Letters for the Week of April 16 

Readers sound off on Berkeley's Peer Assistance and Review program, Neill Sullivan's investments in Oakland, and free music.


"Berkeley's Unequal Punishment of Teachers," Feature, 4/2

Poisonous Atmosphere

I am in my 9th year as a math teacher at Berkeley High and my 25th year as a math educator. I have one child at Berkeley High and two at Willard Middle School. I know the stories of all the teachers who speak up in this article, as their colleague, union representative, and neighbor. I will gladly vouch for the validity of their stories and am exceptionally proud of their willingness to speak up. The atmosphere at Berkeley High is so poisonous that even mentioning Peer Assistance and Review critically to community members can earn a teacher a letter of unprofessional conduct. A letter of unprofessional conduct can lead to dismissal. Indeed, I may be retaliated against for writing this. As someone who has had years of experience in curriculum writing and teacher training, I can guarantee that the pedagogical advice and support garnered from the PAR experience will not create a better classroom for our children. In fact, it will produce a classroom with a frightened, uninspired teacher trying to micromanage student voices to please a relatively uninformed and inexperienced evaluator. I don't think any parents want that for their children. I certainly don't want it for mine.

Masha Albrecht, Berkeley

Twisted Truth

My children have had three of the teachers referenced in the article, and I can tell you from personal experience, at least two deserved to be placed in Berkeley Peer Assistance and Review. They did not cover the course content, one never graded half of the assignments, and one barely taught the class, preferring that "students work on their own." This same teacher humiliated students who asked for help and even occasionally played guitar rather than teach. I've talked to several students and parents of students who told these same stories over and over. The one-sided way their stories are told in this article is completely twisted from the truth. Two years ago, Principal Scuderi promised that all teachers at Berkeley High would either be 1) excellent teachers, 2) working to become excellent teachers, or 3) looking for a new job. I am glad he is following through on this promise because all of our kids deserve better than wasting 180 hours a year on a class without a decent teacher.

Christa Rybczynski, Berkeley

Preventing Workplace War

Thank you for the balanced and courageous article on Berkeley's Peer Assistance and Review program. As a veteran Bay Area educator (28 years) and educational researcher on the topic of school workplace abuse and workplace civility, your article is right on. A common practice in school and college workplaces is to ignore early incidents of workplace incivility, thereby escalating the situation to workplace war. Simply acknowledging and addressing Brian Crowell's concerns (an action of civility) would have prevented the war that has begun. 

Rhea Settles, Founder, The Civility Zone, El Cerrito

Look Beyond Bureaucratic Measures

As a former Berkeley High School student and former student of Mr. Crowell's, I can confidently say he instills in his students a desire for knowledge, and not just the curriculum — the truth. That is something that is lacking in many BHS classrooms. As someone currently attending an Ivy League university, I can confidently say that the curriculum taught in high school quickly dissolves, but the pursuit of knowledge that was instilled in me by Crowell and a few others at BHS hasn't, and has not just changed my experience in higher education, but in life. I would urge the administration to look beyond all the bureaucratic measures of learning (STAR, AP, Standard Curriculum, etc.) that produce the statistics and acknowledge when and where true learning is happening. I know for a fact that those who pay extra taxes in Berkeley (which fund all the staff at BHS) to ensure the school system is great care much more about the aforementioned than some sort of standardized curriculum, as Berkeley has always been a place of alternative thought and tends to pride itself on being ahead of the times in more ways than one.

Harrison Reinisch, Ithaca, New York

Behind the Curve of Best Practices

As a former Berkeley Unified School District substitute teacher (2002-2008) who is now a Montessori teacher, I will share one of my main questions about BUSD and other school districts, and one reason I did not get a single subject or multi subject [credential], but went towards Montessori instead. Why would teachers, who have just spent four years in college plus two or more in teacher training, need so much extra training? Why all the staff development? Didn't these people just finish developing? As a Berkeley High School graduate (class of '79) and parent of two former BHS students, I confirm that I have found BUSD to be restrictive, reductive, and far, far behind the curve of current best practices. For example, why is the culture of cutting class so accepted at BHS? Why is everyone who is neither a jock nor an AP kid made to feel that there is something wrong with them? Realizing that Berkeley Unified is not only racist, but ageist and anti-intellectual as well, is so jarring, but so true. The lack of teachers of color, combined with the fact that virtually every single custodian and lunch server is of color, has bothered me for years.

