Can “Small Schools” Save Berkeley High?

A growing group of teachers and parents believe that the answer for Berkeley's sprawling and troubled high school is "smaller learning communities"

On the morning of Saturday, May 19, roughly sixty parents of Berkeley High students gathered for scones and coffee at the district’s alternative high school on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. They were mostly white, but they had come to consider a change in the high school’s organization that, if all goes well, could radically interrupt the educational destinies of the school’s roughly 1,200 black students, who fail or drop out in disturbingly high numbers. As they sat in rows of chairs, Rick Ayers, who runs the school’s Communication Arts and Sciences academy (CAS) and serves as the faculty advisor for the Berkeley High Jacket, sat on a small stage with six students, parents, and teachers, where they began an awkward “fishbowl” discussion among themselves about the challenges students face while trying to learn in a vast, impersonal school with a student body topping 3,200.

To borrow a phrase, Ayers and company came to bury the high school, not to praise it. Ayers’ innovative classroom work has produced some impressive results; by all accounts, his students are more engaged in the subject matter, responsive in class, and diligent and creative in their homework assignments. How has Ayers managed to accomplish this with his students, when so many others are drifting through their four years oblivious to their studies? The short answer is that his classes are small. The CAS academy is an experimental attempt to institute a group of small classes within the vast complex of Berkeley High. With this educational innovation, known as a “Smaller Learning Community,” teachers offer more personal, specialized instruction to relatively few students, developing educational themes designed to intrigue the students and arouse their curiosity, as well as a healthy sense of shame if they skip class. Now, Ayers wants the rest of Berkeley High to reorganize itself into a cluster of academies like the CAS academy. In short, Ayers thinks the best way to stop the hemorrhaging of underperforming kids is to slice Berkeley High up into a series of small schools, creating a cozier, more personal educational environment out of the ashes of the old; he and his colleagues have given themselves until the start of the next school year to convince Berkeley’s parents and teachers to go along with the plan.

To be sure, Ayers has more than students of color in mind. He thinks that the small academies he envisions simply represent a better instructional formula for everyone. But there’s no doubt that if Berkeley High stakeholders intend to change its organizational structure, they are doing it to address the achievement gap, for which the Western Association of Schools and Colleges again rebuked the school this year. Michael Miller was one of the parents on the stage Saturday morning, but he is also the chair of the steering committee of Parents of Children of African Descent (PCAD), the group that in February pushed through a dramatic remedial instruction program known as the “Rebound” program. According to Miller, any new Smaller Learning Communities program must be designed to help the school’s struggling kids, or it can’t be considered a success.

“This is one of the questions that we need to ask as we move into the small-schools initiative: What is the mark of success for the program?” Miller says. “Is it the kids who go to Ivy League schools, or is it the large percentage of kids who don’t graduate from the system? As we move toward the Smaller Learning Communities, we need to have some of these questions answered. In Berkeley, are we really about educating all of our kids? That seems to be ground zero to me.”

Indeed, most of the attributes of small schools–smaller class size, personalized instruction–are already found in the Rebound program, and on June 20, members of PCAD plan to present the school board with news that the remedial initiative has already accomplished a reduction in truancy and absenteeism among the school’s poorest-performing freshmen, as well as some anecdotes of students who have pushed their grade-point averages up to 3.0 and beyond. At the moment, PCAD members are keeping their numbers to themselves, but they claim that just four months into a program’s life, teachers will see a discernible difference. “At Berkeley High, we already have some Smaller Learning Communities, and I’m not just talking about Rebound,” Miller adds. “That’s what the [Advanced Placement] classes are all about.”

In theory, small schools function by creating a dynamic, interesting educational theme that engages the students and arouses their natural curiosity. But the most important element is developing a small, tightly knit group of kids who will reinforce one another’s commitment to studying and pressure those who have been cutting class to come back. The formula calls for more than small class size; the key is to cultivate a sense of teamwork among the kids, a connection to an adult who cares about their lives, a fear that if you blow off class or fail to do your homework, you’re actually disappointing your friends, who thought you were capable of more. At the May 19 meeting, Berkeley High Teacher Tammy Harkins argued that for failing students of color, such daily pressure could be just the thing to keep them coming back to class.

