2001 Discussions about BHS Small Schools Proposal

A Discussion from 2001 Parents of Teens newsletters about small schools ...


May-June 2001

forwarded by Iris Starr, Joan Blades, Melissa Quilter

May 19: Summit on "Smaller Learning Communities" at Berkeley High

  From (8:30 for coffee) 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., join us for an open community meeting to find out what Smaller Learning Communities (SLCs) could mean for your growing children and our community, featuring:        

*  A brief history and status of the SLC planning process at Berkeley High School          

*  Keynote Speaker Steve Jubb, Director of the Bay Area Coalition of  Equitable Schools        

*  A forum for questions from the community and answers from the experts    

Bring other parents you know, your neighbors, and your children!  If Berkeley     High School is to remain accredited, we need to make big advances in     eliminating the disparity in achievement between students of different races,     reducing truancy and violence, and retaining the best teachers for our kids. The     best chance for doing this is through a comprehensive planning effort, not by     the type of piecemeal actions that have been tried in the past. Join us in     this exciting (and essential) strategic planning and school change process!     For more info, visit our website at:     http://www.geocities.com/berkeleysmalllearningcommunities/index.html  

Is anyone else out there worried about the prospects of dividing BHS into Small Learning Communities? Here are some concerns:

- adding another layer of bureacuracy and adding another remove from accountability--who's in charge of monitoring learning and how do you remove/reorganize a SLC that isn't up to par
- adding another way for those in the know to get ahead, at the expense of those who can't or won't advocate for themselves
- having the prospect of $$ steer policy instead of the other way around
- why not shore up what is working at BHS and bring the entire school up to snuff ?
- how do you get in or out of a SLC if it isn't right for you? who are the gatekeepers?
- how do you get full participation by faculty, which is needed, it seems, to guarantee success? from comments here and elsewhere it seems that, in addition to extremely dedicated faculty at BHS, there is a share of not-so-dedicated.

I am also worried about dividing BHS into small learning communities. I attended the meeting last week at the alternative school. While many interesting ideas were brought out, I have several areas of concern:

- The research quoted referred to "small schools," which are not necessarily the same as small learning communities.
- What is this research? Where can we find and read it for ourselves?
- People in the past have been quick to jump on the bandwagon for something they think is going to "fix" our schools without properly researching it in detail (remember whole language?). Before we subject BHS to the disruptions entailed in changing the entire nature of the school, I think we should consider long and hard.
- I have not so far been impressed by the efforts of the SLC advocates to convince us to join them. A lot of buzz words fly around, but nothing was said at the meeting that would convince me to join them. The web page also contains no hard information.

SLC's may indeed be the answer to BHS's woes. But we all need more information, a lot more. Jenifer


June 2001

First of all, I think "small schools" and "small learning communities" are essentially the same thing.


Most important, however, is that I agree that SLCs are not a panacea. Anyone who thinks that they will solve all the problems at BHS is unrealistic, in my opinion. I think we all need to be careful about expecting any one thing to solve all the problems at the school The issues are very complex and include social and family issues that cannot necessarily be effectively dealt with by any particular school structure. It also includes the fact that some teachers are better than others. No matter how we change (or don't change) the structure of the school, students will not have a good learning experience with certain teachers. That's a fact that we can't change.

On the other hand, IF we can deal with the issue of ensuring a good mix in each SLC (i.e., racial, economic, etc.), AND do it in a way that speaks to the interests of each student, then I think we have a better chance of having a better learning (and LIVING) experience at BHS. Think about how you feel when you are at a large gathering with mostly people you don't know vs how you feel when you are at a smaller gathering with people most of whom you do know. Isn't there more investment and interest in the smaller gathering? Aren't you more at ease, unless you hate the people in the smaller gathering? But then that's the idea of trying to find the right MIX of people, but with similar interests. If I am interested, I am more likely to be invested and to do well and to feel committed to my work. Wasn't that true when you were at school? When I liked the subject, and the teacher, it was easier to do the work.

