Is a new alternative high school the answer to closing Berkeley’s achievement gap?
That’s the question the Berkeley Board of Education, Berkeley Unified School District officials, teachers and community members grappled with during the course of a three-hour public workshop Aug. 26.
The meeting kicked off with Nicole Sanchez, executive director of the non-profit Berkeley Alliance, updating the board on the progress of the 2020 Vision, a district and citywide effort started last June to address the achievement gap in the Berkeley public schools.
Sanchez said that an All City Equity Task Force had been formed to help facilitate ideas which would close the achievement gap. While task force members were brainstorming ideas, the district launched an 18-month plan over the summer to build comprehensive curriculum, strengthen staff, boost pre-school education and hire and retain teachers of color in the Berkeley schools.
Berkeley Unified Superinten-dent Bill Huyett said that
36 percent of the district’s
certificated employees were now teachers of color.
In two PowerPoint presentations, Sanchez outlined how the district’s resources and efforts would be measured in three distinct “spaces”: schools, families and services.
Sanchez said the task force wanted to see strategies that would provide “productive, meaningful dialogue about Berkeley’s ethnic/racial diversity and the assets and challenges it presents to our community.”
She also emphasized the need for “evidence-based research and best practices” from around the United States to support any new ideas and the need for financial stability for all plans.
Over the next few months, Sanchez said, the task force would bring forward specific recommendations to the Berkeley City Council, the school board, the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s office and Berkeley City College.
The next phase of the task force is scheduled to begin in November.
Sanchez said there was consensus among stakeholders of the 2020 Vision, that the district should move toward a “community schools model” with a focus on parent outreach.
She added that the stakeholders had not yet decided what they wanted to see in this model except that it would have non-academic support services available for students.
Huyett interjected saying that the district was working with the Berkeley Alliance on a “communication plan” to help inform the community about the 2020 Vision.
Board Vice President Karen Hemphill pointed out that the district had already started applying a lot of the preliminary ideas of the 2020 Vision.
“Implementation doesn’t mean that we have to wait until the planning is over,” she said. “Implementation means that as long as we are going in the same direction, it doesn’t prevent something from happening this semester, this year.”
Sanchez said that of the six different reform models going on around the country the two that had really gotten traction were the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Children’s Aid Society Community Schools.
Founded by Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem Children’s Zone provides free support for thousands of poor children and their families living in 100 blocks of Harlem through parenting workshops, a pre-school program, three public charter schools, and child-oriented health programs with a goal to end generational poverty.
Huyett said that although the Harlem Children’s Zone could not be replicated exactly in Berkeley (“Berkeley is not Harlem”), it was a community school program which had important tenets for closing the achievement gap.
Riddle said that the Harlem project had a different financial setting than Berkeley Unified, with 80 percent of funding made possible from donations and the rest from the federal government.
Highlights of the Children’s Aid Community Schools included parent involvement and leadership, after-school and summer enrichment, Early Head Start, on-site clinics, crisis intervention and counseling and community and economic development.
“This is the model that the task force is centering their work around,” said Huyett, “and the model we as a school district see as coherent with our 18-month plan.”
Huyett gave the example of Rosa Parks Elementary School as a model of a community school within Berkeley Unified.
Board President Nancy Riddle said she found the name “community school” troubling because the district did not have a neighborhood school assignment system. Berkeley’s student assignment plan divides the city into three sections, with each running from the bay to the hills. Students are assigned to schools within their section based on a system that takes into account race, parent income and parent education level.
Sanchez stressed that there was no definite “community schools model” at this point. She said that a recent study by the school district based on the 2000 Census shows that 30 percent of Berkeley’s African-American children and youth live in poverty, according to the report. A higher percentage of children living in poverty reside in Southwest Berkeley. The area also had a higher percentage of adult population who did not have a high school diploma.
Huyett said that one of the strategies of the 2020 Vision’s 18-month plan was to reform secondary education.
He said that members of Berkeley Organizing Congregations in Action (BOCA) had met with him over the summer to talk about REALM, an alternative high school for students who were not achieving success at Berkeley High School or Berkeley Technology Academy, the district’s continuation high school.
Calling the district’s current secondary education model a “vertical failure model,” Huyett said that in spite of the various reforms going on at the high school, it did not meet the needs of all students.
Huyett said that when students failed at the high school, they were either “pushed out” or transferred to the continuation school.
“A lot of kids go to continuation school of their own choice, but largely if you go to continuation school at B-Tech—and as good as that program is—there is this feeling that ‘we got kicked out of the high school.’”
Huyett spoke of a new secondary model, where parents of struggling middle schoolers would be invited to send their children to an alternative academic program for intervention in seventh grade.
B-Tech Principal Victor Diaz presented a PowerPoint presentation on the proposed Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement (REALM) Technology High School, which would provide ninth through 12th graders—especially youth of color from South and West Berkeley—with an intimate small public school learning environment
The Planet reported June 25 that REALM was proposed to be a charter school focused on inculcating resiliency skills in students through innovative, culturally relevant and rigorous educational programs.
Diaz said that when parents brought their children to B-Tech for the first time, their first response was “how quickly can I get out of here and go back to Berkeley High School?”
“They want to know if the school is safe—they come up with every stereotype you can imagine that one would have about B-Tech,” he said. “Those are the challenges our staff faces on a daily basis. Those are the discomforts the parents and the students begin there first day of school with.”
Diaz said that standardized tests should not be the only measure of success for students, and that the emphasis should be on project-based learning.
“One of the things I want to challenge myself as an educator is to eliminate the achievement gap within four years—and I want to start saying that publicly,” Diaz said.
A majority of the school board members responded that they wanted Diaz to return with a more comprehensive plan before commenting on the feasibility of a new charter school.
Riddle said she had “pages of questions,” and most of them related to finances. Board member Shirley Issel said she wanted more information on how a charter school fits into the 2020 Vision.
Huyett said that he would like the district to visit similar programs in neighboring districts, establish an advisory group and develop plans for curriculum and housing over the next few months.
“We are in very tough economic times and clearly we need to have a financial plan before getting into governance,” he said.
For the June 25 story on REALM Technology High School visit: www.berkeleydaily.org/issue/2009-06-25/article/33217?headline=Community-Educators-Plan-City-s-First-Public-Charter-School