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Student Achievement at Small Schools Is Mixed

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday May 02, 2006

Academic performance at Berkeley High School’s first two small schools is a mixed bag, new data show. 

Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) and Community Partnerships Academy (CPA), both of which are small schools within the larger Berkeley High School, show higher attendance rates among ninth-graders and strong parental involvement, but trends outlining academic achievement in the 2004-2005 school year are less clear-cut. 

Inconclusive results are fairly typical with new small schools, said Victor Cary, program director for the Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools (BAYCES), the nonprofit that helped launch small schools in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) with $1.7 million in startup funds. 

“You can’t expect to see wholesale changes so soon,” he said. 

CAS, BUSD’s first small school, opened in 2003. The institution educates about 300 students and focuses on media literacy and communication skills. CPA, which has about 250 students, formed the following year with an emphasis on community leadership development. Both were programs at Berkeley High School before earning small school status. 

Limited as the data is, findings from the 2004-2005 school year are as follows: 

On average, students at CPA, of whom more than 60 percent are African-American, earned lower GPAs than students at either CAS or the comprehensive high school. CPA also exhibited higher rates of students who are failing (receiving at least one D or F). 

However, African-American and Latino students at both small schools were outperforming their peers at the larger school. The average GPA for African-American students was 2.34 at CPA and 2.37 at CAS, compared with 2.05 at Berkeley High School. 

Scores on standardized tests displayed a range of achievement. A smaller percentage of CPA students were labeled “advanced” or “proficient”—the highest categories of achievements—following administration of the California Standards Test. At both small schools, the same percentage of ninth-grade African-American students performed at advanced or proficient levels (8 percent), compared with 19 percent at the larger school.  

Analysts prefer to look at ninth-grade statistics because 2004-2005 was the first time BUSD used an equity-seeking lottery system to people the small schools. Additionally, ninth-graders are the best indicators of the program’s effectiveness, having never attended another high school, said Berkeley High School Vice Principal Matt Huxley, who presented the data to the Berkeley Board of Education April 19. 

CPA students on a whole exhibited a lower passing rate on the high school exit exam, but when broken down by ethnicity, African-American students at both small schools outperformed their peers at the larger high school by about 30 percentage points. 

A 1996 study conducted by Kathleen Cotton for the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory found that achievement in small schools, especially for poor and minority students, is equal or greater than in larger schools. Some of the data for Berkeley schools appear to support that conclusion. 

Huxley, who also serves as the CAS administrator, urges general caution when examining Berkeley’s data, because as a cross-sectional study (as opposed to a longitudinal study), it paints an incomplete portrait of school progress. In four years, analysts should have a better idea of the efficacy of Berkeley’s small schools on academics and closing the achievement gap, Huxley said.  

One consistent finding from the data report was that both small schools have higher rates of attendance. Huxley chalks it up to the intimate environment intrinsic to smaller schools.  

“Teachers know their students better and parents are more involved, so you just notice when people aren’t there,” he said.  

An additional finding, based on a survey distributed to parents, was that small school parents feel connected to their child’s education. More than 90 percent of CPA parents agreed the school makes a concerted effort to communicate to them what students need to earn a high school diploma and get into college. About four-fifths who responded said they perceive opportunities to get involved at the school; and all said they receive information about parent council and leadership meetings.  

CAS parents also felt strong ties to the school, compared with Berkeley High School, where only 29 percent of those responding said the school effectively gets parents involved in leadership student activities and academics. 

The latter two findings—high attendance and parent involvement—lay a firm groundwork for improved student performance, Huxley said. 

“It’s very promising,” he said. “But it takes time to create these strong, small schools. We have to be patient.” 

Two small schools, the Arts and Humanities Academy, and the School of Social Justice and Ecology, opened this year, and a fifth school, emphasizing technology or engineering, is in the works, Huxley said.