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Malcolm X Marks the Spot in Educational Excellence

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday April 11, 2006

Cheryl Chinn received a special delivery Friday: a Tupperware filled to the brim with an oily, murky liquid, and an accompanying note handwritten in marker.  

“Dear Mrs. Chinn,” the letter said. “This is salad dressing for you. It has herbs from the garden. Room 17.” 

Such is a day in the life of Chinn, veteran principal of Malcolm X Arts and Academic Magnet School, where, in an average week, students are planting strawberries, producing full-length musicals, pirouetting in dance class and throwing fresh, campus-grown ingredients into a gourmet salad dressing that Chinn only too gladly taste tests. 

It’s all part of the school’s distinctive blending of arts and academics, an approach to education that has not gone unnoticed.  

In the next week, State Superintendent Jack O’Connell is expected to name Malcolm X a Distinguished School, an honor conferred on schools that display excellence in academics, special programs, community outreach, professional development and other arenas, and meet state and federal testing goals. 

More than 2,000 schools were deemed eligible for the award and fewer than 1,000 applied. Of those, 368 scored high enough—including Malcolm X—to merit visits from a state review team charged with validating applications. Final awardees will be announced by April 18. 

Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) last reaped a Distinguished School award in 2001 with Martin Luther King Middle School. The year before, both Malcolm X and Berkeley Arts Magnet earned the recognition. 

“We’re really pleased that Malcolm X is going for their second award and that in doing so they’re really representing all of Berkeley’s schools,” said district spokesman Mark Coplan. 

Designation as a distinguished school proffers neither money nor glory, only validation, Chinn said. “It’s validation for the people who are working at the school, that their hard work isn’t overlooked,” she said. 

Malcolm X, a school with 377 students and about 20 teachers, was accorded magnet status in 1998 with a $650,000 federal grant distributed over three years for construction, teacher training and arts program development. 

At every grade level, students are exposed to each of the major art forms: visual art, dance, music and drama/creative writing. A kindergartner’s foray into fine art may involve painting stick figures. By fifth grade, she’s experimenting with lighting design.  

“We believe kids learn in different ways,” Chinn said. “Some are strong in academics, others do well in arts. The idea is to educate the whole child.” 

The concept seems simple enough but as standardized testing mandates along with ever-dwindling budgets to divert attention away from the arts, Malcolm X occupies a unique niche, some parents say.  

The school offers “a different way of learning things,” said Terry Young, whose two sons attend Malcolm X. “Geometry comes through in art, or in gardening, there’s math and literature.” 

At Malcolm X, Young’s eldest discovered he likes to dance. Her younger son is taking a shine to cooking class. Typically a picky eater, he now entreats his mother to purchase beets (“beets!” she said) and gives recipe suggestions to boot.  

“The kids love the program here,” she said. “Stuff like this is so important.” 

Malcolm X was abuzz Friday, the last day of school before spring break and the date when state assessors were scheduled to visit. Fifth-graders had just completed a production of the musical School House Rock and were regrouping to perform again that evening. A break in the rain allowed students to run around outside, while others stayed indoors cooking up a carrot soup replete with fresh ingredients. Sarita Johnson’s second-graders were shopping for books and other goodies with fake money, a weekly activity that gives students a hands-on method for counting change, Johnson said. 

Before class let out, Johnson led her students down to the school garden, where they picked up pots of strawberries they had planted a week earlier in honor of Cesar Chavez Day. 

The garden, with mustard plants, fava beans, sour lettuce and other edible plants, is built, planted, maintained—and eaten—by students, said Rivka Mason, Malcolm X garden teacher and coordinator for 10 years. 

Community members also contribute to the garden, she said. The cob greenhouse where students left their strawberry plants to grow was assembled with the help of local architect John Fordice. 

“The crucial part of any school is the collaboration of teachers, principals, the parents, the community,” Mason said. “As a unified, diverse school, we all come together. I just feel honored being here.” 


Photograph by Suzanne La Barre 

Clara Monk, a second-grader at Malcolm X, shows off strawberry sprouts she planted a week earlier in honor of Cesar Chavez Day..