At over 25 meetings held during two days this past week, parents, teachers, students and community members showed up to question, comment and prophesy on the role of the new superintendent who will replace current Berkeley Unified School District superintendent Michel Lawrence in February.
“We want someone who will be a combination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Mother Teresa,” said one parent.
Tempers flew over the short notice provided to the community for their input, and the dismal turnout at some meetings led to criticism of the Berkeley Board of Education.
Andy McComb, from Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA), said that the community was not getting enough time to voice their opinion.
“The board is missing the opportunity to discuss the real issues with the community,” he said.
“You have to fight to get information about these meetings. The process is far too short. It’s so closed, so tight that it’s very dissatisfying.”
Berkeley Federation of Teachers president Cathy Campbell said she had grave concerns about the process.
“It’s really a pity that the board is squandering an opportunity to educate and involve the community,” she said after her meeting with Leadership Associates, the consultants hired to recruit a superintendent, on Monday.
“They have made it clear that it’s going to be a decision of five people.”
Some community groups and parents who turned up for the meetings Monday and Tuesday said there had been no general knowledge of the process.
“You were lucky you got an e-mail,” Campbell said. “Even that looked like a piece of junk mail. The average parent had no knowledge that there was a meeting going on. It’s a sign that the board has chosen to have a very closed process.”
After Lawrence announced her retirement on Sept. 11, the board hired Leadership Associates and prepared a recruitment timeline in less than a week.
After boardmembers view the report from the meetings next week, they will be made available to the public, said district spokesperson Mark Coplan.
“It was definitely short notice and planned within a couple of weeks,” Coplan acknowledged Tuesday, “but we only have a certain amount of time to go through the procedure,” he said.
“Fifty organizations were sent invitations through a combination of letters and e-mail. It’s impossible to talk to every person in the district in two days.”
Robert Trigg of Leadership Associates said that although it was a tight timeline it wasn’t an unusual one.
Coplan added that some people had misunderstood the meetings.
“A lot of people spoke about the changes they want to see in the district.” he said. “The consultants wanted to know what characteristics the community wants the new superintendent to have. In spite of that we were able to get a lot of great input. Some people came with very specific lists.”
At Berkeley High School (BHS), the only student leadership group that came forward to talk to the consultants was Youth Together.
“There were no announcements,” said Jiro Ignacio Palmieri, a BHS senior who was representing the student group.
Coplan said that letters had been distributed to each of the leadership groups at BHS.
“The question is how many of them would skip break or stay after school to discuss the new superintendent,” he said. “Not an awful lot of students are thinking about what they want to see in the new superintendent.”
“I have never seen the superintendent at all,” said Ahmina James, a sophomore who attended the meeting.
“They need to come and visit the classrooms. A lot of students are accused of having Attention Deficit Disorder, but if kids were encouraged to join groups like Youth Together or go to Youth Court and discuss issues, that would really help.”
Participants in the different meetings repeatedly stressed the importance of the new superintendent’s closing the achievement gap and promoting diversity.
Nkauj Iab Yang, site organizer for Youth Together, said that the issue of achievement gap and race went hand in hand.
“Students from very privileged backgrounds and disadvantaged backgrounds are competing against each other. So what will the superintendent do to reduce the gap?”
“Lots of people will say I want to do something about the achievement gap,” Trigg, who was coordinating the meeting, said.
“The question is what will you do to reduce the achievement gap? It takes more than just speaking from the heart.”
Around 15 people turned up for the meeting with the district’s staff and teachers.
“We want the new superintendent to solve the most critical problem in the state right now,” said Martin Luther King Jr. elementary school retired music teacher Jesse Anthony.
“That is, closing the gap between blacks, Latino and white students. No school district I have known so far has solved it. Whichever school district comes up with the tools to do it will be the major school district in the country.”
Recruiting teachers of color, said Malcolm X teacher Dale Long, was one of the ways of tackling it.
“It’s really an equity gap,” he said. “Minorities are well represented in early childhood development. The divide starts from K-12. We need a superintendent who changes that immediately.”
All the teachers in the room pointed out that the majority of students in California would be children of color in a few years.
“There are zero African American and Latino science teachers at Berkeley High,” said Dorothy Liu, who teaches science at BHS.
“If you think that doesn’t affect students of color you are wrong.”
“We need more African American staff, and not just janitors,” said Nina Livingston, a parent.
“We need teachers and instructors ... The board is hiring teachers who don’t understand our children. Just because our skin is the kind of color it is doesn’t mean we are stupid.”
Trigg stressed that although achievement gap was one of the important issues in the selection process, it wasn’t the only one.
“This is an extra sophisticated, complicated and political district,” he said.
“It’s a challenging job and there are fewer candidates than ever in this field ... The superintendent who comes here has to be thick-skinned. You don’t get praised much, but you get criticized.”
Campbell stressed that in order to really address the issues of excellence and achievement for all students in Berkeley it was important that the new superintendent have experience working with the classified unions and the teachers.
“We have built some great buildings, got our finances in order,” she said. “It’s time to focus on kids of color who are not doing so well ... collaborate with teachers to find ways to address that.”
BOCA highlighted the importance of dual immersion programs.
“My congregation is vastly Latino,” said Father George Crespin from St. Joseph the Worker Church.
“The number of dropouts and E’s and F’s has remained the same for a long time now. And the number of personnel who look like the kids is small. The reality is that half of our kids do not do well in the school system and the longer they study in the school district they do worse. Statistics show that their GPA goes down each year in high school. Our children are in a crisis situation.”
Input about the new superintendent can be sent to 23052-H Alicia Parkway, Mission Viejo, California. More information can be found at www.leadershipassociates.org.
Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee
Bob Trigg, former superintendent of the Elk Grove school district and one of the consultants from Leadership Associates, talks to student leaders from Youth Together about the superintendent search process in the Berkeley High School library Monday.