Election Section

Rosa Parks Elementary Works Through Past Tensions By CATHERINE PRICE

Special to the Planet
Friday December 10, 2004

Anyone who thinks Franz Kafka’s writing is college-level material should stop by Margot Pepper’s second-grade classroom. Now in her eighth year teaching at the Rosa Parks Environmental Science Elementary School, Pepper uses Kafka’s short story “Metamorphosis” in a project about insects that exemplifies the school’s curriculum-wide integration of science and the environment.  

“I read the story aloud to them,” says Pepper. “At the moment when [the protagonist] turns into a cockroach, I ask them to finish the story themselves, using information about insects that they’ve learned in class.” The children, inspired by Pepper’s colorful laminated cutouts and enthusiastic enactment of the story, then research and write their own stories about what their lives would be as insects.  

Formerly the Columbus Environmental Science Magnet School, Rosa Parks is one of three elementary schools in Berkeley’s northwest zone and is in its fourth year of an improvement regimen mandated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Unlike California’s previous accountability standards, NCLB imposes up to five years of corrective measures onto schools that don’t meet their yearly progress goals, and ultimately can result in major restructuring of schools’ staff and curriculum.  

Staff and faculty at Rosa Parks are also struggling with the aftermath of a controversy last spring, when more than three quarters of the school’s faculty signed a “letter of no confidence” to Superintendent Michele Lawrence asking that Principal Shirley Herrera be transferred from the school for reasons including “unreliable leadership” and “inequitable treatment of students, teachers and staff.” 

Lawrence kept Herrera (now in her third year, she is the first principal since 1999 to last more than a year). Four teachers were involuntarily transferred and several others voluntarily left. This year, seven out of the school’s 16 teachers are new to Rosa Parks.  

Tensions from last spring still linger, but new programs and initiatives have meant that overall morale is high, say teachers and staff. 

“There’s been a lot of healing since last year,” says Tontra Love, an eighth-year kindergarten teacher at Rosa Parks. “People are trying to stay positive and move forward.” 

Love says she is excited about the new diversity training for the staff, as well as an early intervention plan to provide tutoring, counseling and other services to needy students. Pepper praises the faculty’s recent training in Guided Language Acquisition Design, which trains teachers to incorporate literacy skills into different classroom subjects, and helped inspire Pepper’s project on insects and Kafka. 

And a recent visit by Michele Borba, author of Building Moral Intelligence, gave Principal Herrera the idea to highlight a “characteristic of the month” in student-of-the-month assemblies, one of several new approaches the school is taking to encourage responsibility and respect among students.  

Students at Rosa Parks can also look forward to the continuation of other resources special to the school, including its curriculum’s focus on science and the environment, its Kids’ Village after-school program, its family resource center and its six-year dual-immersion language program in Spanish and English, which Rosa Parks is the only school in its zone to offer.  

Located at 920 Allston Way, Rosa Parks’ campus itself is unusual, built in 1997 after the previous buildings were deemed unsafe in the event of an earthquake. Its highlight is the Bayer Children’s Science Center, constructed with and supported by funds donated for the school’s environmental science curriculum. 

The center concentrates on weather and space, marine-life studies, and urban gardening and ecology. Designed to resemble a village, the classrooms themselves are arranged around an open basketball and playground, and each is contained in its own peak-roofed building with high ceilings, natural light, and a tucked-away outdoor alcove.  

If the school fails to meet its Adequate Yearly Progress—a standard of measurement used by NCLB—it will have to implement an alternative governance plan to be decided upon during the 2004-2005 school year. But still, hopes are high.  

“I’m very optimistic about the year,” says Herrera. “We’ve got great teachers and a great team spirit. We want what’s best for our children, and will work together to get there.” 


This is the third in a series profiling Berkeley elementary schools. The reports are written by students of the UC Berkeley Journalism School.Ã