As a parent-member of the Academic Choice Design Team, I have an emphatic answer to School Boardmember Terry Doran’s question (Daily Planet, Feb. 18), “Does [Academic Choice] lead to a better Berkeley High School or a better Berkeley High School for some students?” Those of us associated with the program all believe that it will lead to a better Berkeley High for all students and are prepared to work to see that it does. A better Berkeley High, as Principal Jim Slemp has said repeatedly, is a Berkeley High that offers many excellent choices so that every student can find a program or school that meets their personal needs. Small schools are great places for some students and BHS is developing a variety of fine small schools. Do CAS and CP Academy make BHS a better school for all, or just for the 500 or so students in those two small schools combined? I’d say they make the whole school better, both because they offer a quality choice to students with specific interests and needs and because other, different programs can adapt and benefit from some of the things that those small schools do well, such as creating community to support students.
Some students, like my child, are not ready in the ninth grade to focus their studies in one area and prefer the variety of options offered in a large school to the security and more personal atmosphere of a small school. Academic Choice is a program within the large school that aims to keep the academic bar high while serving the full diversity of students at BHS. It will provide its students with a rigorous course of study in English and history, leaving students free to choose math, science and electives from the wide range of offerings in the large school, at the same time encouraging them to complete the UC a-g subject requirements and take the most challenging classes appropriate to them. We believe that having such a program in the large school strengthens it and we hope to be able to expand the program over time (while maintaining diversity equal to that of the school as a whole) so that it is available to all students who want to participate.
Over the last few months Academic Choice has changed from being a group of teachers with a similar educational philosophy to being an organized program working on building community, increasing diversity, and developing a structure that gives students, teachers and parents an opportunity to have input. We are also intent on creating a system of student support that will provide all students in the program with extra help as needed. The AP Project, a tutoring/mentoring program that works to increase the number of students from historically underrepresented groups to attend college, is assisting us in this area.
We don’t claim that Academic Choice is the best option for every student; no option is. But we do believe that it is an excellent option for any student who plans to go to college. Students entering ninth and tenth grade next fall will not be applying to a single school or program. They will be ranking the available options in their order of preference, then, via lottery, assigned in a way that assures that all small schools and Academic Choice reflect the same diversity as BHS as a whole. Students may not be assigned to their first choice, so they need to think about their preferred alternatives. We hope parents and students will not dismiss Academic Choice based on old stereotypes and will instead find out what all the choices are and consider making Academic Choice a first or alternate preference.
Marilyn Boucher is a member of the Academic Choice Design Team.3