By Diane Douglas, David Schweidel, Rachel Greenberg, Sunny Solis, Darryl Dickerhoff and Lori Simpson
Wednesday night, the Berkeley School Board plans a vote on the elimination of sixth grade at Berkeley Arts Magnet elementary school (BAM). We believe that this action has serious implications for the viability of the arts program at BAM, in addition to the academic and social success of some students.
The unfortunate fact is that only six fifth-grade families have requested BAM for sixth grade next year. BUT there is more to the story than the school district’s stated decline in interest in the sixth grade model at BAM.
For nearly 20 years, BAM has offered an arts-intensive educational experience for children, called “Artist Time.” This program has been supported significantly by voter-approved BSEP/Measure A parcel tax funds. From kindergarten through third grade, BAM students pursue four art forms through the week—drama, dance, percussion, and visual art. In fourth grade, some arts specialization begins, and by the fifth and sixth grades, students make their choice to pursue one art form throughout the entire year. Many students who may be struggling with math and literacy skills demonstrate a profound ability to focus and concentrate on a particular art form, and they often experience a level of success that translates to better learning habits and improved academic performance.
This year, our new school principal made sweeping changes to the Artist Time program by removing the component of specialization—without consulting the school’s BSEP committee of parents and teachers. The option of choice for the older children was removed. The fifth and sixth graders were devastated to find out on their first day of school that they would not be able to choose a specialization after working toward that end since their early days at the school.
There are many parents and teachers who believe that having at least one elementary school in the district with a sixth grade is important. Not all children are developmentally ready for the larger middle school setting—some children benefit from an extra year of familiar surroundings. As parents of BAM sixth graders and BAM graduates, we can tell you that our sixth-grade curriculum has been as rigorous as that at the middle schools, and BAM students come to seventh grade well-prepared to succeed.
Superintendent Michele Lawrence has said that there is data indicating that students who begin middle school in Berkeley in sixth grade do better than students who enter middle school in seventh grade. It is unclear how to interpret this statement, given that there are a large number of students coming from outside BUSD at this grade level. Nonetheless, we would be surprised if BAM’s sixth graders did not show equal or superior academic performance entering middle school as seventh graders. If you look at outstanding graduates at Berkeley High in any recent year, you will find that BAM has had more than its share.
Many families and teachers have chosen BAM because of its strong commitment to the arts and to academics. We are concerned that our Artist Time program is being targeted as an obstacle to academic achievement, when there is abundant evidence that the arts foster achievement. When BAM was a California Distinguished School, we had high achievement and a great arts program.
Our school went through two lengthy and wide-ranging assessment processes in recent years. There was a very broad consensus among parents and teachers about the importance of maintaining and developing a strong arts program; working to close the achievement gap; building community among students, parents, teachers, and staff; and establishing a school-wide program for resolving conflicts and promoting understanding. That extensive body of work appears to have gone by the wayside.
The shortfall of enrollees in the sixth-grade program at BAM for next year is certainly in part a result of many decisions that have weakened our arts program and hindered communication within the school. Sixth grade at BAM may not be the choice for all but we would like to see it remain as a choice.
We are holding a rally outside of Old City Hall before the board meeting to show our support for BAM’s unique programs. At the meeting, we plan to ask the School Board to consider a one-year moratorium on the sixth-grade program at BAM. If, next year, fifth graders are allowed to choose an arts specialization, and if teachers are allowed more voice in the direction of the school, then BAM and its sixth grade can flourish. Otherwise, we’re in danger of losing many of the teachers and families who chose BAM in part because of its thriving arts program and its superior sixth grade. The sixth grade is one of the many aspects of BAM that makes this school unique and deserving of everyone’s support.
Diane Douglas, David Schweidel, Rachel Greenberg, Sunny Solis, Darryl Dickerhoff and Lori Simpson are parents of BAM students, and represent current and former PTA and BSEP committee members.