Rachel Hope Crossman, Berkeley

Message to Students

For all the discussions about equity, college preparedness, and tolerance, it's absurd that Berkeley Unified School District hasn't hired or retained more teachers of color. BUSD: What message does that send to your students?

Karen Flood Nielsen, Berkeley


"Neill Sullivan's Oakland," News, 4/2

Meaningful Investment

I don't know Neill Sullivan personally, but I live in Oakland and I am encouraged that meaningful investment is being made in our distressed neighborhoods. Your article describes responsible behavior by long-term investors — not quick buying and selling — that is leading to real improvements in the quality of life for our residents. I hope they do make a profit. That's how such investing behavior becomes sustainable. 

Thomas Higgins, Oakland

Need Regulation and Prosecution

The key problems here are twofold: 

1) The Sullivan method of operating has been to buy property at deep discounts, do a slapdash "renovation," and rent them out at prices up to $800 or $1000 more a month than had been the market rents on the same street the previous year. Foreclosed families and priced-out San Franciscans make it a landlord's market, and rents overall have greatly increased as a consequence. 

2) Bringing that much cash into the real estate market allowed Sullivan to amass property by beating out conventional buyers who wanted to purchase a home to live in. In spite of the Wall Street bailout, banks and other lenders have been so tight with credit that normal working people are the losers here, and so are the communities that have lost the stability that comes when people own their homes.

As to what could have and should have occurred to prevent this, the conclusion I come to is that we need the finance industry to be regulated and prosecuted when it commits fraud. And we need public money to be used not to bail them out, but to establish and support financial institutions to serve the public, not the banking and real estate industries.  

One reason speculators can get their hands on so much property is that most lenders are refusing to cooperate with the Keep Your Home California program, which has over a billion dollars in federal funds to provide significant principal reduction and other forms of relief to keep distressed homeowners in their homes. The lenders have been allowed to sell off the servicing rights to the loans and it's easier and sometimes more profitable for the mortgage servicers to pursue foreclosure. 

My community organization, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), has asked California to follow the example of other hard-hit states by using community development financial institutions to get these unused funds to the homeowners who desperately need them. The speculator phenomenon is an aftershock of the foreclosure crisis, but Oakland will still face thousands more foreclosures before it's over. The best defense against speculators and the harm they bring would be to require lenders to use available measures to keep distressed homeowners in their homes.

Helen Duffy, Oakland


"Broke for Free," Music, 4/2

Avid Fan

I've been an avid Broke For Free fan for about three years now, and Cascino never fails to impress me through his creativity. His genre diversity blows me away, kind of like an electronic Van Morrison or Beck. His tunes stay in my head for days, and for once in my life, Broke for Free ear worms don't drive me crazy. I can't wait for his Petal release.

Deb Fagan, Raleigh, North Carolina

Insult to Musicians

Not only an insult to every hardworking musician in the world, but an insult to anyone middle-class and under. Hey man, it's great that you're comfortable enough that you can choose not to accept the big-money ghostwriting gig, and that you can also choose to give away your creativity for free. Don't you realize that when you do this you devalue all recorded music? I'll assume you'll be passing on any fees for live performance as well, right?

Michelangelo Battaglia, San Francisco

Correction

Our April 9 news story "Richmond Rethinks Hasty Decision About Troubled Housing Complex" misstated the number of affordable housing units that the Center for Investigative Reporting attributed to Richmond Village — it was 165, not 65.

Clarifications

In our April 7 news story, "Neill Sullivan's Oakland," Thomas Steyer's investment in Neill Sullivan's REO Homes fund coupled with the loans by Steyer's One Pacific Coast Bank to REO Homes could have been more specifically described as insider loans.

And in our April 9 Seven Days, "Berkeley Goes There With Parking," the plan to extend parking meter hours to 8 p.m. in both two-hour spots and four-hour parking is just one of the proposals by city staff that the Berkeley City Council is slated to review. Also, the month in which the pilot program would start this summer has not yet been finalized.

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