Public Comment

Clarity from a Recent Graduate

By Noa Wotton
Thursday April 23, 2009 - 06:56:00 PM

As a recent Berkeley High School graduate and grateful alum of one of Berkeley High’s “small school” programs (CAS), I feel obliged to clarify a few points of recent controversy.  

First, I was pushed harder academically in my small school classes than I was in many of the AP classes I took outside of my small school. The fifteen-page research papers I wrote in my CAS core classes prepared me more than adequately for the rigor of college coursework at the top-ranked university I now attend. The verbal communication and critical thinking skills I developed in my CAS class discussions have enabled me to participate actively in college classrooms in ways that many of my prep-school-educated peers are only beginning to learn. And the close relationships I developed with my small-school teachers taught me how to communicate effectively with professors and employers. 

Despite Berkeley’s diversity, most of my friends went through Berkeley High taking classes that were racially and socio-economically homogeneous. In CAS, my classes reflected the demographics of my school and city. Spending four years with a group of individuals from such a wide range of backgrounds challenged me to constantly reconsider my opinions, exposed me to voices and perspectives I would otherwise never have heard, and instilled in me a commitment to serve all of the co-inhabitants of our global community. 

In her March 11 Express article, “Separate and Unequal at Berkeley’s Small Schools,” Rachel Swan questions whether small schools are addressing racial problems, “or just making them worse.” It is clear from her writing that Swan has neither visited a CAS classroom nor spoken seriously with students of small schools. We have a long way to go, and racial dynamics in small-school classes are anything but perfect, but placing students from different backgrounds together in a supportive environment and inviting them to talk, write, and think about the world around them is a first step. In CAS, I had discussions on a weekly basis that most adults I know would be too scared to get into. My small school gave me a network of friends who don’t all look like me, who don’t all have the same interests as me, and who lead an incredibly diverse set of lives. In a society where social groups are so fragmented and insulated from each other, this has been a great gift for me personally—I have trouble imagining that it could be a negative thing for Berkeley and for our world. 

In one of the many confused passages in her article, Swan cites the fact that five Community Partnerships Academy (CPA) seniors could not pass the California State Exit Exam “despite having enough credits to graduate” as evidence of academic laxity in small schools. If these students had been treated fairly, she argues, they would have never made it so far. Setting aside the fact that Academic Choice students fail the exit exam as well, Swan’s “evidence” actually illustrates one strength of small schools—their ability to provide an excellent education even for students who struggle with standardized tests. My sister was one of those CPA seniors who had to retake the exit exam; her dyslexia makes such tasks extremely challenging. And yet, thanks in part to the personalized support she found in her small school, she was able to succeed in her classes and is now doing well at a four-year college. It was my joy to see her come home from school every day motivated to tackle the academic work which, before she joined CPA, had caused her to despair. Is Swan suggesting that we disband small schools so that students like my sister, who struggle with standardized tests but have the potential to succeed, will be “weeded out” before reaching the exit exam? 

The capacity of the small-school model to teach a demanding curriculum while facilitating personal growth in a diverse community made Berkeley High ideal for me; I was inspired by my experience in CAS to become a teacher myself. And spending four years in classrooms that actually reflect the demographics of Berkeley has deepened my loyalty to and love for the town that raised me. So, with luck, I hope to be back at Berkeley High someday, teaching our next generation. As we make decisions that will shape the BHS I’d like to return to, let us recognize the incredible good that small schools are continuing to bring our youth. 

The small schools at Berkeley High today are not perfect. But they are absolutely a step in the right direction. I am grateful to the critics who have voiced their concerns regarding Berkeley High’s present arrangement—let’s figure out how we can make it work better. It is important, for one, that we redesigned the lottery system so that programs like CAS can continue to reflect Berkeley’s diversity, as they have in the past. 


My college career, my professional career, and my life have been profoundly shaped for the better by my small school education at Berkeley High. When I work with youth, and watch the strengths of that education ripple into their lives through me, I feel its significance even more intimately. We all want what’s best for our children; I’m writing as a recent Berkeley High graduate to testify that small schools are good for our children. We need to be critical, and we need to uncompromising in our standards, but we need to go forward with these models. 


Noa Wotton graduated from Berkeley High School in 2006.