Public Comment

Berkeley High Reforms: Money Well Spent?

By Priscilla Myrick
Tuesday November 18, 2008 - 01:47:00 PM

Controversial and costly changes are planned for Berkeley High School (BHS) as a way to help close the achievement gap. BHS administrators claim that the addition of advisories, block scheduling and another small school will improve standardized test scores and college preparedness for African American and Latino students. While the goal is laudable, the effectiveness of the proposed changes remains questionable at best. The School Board should be critically assessing the costs of implementation of the reforms against a realistic appraisal of the benefits.  

These changes are part of a strategy advanced by Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES) to convert Berkeley High from a large comprehensive school to a mix of smaller learning communities. The reconfiguration of the high school carries the unintended consequences of an erosion of the academic program and a decline in student achievement. BHS may not benefit from these changes, but BayCES will. The group stands to gain $865,000 in consulting fees. 

Next year Berkeley High administrators plan to rearrange the school day by instituting block scheduling (increasing class periods from 45 minutes to 90 minutes) and adding an advisory period. They also intend to add a new small school. These changes will make it even more difficult to manage the already cumbersome and ineffective high school bureaucracy. Teachers will need to re-tool their curricula, staff will need to be trained as “advisors,” teacher contracts will have to be renegotiated to compensate for the increased work load from 150 to 170 students, and many new classrooms will have to appear miraculously to accommodate the 160 advisory classes of 20 students each. Because the school day remains unchanged, time in academic subjects will be sacrificed to advisories.  

In February, without approval of the School Board or the superintendent, BayCES submitted a grant application to the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) in the name of BUSD requesting federal funds to finance these high school reforms. The reforms came with a $5.3 million price tag. USDE approved a grant for $1 million with the requirement that BUSD pony up the remaining $4.3 million from BUSD’s general fund and Berkeley’s parcel tax, Measure A.  

As a condition of the grant, USDE placed a requirement that the board give legal assurances to the feds that the proposal will be fully funded and implemented. In August with very little public knowledge the board approved the conditions of the grant. Certainly few Berkeley residents are aware that Berkeley High School will actually obtain less than $50,000 of the $1 million grant, with $865,000 going to pay for the consulting services of a single outside contractor, BayCES. Moreover, BayCES was paid $10,000 to write the grant proposal. To make matters even worse, when the School Board accepted the grant, they committed $4.3 million for the non-federal share of the project cost from the school district’s own coffers. 


More money in consultants’ pockets 

In 2003 BayCES became a contractor to BUSD providing consulting services to create four small schools within Berkeley High. Their services were paid from a private one-time $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation that ran out in 2007. During 2008, BayCES was paid an additional $178,000 by BUSD for small schools coaching and consulting services out of the BUSD general fund, the California State School Site Discretionary Block Grant, and other sources.  

The funding to be received under the USDE grant is earmarked for BayCES consulting for the next five years to the tune of $865,000. BayCES coaches are billed at a rate of $850 to $1500 per day. Why Berkeley High administrators support paying outside contractors at a rate of $110 to $185 per hour when they pay beginning teachers $30 per hour is an issue the community may wish to explore.  


Illusory benefits 

According to the grant proposal, “anticipated project outcomes include improved standardized test scores and college preparedness for African American and Latino students.” The grant proposal claims that the combination of advisories, block scheduling and an additional small school will improve achievement for all students by 17 percentage points in English and 16 percentage points in math over current proficiency levels.  

No data has ever been produced to support the claim that advisories, block scheduling and the addition of another small school at BHS will have any positive effect on student achievement. In fact, reliable research indicates these measures are neutral at best and, in the case of block scheduling, can harm learning in foreign language, math and science classes. 


BHS small schools strategy shows declines in student achievement 

After five years of resources and effort, the creation of four small schools may have increased personalization for students and teachers in those schools. However, it has not produced any gains in student academic achievement. In fact, student achievement (as measured by percent of students proficient or above) at Berkeley High and in the four small schools (AHA, CAS, CPA, and SSJE) has declined in both English Language Arts (ELA) and math. 

BUSD has already been subject to $2.5 million in budget cuts this year and faces difficult mid-year cuts as well. Our schools can’t afford changes that incur real costs and provide illusory benefits. Tell our School Board it would be prudent and wise for them to rescind the commitment they made to the USDE in light of the economic deterioration of the last six weeks.  


[Notes: (1) As of this writing a special board meeting has been announced for Nov. 19. Berkeley High School reforms are on the agenda. (2) For USDE Smaller Learning Community Grant see BUSD website, Aug. 11, 2008 board packet.] 


Priscilla Myrick is a former chief financial officer and Berkeley High School Governance Council parent representative. She can be reached at