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First-Day Jitters for Berkeley Students

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday August 31, 2007

The first day of the new school year went off without a hitch for Berkeley public schools Wednes-day. 

There were the usual back-to-school jitters, of course: the rush for last-minute registration, the minor school kitchen faux pas, and the kindergartner from Yemen who was sent home because he was too jetlagged for class. 

Other than that everything went according to plan. At LeConte Elementary School students were treated to strawberries while their parents thronged the school’s auditorium to learn about health, transportation and after-school programs. 

“We are happy to be back after summer, energized and ready to learn,” LeConte principal Cheryl Wilson told the Planet during the morning reception. 

“One of my major goals is to help those who are below and far below the STAR program requirements.” 

STAR scores for the Berkeley Unified School District gained a point in the recently released California STAR test results. 

Wilson added that the school would begin an extensive reading campaign, which would focus on fluency and endurance levels. 

“The district provides support for math, reasoning and conceptual understanding for all kids,” she said. “We also want to focus on the importance of writing for 4th and 5th graders.” 

For new parents, LeConte represented more of a community than an educational institution. “We wanted to be able to walk our child to school,” said August Fern, whose oldest child started school Wednesday. “I am kind of expecting to find a sense of belonging here. I am sure my son will make lots of friends in the classroom. Since he likes sports, I am hoping I can find something suitable for him.” 

In one corner, Lyn Dailey from the city’s health department answered questions from anxious parents about MediCal. 

“Depending on immigration status, some kids may not qualify for healthcare,” Dailey said. “There is also very little insurance available for adults, but we try to fill all the gaps and meet the needs of the whole family.” 

As the kids filed neatly into room KG 110, names were exchanged and new friendships formed. The shy ones hid behind Ms. Mary Lewis’ skirt, hesitant yet curious about the goings-on in the classroom. 

“This year we are trying out ‘Balanced Beginnings’ for the first time at LeConte,” said Ms. Lewis, the school’s kindergarten teacher. “According to this program, we don’t place the new students permanently in a class until all the kindergarten teachers have met them and had a sense of who they are. As a result the classes end up balanced in language, gender and maturity level.” 

Out in the yard, freshmen Matilda Hallowell, Juan Garcia and Mateo Gran-Rodriguez had just completed a lesson in recycling. The students belong to a Spanish emersion program that teaches in two languages and provide lots of play-acting. 

Charity DeMarto, director of the LeConte community after-school program, said the focus was on community partnership with local programs and enrichment classes.  

“We want to open up all the resources to the community,” she said. “A lot of kids don’t live in the neighborhood, so we want them to feel they are a part of it too.” 

At Malcolm X Elementary School, Berkeley Unified nutritional services director Ann Cooper gave a hint about what the new school year meant in terms of food. 

“It’s all about organic milk this year,” she said pointing toward the cavernous school kitchen where elementary school lunches are prepared every day.  

Malcolm X principal Cheryl Chinn said she was expecting a marked improvement in the API and AYP scores scheduled to be released Friday (today). 

“Last year, the school received a score of 785 out of 800 in the API,” she said. “We have continued our focus on arts and academics. We can’t forget that we are officially an arts magnet school. Last year we started a strategic plan that allowed us time to monitor and assess our students every year, and our focus is on closing the achievement gap for African Americans and Latinos.” 

Posie Romweber, a newcomer at the school, was busy doing puzzles with kindergarten teacher Maylynee Gill. 

“This is just my first day,” Posie said. “It’s a little scary to be at a big school, but I made some new friends.” 

In another part of South Berkeley, B-Tech principal Victor Diaz was finishing up a welcoming speech in one of the classrooms. 

The campus was picture perfect Wednesday afternoon, all 110 students hard at work on their assignments. 

“The school has a capacity of 140, so we are expecting some more students from Berkeley High in the next few weeks,” Diaz said. “It’s not a popular move to move students from the high school to out here but it’s important. It’s the collective district’s efforts to retain a student, and we do a great job.” 

Diaz, who is currently in his fourth year as principal, said that the attendance for the summer program had been very high. 

“We started out with 80 students,” he said. “These are kids who would have not gone to Berkeley High. Some of them also had a chance to intern with the mayor’s office and various city councilmembers. At the end of the program, nearly all the kids passed their classes.” 

B-Tech saw one of its seniors enter a four-year college program this fall for the first time in the school’s history. 

Although Diaz said that the school was moving in the right direction, he emphasized the need for better performance in the standardized tests. 

“We didn’t do so well in the STAR tests and I don’t think we will do any better in the AYP’s,” he said. “There is a districtwide culture that state tests are not important, but if we don’t take it seriously then it disproportionately affects our students.” 

One of the bright spots for B-Tech students this new school year is the opening of the Derby Field right next door. The school, which lacked open space for physical activity, will now be able to use the space for PE classes and other school programs.