Public Comment

Small Classes Controversy at Berkeley High

By Raymond Barglow
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 09:50:00 AM

In 2003, with the help of a million-dollar grant from the Gates Foundation, Berkeley High School, which serves a diverse student body of about 3,400 students, was divided into six “small learning communities,” or “small schools” as they're sometimes called. The aim was to personalize education and reduce the achievement gap between higher- and lower-performing students. Many in the latter category are students of color, and so the reform, which was supported as well by the US Department of Education, “anticipated project outcomes [that] include improved standardized test scores and college preparedness for African American and Latino students.”  

Seven years later, the verdict on whether or not these changes have improved the high school is not in. The small learning communities (SLCs) have created dynamic theme-based programs designed to bring students at all performance levels together within an educational environment that engages them all, encourages their creativity and curiosity, and inspires them to do their best. 

Yet the achievement gap has not been reduced. And today the school board and high school governing council are faced with the predicament of distributing increasingly scarce resources not to one large school but to six small ones, vying with one another for teachers, facilities, and other bare necessities. 

One of the ideals of progressive education is small class size, which enables each student to receive more personal attention from the teacher. As Annie Johnston, coordinator of one of the SLCs, Community Partnership Academy, explained at last week's school board meeting, “Extra time with each student allows teachers to differentiate instruction, which is what allows all students to move toward grade level.” 

Small classes are expensive, however, requiring more funding for teachers and facilities. Hence it's no surprise that class size is a charged issue that intensifies competition among the SLCs. If you are a teacher with 20 students in your classroom, and there are 35 students in mine, I may very well feel that my students are being shortchanged, and that I'm having to constantly police the classroom to maintain order and discipline, while you are actually able to teach. Students too are acutely sensitive to the neglect that large classes entail, and they respond accordingly.  

Hence small classes are regarded by many educators as the holy grail of effective classroom instruction. But some of the parents and teachers at Berkeley High say that class size is being unfairly handled. Three teachers in the science department, Evy Kavaler, Matt McHugh, and Amy Hansen, allege that two of the learning communities, Academic Choice (AC) and Berkeley International High School (BIHS), have on average substantially larger classes than do the other four programs: “AC and BIHS have the most overcrowded classes in the school. 151 classes have an enrollment of 33 students or more. This year almost all of these over-enrolled classes are in AC or in BIHS.” Statistical data provided by these teachers and by parents who are similarly concerned appear to support this claim. 

These critics point out as well that such class size differences are prohibited by Berkeley High's official “Small Schools' Guiding Principles,” which specify that “A small school [i.e. an SLC] will be allocated the same student/teacher ratio, student/administrator ratio, and student/counselor ratio as is available to other students in the high school.” 

Why are class sizes larger in two of the learning communities than in the other four? Priscilla Myrick, parent of two Berkeley High graduates and a former representative on the BHS Governance Council, finds a partial explanation in the composition of the governing council itself, where the SLCs have not been granted proportional representation: “The responsibility for allocating teachers lies with the principal and School Governance Council. But a lop-sided School Governance Council can produce lop-sided results. In the interest of fairness and equity for all students and teachers, class sizes at Berkeley High need to be more equitably balanced.” 

Berkeley School Board Superintendent Huyett points out, however, that it's standard in public schools to have variable class sizes, since some classes call for higher student-teacher ratio than others. Because struggling students, for example, need more personal attention from their teachers, some classes have more students in order to lower the class size in others. “When you have higher need students, slow learners, you typically vary your staffing,” according to Huyett. 

Critics of class-size policies at the high school submit that the wish to support under-performing students does not explain why the four small SLCs have smaller class sizes than AC and BIHS have. Amy Hansen, a teacher in the science department at BHS, said that “AC has an African-American population that nearly mirrors the demographics of the school ... we have our fair share of at-risk students. And we try to support them with smaller class sizes.” But this effort is hampered, according to Hansen, by student-teacher ratios that are higher in AC and BIHS than in the other four learning communities. 

At issue also is the distribution of release time to teachers at the six BHS learning communities. Release time, which is used for staff development and student support, varies widely across the six programs. Science teachers Kavaler, McHugh, and Hansen have offered data indicating that the four smaller programs, “receive 2.8 times more release time per student than AC and BIHS combined.” 

The six learning communities at Berkeley High are currently considering a redesign plan that aims to improve the experiment in small learning communities that began in 2003. This experiment hands over to teachers, parents, and students a lot of autonomy in creating personalized education at the school, and John Dewey smiles upon it from above. But whether the school can find a path forward that meets the needs of its diverse constituencies—in an era of severely limited resources—remains to be seen. 


Raymond Barglow is the founder of Berkeley Tutors Network.