BHS Small Schools Discussion Nov 22, 2001
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BHS Small Schools Discussion Nov 22, 2001
Re: 2001 Discussions about BHS Small Schools Proposal
To: Parents of Teens
Berkeley High Small Schools Discussions
November 22, 2001
Note from the Moderator
The following messages were received regarding the proposal to convert
Berkeley High into small autonomous schools. Because they are long,
they've been included in a separate mailing. Parents of Teens is not
the optimal place to have this important discussion, because 1) most
parents and teachers at Berkeley High do not subscribe to Parents of
Teens, 2) Parents of Teens policies may be restrictive for some writers
3) there are many parents on the PoT list who are not in the BUSD.
A better forum would be an egroup (such as yahoo offers) or the
discussion list on the smallschools website:
However in the interest of public service and also in the interest of
time, Parents of Teens will run one more special edition on BHS small
schools if there is sufficient interest. If you would like to
contribute, reply to this message or send a new email to
firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "small schools".
Please note! all postings must follow the newsletter policies that
are on the website at http://parents.berkeley.edu/FAQ.html#rules
In brief: while you are encouraged to give your own opinion, you may
not criticize others' opinions in the process. I will have to return
any messages that don't conform to the policy. --Ginger Ogle
Small Schools will Limit Course Availbility
To Parents of Teens Newsletter:
In light of upcoming meetings to decide whether BUSD will move forward with a
proposal to convert Berkeley High School in its entirety to small autonomous
schools, we sent the comments below to the Berkeley School Board
(BoardofEd@berkeley.k12.ca.us). Our biggest concern is that choice of classes
would be drastically restricted under the current draft policy, because the small
schools would not be required to coordinate their calendars and schedules with
-- Juliann & Jamie
To: Board of Education, Berkeley Unified School District
Dear Members of the School Board,
As parents of two students in Berkeley public schools, we believe that the
proposal for small autonomous schools (Draft Policy for Berkeley High Small
Schools and Berkeley Unified School District, dated November 13, 2001,
online: http://berkeleysmallschools.org) is not realistic or desirable. Although
we agree that in many ways Berkeley High School is too big, the proposed
solution would hinder ongoing efforts to stabilize leadership at the school and
adversely restrict academic choice for many students. We feel that problems
caused by the large size of the school should be addressed through less drastic
The draft policy envisions BHS progressing to a complicated, multi-layered
administrative infrastructure. This seems unrealistic. Our communication
and coordination problems have reached a point where we now risk losing
accredition by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. We do not
have a fully functioning basic infrastructure, much less a sophisticated one
that could handle the proposed changes.
ACADEMIC CHOICE PROBLEMS
One of Berkeley High School's most attractive features is the wide range of
rigorous, academic courses available to all students who can meet the
challenge. This is one of the reasons that we chose BHS for our oldest child,
who is now a senior. But the draft policy would divide and spread course
offerings among 6 to 12 autonomous schools. Therefore, courses currently
taught to less than 6 to 12 classes of students per semester -- which includes
most of the courses at BHS and probably all of the AP courses -- would
probably not be available at every school. Because the schools would not be
required to coordinate their calendars and schedules with each other (see
pages 7, 10), students could easily be prevented, due to incompatible
schedules, from taking courses that are only available at another school.
In addition, although the draft policy claims that each small school will be a
"school of choice" for students and parents, it says that admissions at each
school "must not drain off the most accomplished or most motivated students"
(see page 10). This would prevent groups of students who want to take
particular AP classes from enrolling in schools that offer those classes.
Furthermore, courses currently taught to relatively small numbers of
students per semester at BHS, such as AP courses, might have too few
students enrolled in individual small schools to survive, and could easily be
We urge you to reject the draft policy. To give students a sense of belonging,
we in the BHS community should explore ways to strengthen the academic
counseling services for students and create and institute long-term social
structures that encourage students to interact meaningfully with each other
and with teachers and staff in smaller groups, without interfering with
students' choice of classes.
Juliann & Jamie
Good experience with CAS
My daughter, who did not want to be in a small school but rather be in "the real
Berkeley High" is in CAS. She LOVES it!!!! It is not so much what the actual
focus of the school is, as it is the enthusiasm of the teachers and the network and
comradary that the students develop. They get to know each other, which intern
creates a safe place for them to be who they are and share life experiences with
each other. The respectful attitude that is expected from them has allowed her
and others to discuss and challenge many different subjects. She told me
recently that her favorite classes are her CAS classes. I am so thankful for the
opportunity to be involved in this program. I only wish that small schools were
available when I went to BHS.
an appreciative mom
Small Schools are Doomed to Failure
Thank goodness for the insight and intelligence of Richard Ingels and
Margie Gurdziel for their thoughtful perspective of small schools.