Somehow, although there are problems to be dealt with, I like the idea of SLCs. BUT I encourage us all to be careful about expecting too much from them, especially in the beginning. YES, WE NEED TO PLAN CAREFULLY AND FULLY. But even then, anything new usually brings problems we are not expecting. IF we go to SLCs, and things aren't perfect right off the bat, I hope we will all be both patient and involved enough to fix what's wrong and keep what's right. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." (I hope it's ok to quote this; I love it and it seems to apply here). Meg

I am concerned that the SLC may become "dumping" grounds. I want them totally integrated and, if they are the "wave" of the future, responsive to academic concerns. My nephew wants to join Common Ground,and I have allowed him to do so. I will be watching/evaluating his educational experience very critically, in the Fall. I want him educated for the future, not just made to "feel good". Theda

I also am interested in knowing more about the small learning communities concept - including: how small is "small"? Will everyone be included, or will some be left out? One of the main reasons I am interested, though, is the potential for reducing violence - by making students less "anonymous" than they are now. If smaller learning communities will help make our children safer, that's a worthwhile end in itself. fiona

I read with interest two comments/questions about the effort at Berkeley High to explore the possibilities that smaller learning communities may hold for addressing student, parent, community and staff (and now the western schools accreditation committee) concerns about the shortcomings of our community's single, large (one of the largest in the state) high school. As a parent of a graduating 8th grader, and despite being in BUSD schools for 9 years so far with 2 kids, I had very little first hand knowledge of BHS. Therefore about 5 months ago I started trying to find out what this huge school might be like-more than what I'd heard or read indirectly. I had heard about CAS (communication arts and science) and the computer academy, and came across Common Ground, one of the newer "small learning communities" which focuses on environmental sciences using multidisciplinary/systems thinking and learning tied with experiential learning. These are some of the "smaller learning communities" that exist already at the high school. The idea seemed intriguing. Having worked on equity issues from the elementary level on up and being well aware that the achievement gap certainly doesn't start at the high school, but is accentuated and writ larger there because the stakes are higher, I also wanted to understand how smaller schools within a school could make a real difference for ALL students, when other approaches seemingly haven't. What's size got to do with it? Well, my gut level feeling is that BHS is too damn big and that being so large it is that much easier for large number of students to fall through many different cracks, be unknown to caring adults, lose time(academically and personally) that can't be recaptured, become demoralized or alienated, and fail to have someone catch them before they fall further, fall out of school altogether,(or stay but with Ds and Fs).

So, I went to a small learning communities (SLC) meeting. Most people there were asking questions-how will this work, what will happen to x,y or z (sports, music, special programs--plug in your own personal interest area), how will equity be an issue that gets paid attention to across all of any existing or new SLCs, will these smaller groupings make strudents safer,what's the research say, are other schools doing this (yes, they are across the country!) and if so, how's it working. Rick Ayers, faculty leader of CAS and the coordinator for the small learning communities planning grant, has compiled quite a bit of research and stories about small learning communities across the country www.smallschools.com and http://www.smallschoolsworkshop.org/info3.html .

At any rate, this is a planning process, with grant support from the federal Dept of Ed and Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (with Gates Foundation $), to get input, try to answer some of the questions people have, develop support among teachers, unions, parents, students, community groups and others and discuss the actual configuration/policies/best practices of what smaller learning communities at BHS could look like. Some people are going to visit other high schools in the area (SF,Marin,San Jose and more) that already have SLCs, others are reading the literature/ research coming out of Chicago, Cambridge and other communities who have made this change, others are holding house meetings to discuss SLCs and raise more questions and try to get people's ideas on how this could work better than the one over-sized, factory style high school called BHS.The goal of the planning grant staff, cmt and supporters of this idea is to write a proposal for the school board to consider in the fall, which, if successful, would lead to the submission of a full-fledged Small Learning Communities grant to the Dept of Education, with the possibility that the Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools, which is providing technical assistance and $ for the planning process, might also provide additional financial support to support SLC at BHS.

I am one parent looking at how to improve BHS, and I think that SLCs make a lot of sense and could help address many of the concerns about being large/impersonal, not safe, do something about THE achievement gap in more meaningful individualized ways, hold teachers, parents and students accountable, etc.. Parents and students in CAS, Common Ground, the computer academy and other small program within BHS, seem to prefer these arrangements for a variety of reasons; they are limited in many ways however (CAS is 3 periods a day, Common Ground hopes to have as many as 6 periods a day) and don't have the infrastructure to "go all the way": to designing learning around students needs and engaging every student in meaningful educational experiences. Yes, there are a lot of questions, but there is evidence that this path can improve the large (3000 plus-) comprehensive high school that just doesn't work for all of our students in the 21st century, where educational inequality(by race/ethnicity) is said to be the one of the biggest barriers to a more just and democratic society. Ask questions and get involved-BHS needs your ideas and energy-if you are frustrated by being recruited to walk safety patrols on campus, come construct the future where they, hopefully, won't be needed! Kathy

I'm writing in response to Jenifer's concerns about the small learning community effort at BHS. I went to BHS many years ago and I would like my son to go there in a couple of years. Sadly large numbers of students fail to thrive at BHS. Small learning communities such as CAS and the Computer Academy are in high demand and appear to be succeeding. I believe small learning communities are our best chance of dramatically improving the experience of all BHS students. There are now decades of research on small learning communities. It has been empirically established that they:
1. Improve academic performance (Including reducing the achievement gap.)
2. Decrease violence (Federal funding became available after the Littleton CO shooting.)
3. Raise both student and teacher moral and attendance
This is the short list. For academic and popular articles about small learning communities take a look at LINKS at the small learning community website. http://www.geocities.com/berkeleysmalllearningcommunities/index.html

Small Learning Communities take many forms and at this time there is no plan for what kind of small learning communities might be formed at BHS. The BHS community must decide that together.

