Separate and Unequal at Berkeley's Small Schools 

Berkeley High embraced the small schools movement to close its staggering racial achievement gap. But evidence suggests that these schools are exacerbating the very problem they were supposed to solve.

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In theory, small schools were set up to benefit students like Ronald Pernell. Now in twelfth grade, Berkeley High School's student body president has spent the last four years at Community Partnerships Academy. Born in Richmond, he moved to Berkeley for middle school, and now the hard-working African-American student holds down a part-time job at Nation's Giant Burgers while going to school full time at Berkeley High. Pernell once wanted to go into law enforcement and become a police officer, like his mother. But now he wants to study business. His senior economics class and current internship in the Berkeley High student activities office helped change his mind.

Pernell's chosen campus occupies one corridor on the second floor of Berkeley High's G building. It has a cluster of classrooms for all four grades, and a separate office for its administrator Annie Johnston (dubbed the school's "lead teacher"). The idea was to create classrooms with a much lower student-teacher ratio so that students could get more individual attention, and teachers could better monitor each kid's strengths and weaknesses.

Small schools were given carte blanche to experiment with different teaching methodologies. At Community Partnerships Academy, that means a focus on projects rather than book learning, and a curriculum that's more to the left of what you'd see in traditional high schools. The seniors in Susannah Bell's English class read John Berger's Ways of Seeing and bell hooks' Where We Stand: Class. At the beginning of the year each kid writes a first-person essay that doubles as his personal statement for college. Meanwhile, math teacher Matt Bremer is showing his freshmen how to find the volume and surface area of prisms for a larger unit about optimizing the structure of a honeycomb — so you get the maximum amount of honey for the minimum amount of wax. Posters adorning the walls of Wyn Skeels' social studies class show artistic representations of imperialism — students compare it to a Belgian waffle iron, a microwave, and a beauty shop that creates the latest European hair style. Bookshelves in the back off the class contain all the required reading for a social studies class in Berkeley: Howard Zinn's Declaration of Independence, Ultimate Field Guide to the US Economy, Elihu Rosenblatt's Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis (the front cover bears a picture of Mumia Abu Jamal).

Small schools enthusiasts cite several reasons why this approach is good for students. Their biggest selling point is "personalization," a word that pops up immediately in any argument on behalf of small schools. This personalization is based upon a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, a tight-knit classroom community, team teaching, a curriculum designed to meet students' individual needs, and parent-teacher conferences where the parent — not the teacher — is the expert.

The students at Community Partnerships Academy seem to like their classes, or at least think their classrooms are a fun place to hang out. After all, most of them get to be with the same group of students for four years. Pernell certainly loves his school and champions it unequivocally. "I've been with same students for four years," he said. "They help me get through the day. If I don't go to school, or I miss class, they get my homework. If I have to go to work or I get busy, they'll be like, 'You have to go to work, we'll take care of it.'" He already advised his younger sister to pick Community Partnerships Academy as her first choice when she enrolls in Berkeley High next year.

His comments suggest that Berkeley may have succeeded in its goal of using smaller classes to create a sense of camaraderie between students so they'd have a collective will to succeed. Indeed, many small schools teachers give group exams or have students write papers as a group in class, rather than at home.

And small schools backers say they've done wonders for student retention. According to Dave Stevens, a teacher at Berkeley High, the Arts and Humanities Academy had a 98 percent graduation rate last year, while the Community Arts and Sciences program had a 95 percent graduation rate. Community Partnerships Academy had a 91 percent graduation rate and 55 out of 57 graduates went on to two- and four-year universities. "That's a really a good number when you compare the population demographics versus the population at large," Stevens said.


But schools such as Community Partnerships Academy are not without their detractors. Such critics believe education should be a meritocracy in which everyone faces the same course material, the same grading standards, and the same requirements to graduate. Many parents criticize the curriculum at the four small schools for being completely Berkeleyfied, and not preparing students for state-mandated standardized tests, let alone college. "CPA kids can't take English or History APs, and the courses offered in place seem to suffer 'the soft bigotry of low expectation.' Easier courses, with gut finals and higher grades than outside CPA," wrote one anonymous parent on the Berkeley Parents' Network web site.

Critics also complain about the philosophical underpinnings of small schools, which they say have caused academics to erode at Berkeley High. Small schools certainly reject many of the old standards of academic performance, tend to favor group projects in which one person can do all the work while everyone else pretends to understand, and allow for a chummy relationship between small school teachers and their students.

"I had problems with that because I didn't want to be their friend, I wanted to be their teacher," said Evy Kavaler, who chairs the science department at Berkeley High and used to teach at Community Arts and Sciences, but now works at the big school exclusively. "The kids run it and they know it. They're very much a block. If they decide that they don't want to do something, they don't do it. ... If they didn't like what you were saying, they swore at you." Kavaler said that while she liked a lot of her small schools students, she didn't cotton well to the alterna-curriculum, or the utopian "personalized" setup.

In the wake of recent controversies over these issues, the opponents of small schools are on the war path, e-mailing up a storm, using online discussion boards and petitions, and generally trying to curb Berkeley's embrace of the movement by any means necessary. Chief among their arguments is that standardized test scores show that small schools have not boosted academic performance or even leveled the playing field at Berkeley High.

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