The successful small schools which have been given much publicity are
schools in which parents must sign a meaningful contract that their
child will perform certain and detailed academic assignments without
the blink of an eye. Children are schooled from 8 AM until 5 PM and the
school usually runs year round. If a child does not measure up or if
the parents are not visible in the schooling of their youngsters, the
child is no longer welcome in the school.
Such compliance to obedience and rigors is not a part of the Berkeley
community attitude, and thus small schools are doomed to failure. There
are so many reasons why shaping the high school into a regular academic
structured course of study institution should be first on the plate. We
have gotten millions of dollars in the 70's to try small schools, that
money came from the federal government too. Where are those schools
now? They failed and things were much more orderly at that time. It
was small schools in the 70's which began the decline of academic caring
in the schools. Minority students did not find education there either.
Education thinkers come up with all kinds of goodies, e.g. not grading
on the curve, grading on the curve, small class sizes, eliminate
tracking, small schools, more money (Berkeley gets 20 million dollars
more than districts its size), and still things only get worse. No one
looks at why the gap grows? They only come up with gimmicks, cute
educationese which appears to be a logical answer.
No one looks at the countries who are out performing the United States
in Math and Science. What are they doing to be successful. For that
matter, does any one look at what is being done to make successful
students succeed at Berkeley High School or middle school or elementary
school? Do they apply the same measure of success in small schools?
How is it that the whole world is educated to speak English? Why did I
know an old woman who grew up in Waco, Texas, an African American poor
farm lady: she attended a one room school house and was taught Latin and
Trigonometry. She also spoke elegant English. Her school was small for
sure, but it had standards which do not come very easily to youngsters
who are failing at Berkeley High. Could it be that people are afraid
that they might really learn and out perform their caucasian fellows.?
That would upset the whole apple cart wouldn't it?
Teachers should teach (I am waiting for that to be an unblinking
standard in the schools (not one just for white children) and students
should learn. ALL of them. Small schools do not necessarily bring this
about. It didn't in the 70's or 80' or 90's and now we are bankrupt and
here come the "progressives" to set the system on its feet with a "new"
The marketing on the idea is out doing the energy which should be put
into the classroom right this minute.
Small Schools should be supported, nourished, and celebrated
I want to take a minute to respond to the charges against Small
Schools leveled by Richard Ingels and Margie Gurdziel. There is so
much to say that I don't know where to start. But, since they singled
out Berkeley High's Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) as an
example of a problem created by the schedules of small schools, and,
since I am the teacher coordinator of CAS, let me start there.
Ingels and Gurdziel tell us that "CAS students were prohibited from taking
straight AP Algebra II. They were required to take the Honors option within
regular Algebra." The problem here is that they must be repeating a rumor
but they certainly can't have their facts straight. For one thing, there is
no AP Algebra II and in the following year there is no AP Math Analysis. AP
only starts at the level of Calculus and Statistics. The only choices are
Algebra II AB (AC21Y) and Honors Algebra II AB (AC25Y). And, yes, we do
have sophomores and juniors taking the honors Algebra II.
But let's take this as a potential case, as there are sometimes single
classes that conflict with locked CAS classes. Let's say there were an AP
Algebra II and the CAS curriculum conflicted with that. Well, welcome to
the complexities of a master schedule in a factory-model school. You could
as well condemn German IV since that class, being a singleton, may conflict
with AP Algebra II. Berkeley High has a wonderful, large course catalogue.
Ask your students how many classes they actually get to take, how many
electives. It's like going into a French restaurant with an 8 page menu -
you can only order a few items. We do have conflicts of the locked CAS
schedule time and certain classes. If we had an administration that were
following through on a coherent policy for small schools, they would do a
better job of avoiding these "singleton class" conflicts.
What we have now is a factory model school. Built on the paradigm of the
1920's and for a smoke-stack economy, the factory model school suggests that
we educate children by giving them a bit of math here, a bit of English
there, and they go down the assembly line in little 45 minute segmented
classes. And what comes out the other end is supposed to be a completely
educated student. But what this leaves out is that every student should be
known well and pushed hard to do well. Every student should be able to work
in a community of teachers and students to take responsibility for his/her
Suggesting that the factory model school is all about choice skews the
argument. First of all, high school students are compelled to do things 90%
of their day. They have A to G requirements, they have crew or other
sports, they have single class conflicts - all kinds of limits on choices.
Thematic small schools would allow students to make the most important
choice, to choose an engaged, cross-disciplinary course of study which would
speak to their passions and interests.
Moreover, we have done very little to use the facilities of Berkeley High
School creatively. We could have some programs that ran from 7 AM to 1 PM
and others from noon to 6 PM. We could have enrichment and AP courses in
the regular day and also offered at night. We could have students taking
70% of their courses in small schools and then taking certain electives
outside of the small schools (courses that are not bound to any school) or
in other small schools (through "passports" between the schools). Or
students could be 100% in certain small schools and still take night
enrichment classes or community college classes.
