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BUSD Gears Up For New School Year By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday August 30, 2005

Two days before students are scheduled to come streaming into the halls and classrooms, two Berkeley public schools showed radically different approaches to preparation this week. 

At LeConte Elementary School, the hallways were virtually empty, with a si ngle custodian wheeling a cart of chairs to be delivered to a classroom, and an office worker and a student in the beginning stages of filling up the school’s bulletin board. In one classroom, a teacher pored over notes, “Prince” playing quietly in the ba ckground on the radio. Two doors down, veteran first grade teacher Deborah Barer (11 years at LeConte, 17 years in private school before that) has kicked off her shoes by the door and was deep into her second day of work getting her classroom ready. 

“Aft er so many years, I’m getting better at it,” Barer said. “I know that for the new teachers, there’s a lot more angst. My biggest problem is that I’ve just become so overloaded with stuff. I could easily spend a week to do it right, to get ready for the ki ds, but you just have to set a boundary point.” 

Barer said she worked all day Saturday until 7 in the evening, and “I’ll probably have another marathon day tomorrow [Tuesday] to get everything ready for Wednesday’s first day.” 

While middle and high school teachers “are probably more focused on developing lesson plans,” according to Barer, “the focus of the elementary school teacher is on the classroom itself. So much of the learning comes from the type of environment you set up. You have to provide the students with a room that looks organized, that’s friendly, and comfortable, and diverse. It’s a tall order.” 

Instead of the rows of desks all facing front towards the blackboard that used to be the classroom standard, Barer organizes her classroom into work centers—a listening area, an art center, a guided reading area, a spot for recyclables (next to the sink, since recyclables tend to get messy among first graders), a four-computer-one-printer technology center. About two-thirds of the available wall space is filled with teacher-developed projects for students to work on—a calendar, for example—but Barer says some of the space will be left vacant for students to fill with their own work. 

“If I don’t do that, it won’t be their classroom,” she said, with a laugh. “It will be a publisher’s classroom.” She uses the same philosophy in developing her own work materials for the students. “I could buy pre-fab stuff from the teachers supply store,” she said (noting that she would have to use her own money to do so), “but all of that comes with the numbers and things already on it. The children learn more when they see the things developed in front of them, or when they have to develop them themselves.” 

A few blocks away at Willard Middle School it wasn’t jus t the individual classrooms that were getting a renovation; it was the entire school. Over the summer, Willard had an extensive overhaul: a new disabled access ramp outside, new ceiling tiles and linoleum floors in the hallways, removing student lockers, repainting classrooms. 

While the inside of Willard looks like a new school, it also looked very much like a construction site two days before school opening. The basketball courts were stacked with 2X4s and 2X2s and plywood sheets, and a workman was still cleaning up the concrete residue outside from the recently finished handicap access ramp. In fact, more construction workers than teachers filled the hallways this week, and while one administrative staff member said “we’ll be ready for Wednesday,” there was still clearly a lot of construction-related work to be done. The linoleum floors appeared only recently cut to size, with the cuttings still strewn across the floor, and many of the black baseboard trims not yet in place. In some spots, butcher paper was still pasted along well-traveled pathways in the halls to keep the rolling construction carts from ruining the floors. The entire inside of the A Building—which houses the school library—was still under complete renovation, with the exposed framing showing wire conduits and air conditioning vents still needing to be put up. 

In between the construction, the work of teacher preparation at Willard still goes on. 

In one otherwise empty room, two teachers huddle with a counselor at a single table, asking her questions as she checks information on a computer. A teacher hustles by from the supply room with an iMac under his arm, grimaces as he looks down the cluttered hallway, and says, “Doesn’t look like it’ll be finished, does it?” A few more teach ers move in and out of an administrator’s office, a jumble of boxes and desks, still being set up. In another room, someone has stacked several loads of packing boxes with various labels that give a hint at their purpose in the coming school year: Cathy C’s Stuff (R&J/Poetry, etc.), Cleaning Supplies, Books, Folders, Beg. Of Year Stuff. Beside them are several packages of color-coded notebooks in cellophane wrapping, the hundreds of lined pages empty now, to be filled by students as they go through their course work. 

In another room, posters sit on top of a desk, waiting to be put up on the wall. One of them is a picture of Malcolm X with the quotation written below: “Of All Our Studies, History Is Best Qualified To Reward Our Research.” At the far end o f the room, a white dry-erase board stands empty, except for the single neat notation in the upper left-hand corner: “8/31/05”—the first day of the new school year in the Berkeley Unified School District.eU