“At Berkeley High, we call these students all kinds of names: at-risk, remedial, disadvantaged, people of color; I have them in my fifth and sixth periods,” Harkins said. “In the last two weeks or so, I’ve had about twenty kids fall off the end of the earth. They disappear because they’re running around finding out they’re gonna flunk, so they say, ‘Oh well, I’m gonna take summer school anyway, so I’ll just blow that class off.’ When we sit down and have conversations with them [about their truancy], we find out that they’re still going to certain classes, sitting with certain teachers, because those teachers are going to listen to them about more than just what’s going on with their studies.

“What concerns me is the peer sabotage. These kids will choose to be with their friends and do the things that get them into trouble because the adults aren’t there. When we make these small schools, we have the opportunity to have the students think that instead of sitting in front of the TV or hanging out with their friends smoking pot in front of the post office or Iceland, they’ll think, ‘Gee, there’s an elder who’s worth spending time with, or maybe there’s a junior or senior who’s worth listening to.’ They could make that choice to spend their time with someone who can mentor or inspire them.

“In my fifth and sixth periods, there are kids who would have been casualties, but we had two or three seniors who if [a student] was walking to McDonald’s, they got in their car and drove to find him, or they went to his house. And pretty soon [that student] got the idea, ‘Hey, Carrie and Melinda are gonna be there in the class, and I know they’re gonna be looking for me, and they might be driving after me. So I may as well come.’ We could see that school-wide: the adults take care of the students and the students take care of each other, rather than the old factory model.”

But the Small Learning Communities initiative has a long way to go before it becomes anything more than a pipe dream. If Ayers and his colleagues are really planning to remake the high school from top to bottom, that will require enormous amounts of money for new staff, teacher retraining, and physical reorganization of the facility, especially during the transition phase. Last month, the Berkeley school board cut $4 million in services to wipe out a crippling deficit–including nearly four teaching positions–raising the fear that the student-to-teacher ratio will actually rise. All in all, this may not be the best time to ask the high school to undertake a costly reorganization. “In the transition, we’re gonna have a half-million dollars from the feds and close to a million from the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation–that’s what we’re asking for,” Ayers says. “But a million and a half isn’t a hell of a lot of money , and you don’t want to prop up a program on just that. But that money will put teachers into a position to lead these changes. We have to demonstrate that we can do the Small Learning Communities with the budget that we have. It isn’t just small schools; I wish it were.”

In addition, the high school has so many different constituencies that finding a formula that will satisfy everyone may be next to impossible. There are students of color, most of whom are barely struggling to pass, and there are white and Asian kids who are on the fast track to college. Changing Berkeley High from an institution that offers each kind of student the same education into a constellation of parallel specialized academies could amount to creating a “separate but equal” model, only without the hypocrisy and bad faith. If the school tries to divide its resources, competition among these disparate interest groups could easily scuttle the entire program.

In addition, the 1999 WASC report identified a crucial barrier to innovation at Berkeley High. A high priority has been placed on departmental autonomy, which allows departments the flexibility to tailor their curricula but often sabotages systemwide innovation and produces a professional culture in which teachers cultivate disgruntlement among themselves.

Berkeley High has never been a place that gets things done swiftly, due to the sheer diversity of its students, teachers, and parents. But Ayers has lined up support for his small-school plan from a majority of school board members, which is an important step. His next challenge will be to painstakingly convince the community at large to roll the dice on a radically different educational model, one that will involve allaying a lot of deeply held fear and mistrust. At the May 19 meeting, for example, one PTA member got into a snit with a student over school safety. The parent complained that when she came onto campus to monitor student behavior, she was treated like an annoyance, while the student complained that overeager parents act like cops and treat kids like criminals. As Ayers shops his idea around community meetings all over town, such brushfires are inevitable. How he and his colleagues manage to process such conflicts will no doubt be the key to his success.

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