This is the second in a series profiling Berkeley elementary schools. The reports are written by students of the UC Berkeley Journalism School.
Students at Emerson Elementary like doing their homework—at least the ones excitedly waiting for a familiar face to appear around the corner and give them their undivided attention.
Emerson, one of the smallest schools in the district, nestled in southeast Berkeley on Forest Avenue, provides one-on-one mentoring, matching more than half of the students with tutors from UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department, the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Americorp volunteers and Caltrans District Four Office.
“The kids are so accustomed to seeing their peers being pulled out of the classroom for their mentor time,” said Monica Santos, Emerson mentor coordinator, “that there isn’t any stigma attached to it. It’s a popular thing; kids want to be paired with a Cal student.”
About 150 UC Berkeley students participate in the program each year.
“The reason I keep coming back is because of her,” 19-year-old Cal student Pat Campbell said, smiling over a game of battleship with a second-grade student she has mentored for three years. “It’s more of a bonding experience than anything.”
The Mentor Program was started in 1999 with a state grant, but that money has long since dissipated and school staff has spent the past three years trying to keep the program alive with outside supporters like Dreyer’s Ice Cream, Berkeley Community Fund and the PSTA, Santos says.
Emerson Elementary typically produces among the highest test scores in the district, said Berkeley Unified School District spokesman Mark Coplan. The school’s 2004 Academic Performance Index, which ranks test scores in math and English, was among the top three in the district.
And the Mentor Program, Santos says, may have something to do with that.
“Historically there has been an achievement gap where students of color have not been performing as well as Caucasian and Asian students,” Santos said. “We have seen a closing of the gap. An increased number of students have a 3.0 grade point average or above.”
Emerson African American and Hispanic students also regularly score higher than other students of color in the district.
The school draws students through the southeast portion of the city, which starts in the more affluent hills, curving through the middle of the city to lower-income West Berkeley.
Last year, Emerson’s classes comprised 41 percent black students, 24 percent white, 4 percent Asian, 11 percent Hispanic and less than 1 percent Pacific Island.
Mentor Coordinator Santos also attributed Emerson’s strides in academic accomplishment to excellent leadership and a creative staff.
At Back to School Night this year, teachers performed a number from the musical Grease to introduce the staff and features of the school. “We like to get the message out in a fun and interesting way,” three-year Principal Susan Hodge says.
“We are also a very close staff,” Hodge said.
Hodge spent the prior 15 years as a teacher at Emerson. Indeed, the school seems to have an aura of camaraderie, as district spokesman Coplan says Hodge has a reputation among teachers and the community for her strong track record of commitment to education.
“She is not only an active leader of the school, but she’s worked in the trenches with the teachers,” he said.
Parents can expect a typical school week to include an hour and a half of computer instruction, as well as interactive learning of history, art and geography through activities such as making Inuit hunting hats and writing myths based on multi-cultural texts. Emerson pupils also learn how to cook with organic foods and learn about nutrition.
“Our biggest concern right now is funding,” Hodge said. In light of the $12 million district-wide budget cut in the past two years, Emerson parent and PSTA secretary Rafael Friedman said classrooms are over-crowded and library hours have been reduced.
“They say no child should be left behind, but then they don’t fund it,” he said.