Public Comment

Small Schools Represent Hope for Berkeley Students

By Rick Ayers
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 07:03:00 PM

While Berkeley has a proud tradition of progressive politics and social justice initiatives, our public high school continues to practice tracking, inequity, and an educational experience which is so much less than it could be. The recent spate of attacks hurled at a redesign proposal and at the small schools shows that some elements of our community will go to great lengths to prevent even modest reforms. While I could make point-by-point refutations of the shoddy and non-existent statistics that underlie the claims made by these people, I think it would be better to reiterate some of the fundamental principles that have guided small schools development at the high school. 


Curriculum integration 

Small schools are conceived as learning communities which keep the same cohort of students and teachers together through the years. Classes are usually organized around a central theme or sometimes a possible career path (though plenty of students go in different directions after graduation)—and teachers collaborate closely so that content and skills are taught in an integrated way across curriculum and with a rational articulation of learning through the years. Small schools do not have smaller class size—all students have the same student to teacher ratio set by the district. The idea behind small schools is not to insist on one particular type of pedagogy or instruction. And small schools are not a panacea for all problems in education. But they do create the scale of organization that encourages flexibility and innovation. 


Our district has been criticized over the years for continuing to reproduce the racial disadvantaging that African American and Latino students face. Sticking to the status quo means sticking to the practices that have shamed us—as seen in the documentary School Colors and in the exhaustive UC report led by Professor Pedro Noguera known as the Diversity Project. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation had one major critique of BHS—the segregation and achievement gap—and they pointed to small schools as one area where this was being addressed successfully. Extensive research shows the benefit of small schools (check out, for instance but let me highlight some elements from my own experience working in small schools at Berkeley High for eleven years. 


Creating community, addressing social and emotional needs 

Small schools are better set up to pay attention to the social and emotional needs of young people in this crucial period of transition to adulthood. Because these schools are a defined, diverse group of students and teachers, the teachers know the students personally much better, the students know each other better, and thus each student is known well and pushed hard—they feel that someone knows their problems and cares about their success. Small schools create advisory and other structures for students to explore their identity and plan future direction. They create projects and traditions which are rites of passage for young people. They develop interdisciplinary field trips and community connections that take advantage of the vast cultural resources of our Bay Area.  

Small schools facilitate the creation of community. Students learn better, more deeply, when they care about their classmates and they construct knowledge with others. Small schools put into practice the promise of diversity offered by our complex community—allowing students to cross borders in social and academic domains. They help students care about their education, commit to the work of the class, and take initiative to go beyond basic textbook learning. 


Rigorous, powerful learning 

Small schools foster critical thinking—encouraging students to take on complex projects, to think outside the box, to work in groups and to value the success of all, and to always ask the next questions: What is the evidence? According to whom? To what end? And why does it matter? Small schools are involved with authentic assessment—measuring real achievement, not just filling in bubbles. Students carry out project based learning, portfolio reflection, and performance reviews. This encourages much more powerful, long-lasting learning. (For more on assessment issues, see an earlier piece in the June 19, 2008 edition of the Daily Planet.)  

The small schools have helped countless students who would otherwise have dropped out and given countless others a way to chart a future they can pursue successfully. They are also academically rigorous and committed to high standards. As one recent graduate wrote: “Our society, even Berkeley High alone, is incredibly diverse and in order for it to function, people of different backgrounds with different experiences need to know how to relate and live and work together. Personally, CAS absolutely prepared me for college. I am currently at Barnard College of Columbia University and I feel that my CAS education prepared me for the in-depth discussions in my classes as well as simply for academic success.” And another argued, “I’m a person who does not like sitting in a classroom or taking tests, even CAS strained me, but CAS gave me the room and the support to discover myself, my talents, my path and now I am a recognized spoken word artist/poet, and am teaching young performance artists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison while working on my undergraduate degree—all on a full scholarship.” 


Staff morale and professionalism 

Small schools build collegiality among staff, allowing teachers to break from the isolation of the single classroom. While Berkeley attracts many young, brilliant teachers who imagine they will be working in a progressive and innovative district, we lose something like 30 percent of our high school teachers every year—who report they are frustrated, isolated, and feel like failures. Small schools support and encourage teacher success, retention, and morale. 

Let’s not let the default model, which reproduces segregation and tracking, be the best Berkeley can deliver. Small schools should not be left by the school board and administration to fend for themselves, having to defend their work left and right from a barrage of attacks. Instead, we should begin to make Berkeley a model of powerful, engaged education for all students. 


Former Berkeley High teacher Rick Ayers is an adjunct professor of education at the University of San Francisco.