We need to think outside of the box in imagining how to invent school that
works - that engages and inspires students. Here we are in the most
exciting cultural and natural location in the country, the San Francisco Bay
Area, and I know many seniors who have never even had a field trip outside
of the factory in four years. Let's bring a little joy and humanity to this
task of educating young people.
While I think small schools could preserve many of the interesting electives
and allow students to reach the highest academic level they can, we are
currently offering a shopping mall (if I may switch the metaphor) of class
choices. Our proposal is that students choose from a range of small
schools. While these may not have every course choice in each school, it
would provide students with a much richer and more engaging experience.
Let's give students a chance to become engaged in their own learning, to pursue
their learning beyond the boundaries of their small school in space as well
as time. Let's help them become life-long learners, which is so important
in our rapidly changing world. The appeal of every possible "choice" is not
what it is cracked up to be. Aren't students feeling a need for simpler
lives, better peer friendships in school, stronger connections with adults,
and richer experience?
You suggest that the wonderful things about schools that the SEEDS document
calls for could just as well be achieved in a large school. Help us, then,
to understand why it has never been achieved at Berkeley High. Help us
understand why African American and Latino students are failing out in such
scandalous numbers. Explain why we are hemorrhaging teachers, losing up to
30% a year, often the young, progressive, inspired teachers who become
disgusted with the chaos and dysfunction of the factory school. Let us know
how we can keep a principal beyond two years. To propose that Berkeley High
work better is a pious hope if you don't give teachers and students the
means for success, the kind of organization that would allow us to really
engage in education. Yes, it would be lovely to have all of these things,
to have teachers working well and have students paying attention, but is
there any other proposal for how to move that way?
I don't want to hear the drumbeat about "choice" without parents also
speaking to what they would suggest for all the ills of the school.
Let's face it. We are a school in crisis. We are in one of the
finest communities in the country, we are funded by our community, we
have incredible students and an awesome staff. We should be a model
school for the country, showing how integration and diversity can
work. Instead we get a "one year" from WASC and we are ignoring their
number one recommendation, to address the achievement gap.
I would like to see us break out of the us vs. them mentality that has led
to the stalemates in Berkeley's balkanized politics. We do not need to have
the "hills parents" holding out against the "flatland parents" - fighting
over pieces of the pie. I have children in the Berkeley school system. It
breaks my heart to see the racist lessons this system teaches in putting
students in the same schools but not giving teachers or students the means
for success. Do we want to put up gated communities around our students,
have them succeed next to failure for students of color? Is there even
success for white students in the context of failure for students of color?
It depends on what kind of school society we want our children to live in
and what kind of larger society we want them to graduate to. We can decide
to be allies of the communities who have not been served by our schools and
we will discover, moreover, that all students will be getting a better
education. Or if we choose not to be allies, we can only wait to see how
long communities of color will put up with paying taxes for schools that
fail to educate their children.
Will small schools do all these things? I believe they will and the little
schools within a school we currently have, while facing many difficulties,
show the vast possibilities our school and our wonderful community
possesses. Small schools won't automatically usher in all these new
changes. But they will create the scale of organization that will help us
begin to work on it.
Let's talk about the research. We have to start by saying the all research
should be taken with a grain of salt. Education is not like physics, the
laws are not so fixed. And even in physics there is always debate about the
conclusions you reach in research. But the research on small schools is
overwhelming, massive, and incontrovertible. I suggest you go to
www.smallschoolsworkshop.org to take a look at the main studies and the
summary studies. Have we had enough studies, do we need to think about it
more? We have been working for this at Berkeley High for ten years. Every
year we hear the same thing: not yet, maybe one more year, let's talk about
it. That's the Berkeley "drift," the anarchy that will go on and on until
someone has the courage to say, yes, let's take the leap, let's dig in and
make this work. Or, of course, we could just keep drifting, getting "one's"
from WASC, serving in a Darwinian manner a handful of kids who manage to
work the system, and demoralizing and breaking hundreds of others.
I want to make one final observation. Most BHS staff and BUSD board
members in fact seek to put their children in the small schools. They
are closer to the school and see what goes on. One of the worst
things about doing CAS is the admissions process. We have many more
applicants than we can accept. We turn away dozens of students,
strong academic students and students with other talents. We would
rather have enough options to mean that we would not turn away any.
Right now, many other teachers are thinking about starting small
schools but they are not about to jump off with new projects if there
is not a coherent board policy and administrative support for the
venture. Small schools should not be this uphill battle of a few
dedicated teachers. They should be institutionalized, supported,
nourished, and celebrated. We need small schools that have the
necessary autonomies to be successful - they should have autonomy of
staffing, curriculum and assessment, governance, space, and time.
