wide standard to judge whether or not individual schools had reached their goals.
Both Issell and Director Nancy Riddle and asked why there had been no evaluation of how the school sites’ achievements this year had actually stacked up to the goals set in last year’s plans. Lawrence agreed that “they should have gone through an evaluation of last year’s results before they worked on a new plan. But that didn’t happen.”
Smith explained that the student state-mandated test data necessary for such evaluation is not available until August, long after the June due-date for the plans.
Only Director Terry Doran expressed qualified satisfaction with the site plans, saying he was “very impressed; I think they are realistic. I don’t think the staff is taking this lightly.” Doran added that he was “comfortable with the plans as they are now, with the understanding that we need to incorporate some of these suggestions in future plans. We need to be realistic as a Board as to what is possible at this time.”
In other action, the school board:
• Appointed Berkeley resident Roy Doolan to fill the position of retiring Commissioner Carolyn Weinberger on the District Personnel Commission.
• Approved BUSD’s food policy “to provide guidance to school personnel in the areas of nutrition, health, physical activity, and food service.” Included was a specific item, recommended by the Berkeley PTA Council, banning the sale of candy and sodas at elementary or middle school sponsored events or fundraising activities, and limiting the distribution of cookies and sweets at such events to be sold by adults only, and then only with the permission of school principals.
• Approved a resolution declaring that the district’s students have sufficient and adequate textbooks and instructional materials. No one from the public offered testimony at a public hearing held on this matter at the meeting.
• Passed, on first reading, a board policy on conflict of interest recommended by Superintendent Lawrence. Lawrence said that while the board had been operating under existing state conflict of interest laws, and no complaints were pending against any board members, such a policy was necessary to put the district in compliance with Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) recommendations.
The policy will come back to the next board meeting for final consideration. The board indicated that while accepting the superintendent’s language as necessary to meet the FCMAT requirements, after final passage, it would refer the policy to a board subcommittee for possible tweaking and additions.?