An example benefit: Small learning communities would change teacher and student dynamics. Presently most BHS teachers teach nearly 150 students per day and every semester they teach a new 150 students. It is not humanly possible for teachers to take a deep interest in all of these students. In a small learning community teachers would most likely see less than half that many students per day and they would see those same students semester after semester. The chance for real relationships to form are dramatically better. Moreover teachers within a small learning community would have better opportunities to coordinate efforts to help struggling students. One stated goal of small learning communities is "Personalizing Learning for every student." In theory students would no longer be able to slip through the cracks with no adult noticing.

Small Learning Communities do not solve all of BHS problems. They do however put problems on a more human scale. Hence more parents get involved, success and failure become more apparent and action is more likely to be taken and prove effective. I believe this is an opportunity to begin to make BHS a great school. Joan

November 2001

Parents of children attending public school,students and teachers have a choice to make soon about the future of Berkeley High School. As parents who have kids in BHS and parents whose kids are approaching high school, you who read this newsletter see all the issues that keep coming up about BHS. How/why it is not working. There is a process going on now to decide whether to restructure Berkeley High School into small autonomous schools. This is called the "Small Schools" movement. It is an approach that has been used with success school-wide in other communities. Berkeley High already has several Small Schools functioning- CAS-Communications Arts and Sciences- a humanities based program that focuses on Social Justice. Common Ground- an environmental focus. Computer Academy-and this year Academic Choice. My daughter is a Junior in CAS. She is very passionate about the relationships she has developed in CAS with teachers and students.These relationships exist because there are 60 kids in her grade level in CAS that she stays with for all 4 years. By now she has met these kids in English and History classes for 2+ years. She knows her teachers.They know her. She told me-one of the reasons she why likes CAS so much and can see how Small Schools work for the students is that when you enter the Sophomore year, instead of starting all over again to figure out who is who and feeling self-conscious about participating in class, you know everyone and something about their point of view. Even if you don't agree with them you know that already and what to expect and can continue the discussion. Research has demonstrated that school size is a major factor in student academic success. Small automomous schools significantly improve the education and achievement of urban students, particularly students of color and low-income students. The achievement gap is a big problem at BHS and is affecting its accredidation. There are alot of reasons to go forward with this process.

As a parent- It has been my experience that as your child moves up through school it becomes harder to stay connected to the school or other parents. Being a CAS parent has given me a school community to participate in to help support the teachers as well as the students. The decision to restructure or not has to be made by the end of this year. There are meetings going on now, focus groups plus a website. A community wide meeting will take place on Dec 1st- this is for the whole community to show their support. The students and teachers will vote on this Dec 3 and 4. The school board will vote Dec 5. For those of you concerned about funding, there are 2 large grants available to fund the transition that could be used if the community decides to do this.

I urge anyone who is interested in finding out more about this processs to visit the website. http://berkeleysmallschools.org There is alot of information on the website on the process taking place now, how to get involved, links to research on small schools, timeline, etc. Unfortunately, we do not have alot of time. Dec 4th is only one month away! If after looking at the website, you would like more information or have questions about any aspect of this, or would like to help in the process to restructure BHS into small schools please contact me. Laura

It is becoming more and more apparent to me, as a parent who only recently returned to Berkeley High from a year's absence, that the call for small schools is building to a crescendo. Proponents are now talking rallies and city council meetings and actions They want reform and they want it NOW.

Schools should be about education, not politics, and yet, the adoption of the small schools has become a political issue.

Without even venturing close to the educational arguments--most of which I understand are favorable to small schools--I can't believe the timing. BHS reels from crisis to crisis with no one at the helm. It is clearly this vacuum which has allowed some of the small schools to get as far as they have with inadequate structure and supervision. It is also very clear to me that we, as a community, are in no position to radically overall the school at this moment. We need a leader first or there will be one mess after another. My goodness, If EVERYONE is placed in a small school next fall, which is what the small school people want, we are going to have chaos. CAS was created by a group of dedicated, excited teachers banding together to create something special. But, if every teacher in the entire school is assigned a spot in a small school and then every child is also assigned a small school, can you imagine the panic to avoid having one's child assigned the small school that has the math teacher that spends his teaching time chatting on the phone or the economics teacher who assigns one task the entire semester--draw a picture?