Small schools also need to be accountable - to the requirements of
state standards and school wide expectations. We can do this, we can
create a dynamic, exciting, entrepreneurial, and accountable school at
Berkeley High. Or we can let the drift continue. The choice is ours.
Small schools will make things better for all of our teens at BHS
I am a European American parent of a sophomore at BHS and an eighth
grader at Willard, and have been working with the Community Action
Committee for Small Schools, conducting much of the research into other
schools around the country that have made the changes we are
contemplating. I wanted to respond to the main concerns I hear raised
by parents in the community who are wondering if this is a good
direction for us to go.
BHS is not only a large school of over 3000 students, it also has an
incredibly diverse student population racially and economically. It has
proven impossible to find a single principal who can manage the school.
There have been 5 principals in the last 10 years.
Berkeley High has been struggling to maintain its accreditation. The
school has been unable to form a unified vision for working on critical
problems at the school, particularly the gross underachievement of
children of color. Small schools would allow development of a unifying
vision and overarching principles while still allowing teachers to
innovate within more manageable structures.
Berkeley High systems and structures are bureaucratic, ineffective and
unwieldy. Small schools provide the opportunity to increase
accountability and develop systems that work well for smaller
organizations of students. In a large system it is easy for teachers,
staff and students to hide if they are not doing what they should. In a
small school, where every student9s name is known, and where all the
teachers can sit around one table to discuss curriculum, and student
issues, accountability becomes more inherent. Small schools don9t stop
kids from falling through the cracks, they close the cracks.
Approximately 30% of the teaching staff leave the high school each year.
They are often the younger, dynamic, and enthusiastic teachers who are
burned out from being responsible for teaching an unreasonable number of
students (150+), frustrated with their inability to impact students who
are struggling, and convinced of the impossibility of significant
improvement in the large setting.
Students at the most prestigious preparatory schools in the Bay Area
attend schools the size of those proposed under Berkeley High's Small
Schools proposal. Students who fare well in the large setting, as well
as those who feel lost in that setting-all report substantially
increased satisfaction with their education in smaller environments
where they know their peers, are known by all the teachers of their
school, and have a challenging and integrated curriculum.
Other than small schools, no other transformative school reform idea has
been proposed, to address the long-standing failure of the school to
address the gross underachievement of its students. In the class of
2000, 42% of African-American students had a GPA below a 2.0 in their
freshman year. In the class of 2004, 52% of African-American students
had a GPA below a 2.0 in their freshman year. Piecemeal approaches of
tutoring and student support have proven ineffective in impacting what
has been allowed to develop into a culture of underachievement.
The research is overwhelming and conclusive that smaller schools provide
an organizational structure that facilitates improved achievement,
greater safety, lower drop out rates, increased parent involvement, and
increased student and teacher satisfaction.
The large school is touted for the large number of elective choices it
offers. Currently, students who want to take the recommended course
loads for admission to the University of California, and graduation,
must take 220 credits of prescribed courses, and there is very little
room in a student9s schedule for elective courses. Integration of
curriculum in small schools offers some of the richest opportunities for
meaningful enrichment work within the university-bound path.
The large school is attractive to some families because of the number of
AP courses that are available to students. Small Schools reform at
Berkeley High School does not propose to eliminate AP courses nor offer
them as the exclusive province of a particular small school that is then
inaccessible to some students. The small school model proposed provides
the possibility for students to participate in their small school for
the bulk of the day, and to take specialized elective or academic
courses for part of the day. Common Ground and CAS illustrate these
examples: Common Ground offers multiple AP courses within its walls;
CAS students have access to AP courses outside of the small school
structure. Undoubtedly, the range of choices and combinations of
courses currently available to students will be less than exists in the
large "shopping mall" type school. However, the gains in depth that can
come through learning in personalized, integrated and relevant settings
far offset the loss of breadth of choice.
Many families value the current BHS system of teacher choice available
to 10th-12th grade. This currently allows students to prioritize
teacher preference in two subjects. This concept would be maintained in
the new small schools, as families would prioritize themes, curriculum,
and teaching staff when they selected the small school to which they
The size and resulting anonymity, the segregation of a large student
body and the inequity represented along lines of segregation creates an
unstable and unsafe environment for all students at Berkeley High
School. Persistent random acts of violence in our student community of
students are unacceptable, and point to the urgency for improving the
climate and experience of all students. Small schools have been proven
to increase student safety and sense of belonging. As small schools are
envisioned at Berkeley High School, each school would occupy a specific
area of the school (or choose an off-site location relevant to its theme
of study). All students in that school would be known, and intruders
would immediately be recognized.
I hope that the community will remain open-minded, visit the website
where you can get links to further research, and seize the opportunity
to make things better for all of our teens at Berkeley High.
These discussions are from the Parents of Teens newsletter
this page was last updated: Apr 28, 2009
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