Along with the usual campaign flyers that arrive in mailboxes during election season, Berkeley residents are receiving a glossy brochure from the Berkeley Unified School District touting a rosy laundry list of twenty disparate “accomplishments” in academics, facilities, and finances. Among the “Twenty Things to Know,” the claim that all Berkeley public schools have shown improved student achievement is false and misleading. Berkeley High has not shown improvement for years.
The district claims “In the Berkeley Public Schools we’ve improved student achievement in all of our schools.” The brochure continues, “Each of our eleven elementary schools achieved close to or above the state goal of 800 on the Academic Performance Index (API). All three middle schools have surpassed an API of 800.” All true.
The brochure makes no mention that the largest school in the district, Berkeley High, enrolling over 3,200 of the district’s 9,000 students, has shown long-term declines in student achievement. In fact, Berkeley High posted an API of 715 this year (compared with 725 in 2005) landing it at the bottom (the lowest 10%) of 100 similar public high schools in California.
The school board and the district seem to have lost sight of insuring that all high school students gain proficiency in critical math and English skills that will prepare them for post-secondary college and job opportunities. After years of district emphasis and investment in small schools reform and redesign of Berkeley High, student performance has declined in math and English in all of the six learning communities at Berkeley High. Moreover, the four “small schools” posted proficiency rates in math and English well below average state of California proficiency rates. There has been no progress in closing of the achievement gap at Berkeley High.
With respect to the budget, the district claims “Submitted a balanced budget for the next three years.” What does that mean? The brochure goes on, “The state budget crisis and difficult economic climate have cut resources to our schools, but a combination of efforts by teachers and staff, parents, voters, and community supporters has provided the people power, creativity and funding to ensure critical community priorities that strengthen our schools.” Has the board approved balanced budgets for the next three years? How can this be true?
The community should be asking how Berkeley students are doing and whether the school board and district are effectively targeting and managing fiscal resources. Student achievement and financing public education are top issues locally and statewide, but a serious discussion is warranted that goes beyond a superficial listing of dubious "accomplishments."
Berkeley taxpayers support BSEP and maintenance parcel taxes, and construction bond measures. The public deserves better accountability, including accurate information on BUSD academics, facilities, and finances. Using scarce public funding to produce and mail a poorly written "puff piece" is an insult and a disservice to the community.
The school board is elected to provide direction and oversight to BUSD and to provide accountability to the public. Can school board members and candidates move the discussion to a meaningful action plan of what needs to be done?