There are big questions (i.e. what will happen to teacher choice, what about unenthusiastic teachers, and the elective program?) Thinking big-time sweeping reform, we need someone to first put the house in order and for that we need a principal who is willing to stay around awhile and actually supervise what happens. And, we also need to give the new superintendent time to put the district in order. Is there no way the small school people can take a deep breath and pause? I think it is important the school board hear that Berkeley High needs time now, not turmoil. Please call and let them know what you think. They can be reached at (510) 644-6550 or by e-mail BoardofEd [at] berkeley.k12.ca.us. Janet

Let's not put the cart before the horse. The reason we can't seem to keep a principal at Berkeley High is that the school has become unmanageable. I wouldn't recommend waiting around for a new leader to restore order and hope that he or she can fix such deep-seated problems as the achievement gap between well-prepared, middle-class kids and kids of color and the poor teacher retention rates at the high school. In fact, this might be a good time to initiate meaningful change because the present administration-by-committee arrangement seems to have resulted in more teacher input in the running of the school. Who better to help shape education than the teachers!

We shouldn't mistake urgency for haste. Anyone who has had any contact with the school would appreciate the complexities involved in moving toward a comprehensive plan that will treat everyone as fairly as possible while optimizing the educational opportunities for all of its students. As I understand it, the main reason for seeking a commitment on small schools now is that the large grants needed to fund the deliberate design and implementation of a plan must be applied for without much more delay. If the school community as a whole embraces a well-articulated though general policy on small schools in early December, we'll all move on to the design phase during which the particulars will be worked out. Implementation of a plan would not occur until the Fall of 2003. I am currently working with the group of teachers and parents who are attempting to survey each and every one of BHS' 200 plus teaching staff. We hope to collect as much data as we can so that the basis for proceeding is as broad, factual and concrete as possible. It's been highly interesting work, and we could use some help. Audrey

Dear Parents Of Teens, We sent the following letter regarding BHS Small Schools to the Disrict and City Counsel. One of BHS's strenghths is course selection. We are very concerned about the lack of choice in electives in the existing small schools at BHS. While we agree that there is a profound need for improvment at BHS, we don't agree that small schools designed around set curriculums, is appropriate.

Member of the Board of Education & Superintendent of Schools, Berkeley Unified School District

Ladies and Gentlemen: This is concerning the proposal for Small Schools Design and Implementation in the Berkeley Unified School District. We have finished reading the Sample Policy Documents (referred to as SEEDS) and wish to convey our concern and skepticism regarding this proposal as a remedy for disparity in performance within Berkeley High.

SEEDS raises a number of good points but it fails to show how the Small Schools Initiative will deliver the vision described in the second paragraph of the Introduction. Indeed, this vision describes what we want from any school and elucidates why large numbers of people are sending their children to private schools (hoping to capture this vision outside of public schools).

The cited research makes vague reference to "well-designed schools" and "practices developed in many college-prep and private schools". However after reading SEEDS, we were unable to understand what criteria will be used to identify good school design. In fact it seems the proposed co-location will undermine the majority of conditions intrinsic to the necessary autonomy required by small schools.

The Guiding Principles described in SEEDS Section IX are wonderful! But we fail to see how these are the exclusive province of Small Schools. We believe they should apply to any school of any size. The real issue is HOW to manifest these principles in real life. It is not intuitively obvious to us that Small Schools will do this. Our experience in navigating our two children (BHS classes of '04 and '07) through BUSD has given us a clear look at the difficulty of manifesting these principles. In one instance we were told that there was no room for our son in our preferred school because it had all the white males it needed. Given any number of small schools as proposed, we fear that this will again become a factor in whether a student will be able to pursue the curriculum they desire. And scheduling is also problematic: This year, CAS students were prohibited from taking straight AP Algebra II. They were required to take the Honors option within regular Algebra in order to keep the CAS students together. We would point out that the two (AP Algegra II vs. Honors options within Algebra) are not equal. Will we be eliminating all AP classes for an AP option alternative?

The fact that funding is available for Small Schools Initiatives should not cloud your judgement on this matter. Implementing a radical "overhaul" of our school district in favor of Small Schools is not convincing. This proposal includes additional administration and counseling (and presumably smaller class size). Why not try these changes first, without dividing up the school? Without much more information we strongly urge you to oppose this proposal. Let's not throw out what works at BHS in order to fix what needs work.

Respectfully yours,
Richard & Margie

[This discussion continued in two special issues of Parents of Teens:]