Rick Ayers is a mild-mannered, genial guy, just shy of 60, with an affinity for travel, opera and Greek tragedy. He is also, according to students at Berkeley High School, the Community Arts and Sciences Original Gangsta’.
That’s “CAS OG” for short, CAS being the small school within a larger school he cofounded at Berkeley High, and O.G. being “a comrade of long standing, a veteran or elder,” according to the Berkeley High School Slang Dictionary, which he helps produce. Ayers, who earned his OG stripes teaching media, journalism and English at Berkeley High for more than a decade, retires this year.
Ayers, 59, is credited with galvanizing the small schools movement in Berkeley and navigating the choppy political waters of Berkeley High to advocate for CAS, where he is lead teacher, and small schools in general.
His legacy at Berkeley High includes work as the advisor to the school newspaper, The Berkeley High Jacket, when students famously broke a story on a Berkeley landlord accused of importing Indian girls for indentured servitude. He has authored several books on education; the most recent, Great Books for High School Kids: A Teacher’s Guide to Books That Can Change Teens’ Lives, was written up in the San Francisco Chronicle last month. He also works part-time teaching curriculum at the University of San Francisco.
Ayers takes leave of Berkeley High to pursue a Ph.D. in education at UC Berkeley.
“I work very hard, I’m up at 5 a.m.,” he said recently at his home in North Oakland. “I would find it impossible to even go down to part-time (at Berkeley High). I felt if I was going to move on, I would have to make a clean break … I am tired, you know? I’m 59 years old.”
Ayers spent much of his working adult life as a chef before turning to teaching in his 40s, after watching his eldest daughter struggle in high school. At Berkeley High, Ayers secured his first—and to this date only—high school teaching position.
“Teaching has been incredible for me,” he said. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had, the best opportunity to make a difference.”
Not that it’s been an easy ride.
Ayers formed CAS as a program at Berkeley High nine years ago with fellow teacher Bill Pratt, confident that students learn most effectively in small, diverse communities. Not everyone agreed. When Ayers and others mobilized to reinvent Berkeley High as a medley of small schools, they met marked resistance.
The school board compromised and OK’d a partial restructure, in which some small schools coexist within the larger school. In 2003, CAS opened its doors as Berkeley High’s first small school. Today there are four.
Ayers is used to rustling feathers. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan—where he dated the late comedian Gilda Radner—he was drafted into the army and immediately took to organizing anti-war sentiment. When his company was deployed to Vietnam, he went AWOL, subsequently joining up with the Weather Underground, a radical anti-war group responsible for dynamiting public buildings like draft boards, prison offices and, most notably, the Pentagon. (Ayers declines to comment what activities he was involved in—if any.)
He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, his father a businessman, his mother a stay-at-home mom. In high school, Ayers was part of a self-described “nerdy, artsy group,” and though a precocious student, he felt stifled by his surroundings.
“I was in honky heaven, and we were just dying,” he said. “Every time we could, we went out to Chicago and would hang out at blues clubs and go to museums.”
Ayers never completed his studies at the University of Michigan. After seven years on the lam, he turned himself into authorities and spent 10 days in jail. He finished his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley in nutrition sciences and went on to receive a master’s from Mills College in education.
In his first years at Berkeley High, Ayers realized the limitations of teaching in a large school. Students filed in and out of his classes like strangers. Forging student-teacher relationships wasn’t part of the equation. Ayers worked to change that.
At CAS, where there are about 60 kids in each grade, students enroll in the same courses, have the same teachers and occupy the same physical space. The benefit?
“You gain community,” he said.
CAS students take on internships at hospitals, schools and other community institutions. They have traveled to foreign countries like Cuba and Mexico to learn about social justice. They participate in media literacy projects: the Berkeley High School Slang Dictionary, a class project where students contribute to an index of contemporary teen argot, is the most prominent example.
But the small schools experiment has not reached the heights Ayers hoped it would. Ayers and other small schools advocates are convinced the advantages of small schools can only be fully realized if all of Berkeley High is divided into small communities—which isn’t expected to happen anytime soon.
“There’s part of me that’s like, ‘I don’t want to spend my whole career at Berkeley High School, and not be able to do the work I want to do.’ It’s frustrating,” he said. “Do I want to spend the next seven years on this program with one hand tied behind my back?”
So he’s getting out—though he feels ambivalent about it. “I’m very torn about leaving,” he said.
After completing the Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley, Ayers plans to move on to training teachers, in hopes of instilling his own passion for teaching in others:
“As I think back on my career, I started out making a lot of mistakes, and looking at my class this week, that still happens,” he said. “I still fail—and succeed—on different days. But that’s what’s so beautiful about teaching.”
A celebration for Rick Ayers is scheduled for Saturday, June 17, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at Berkeley High School’s Donahue Gym.