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School Board Candidates Focus on Achievement Gap

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 23, 2008 - 09:49:00 AM

The four Berkeley Board of Education candidates will face off at a debate hosted by the Berkeley PTA Council at Willard Middle School on Monday night. 

The 90-minute debate is the second of two debates the school board hopefuls will take part in. The first one, organized by the Berkeley Arts Magnet, was Oct. 1. 

Candidates have been vocal about a variety of issues, but the one that has often taken precedence is the role of the 2020 Vision in closing the achievement gap. 

A collaborative effort between the City of Berkeley and the Berkeley Unified School District, the 2020 Vision was launched in June to help remove barriers to educational equity for all students by 2020. 

School board President John Selawsky, who pushed for Vision 2020 and is running for reelection, said it was possibly the best plan the district had seen so far to close the achievement gap. 

“Keep in mind we don’t have a plan yet, it’s due in November,” Selawsky said. “Because we are including the city, UC Berkeley, community organizations and mental health and nutrition services, it is really comprehensive.” 

Berkeley High parent and community leader Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, a candidate for the board, said that the citywide equity task force would work only if the city and the community put their resources together to strive for change. 

Former Berkeley High parent Priscilla Myrick, also a candidate for the board, said that although the 2020 Vision had not actually presented a plan yet, she supported the creation of an integrated K-12 curriculum. 

“Creation of a plan is one listed strategy for moving forward according to 2020 Vision,” Myrick, who has coached students in reading and literacy for the last eight years, said. “I am not sure how the implementation will work. We need a comprehensive K-12 plan of articulated curriculum between school sites, grade levels, and between the regular school year and summer school.” 

Toya Groves, also a candidate, a case manager for at-risk youth at Berkeley Youth Alternatives, said that she was confident that the 2020 Vision would work. 

“I hope there will be a student representative on the advisory board as well,” Groves said. “The fact that people are changing their attitude toward low achieving students will help. I hope that once the initial sentiment is gone we will be able to push it down the line.” 

Selawsky described the federal No Child Left Behind Act as too punitive and short on funding. 

“If we took the punishment out and if we put in accountability, it might work,” he said. “However, there’s no real solution for schools once they fall behind.” 

Leyva-Cutler said she hoped that a shift in the country’s leadership would bring about a change in No Child Left Behind, which was put in place by the Bush government to address the achievement gap but has resulted in mandates some educators say are too stringent for students. 

“I agree with Barack Obama,” Myrick said. “The goal of No Child Left Behind was the right one—ensuring that all children can meet high standards—but the law has significant flaws that must be addressed. It is wrong to force teachers, principals and schools to accomplish the goals of No Child Left Behind without adequate resources.” 

Groves said she was hopeful that the law would be reevaluated and reassessed, especially with regards to hiring more teachers who could competently deal with Latinos and African-American students. 

Berkeley Unified was identified as a Program Improvement District under the No Child Left Behind Act two years ago when it was unable to meet participation targets for the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), which is based upon the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program and the California High School Exit Exam. 

The district is in its third year of Program Improvement because it did not meet performance targets for AYP in 2008.  

“In the United States there are other districts venturing into looking at different models of success; this is where the citywide equity task force will be instrumental in determining best practices and strategies to evaluate, assess and collect data on student and school performance,” Leyva-Cutler said, adding that aggressive outreach to parents on Program Improvement was necessary. 

Both Myrick and Leyva-Cutler agreed that that there was a growing recognition at the state and federal levels that sanctions requiring restructuring of schools often result in negative consequences. 

Selawsky said the district had already started dealing with Program Improvement. 

“Our two-year site plans are directly tied to student achievement,” he said. “That’s why the elementary schools have made improvements. We have to do the same thing in our middle schools.” 

Leyva-Cutler said that she believed that it was important to look outside standardized tests to measure student performance. 

“California has some of the highest standards in the country,” Myrick said. “If the STAR tests are not appropriately measuring student achievement in particular areas, then they certainly should be updated. However, this falls a little outside of the scope of responsibility of a school board director.” 

She added that although standardized test scores did not measure “the whole child,” its trends often gave an indication—however imperfect—about whether strategies to increase student academic achievement were actually working or needed to be revised. 

“Standardized tests are not an inaccurate measurement,” Selawsky said. “But the problem is the state and federal government rely too much on them. It’s a good thing that in Berkeley we see them in conjunction with other measurements, such as local assessments and grades.” 

Groves said she wanted to see more research showing that students who perform well in standardized tests at school go on to excel in college. 

“I want standardized tests to teach freedom of expression and true knowledge, not just discipline and obedience,” she said. 

The second school board candidates’ debate will be on Monday, Oct. 27, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Willard Middle School library, 2425 Stuart St.