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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Lead teacher Phil Halpern of the Community Arts and Sciences campus responded with his own letter, which also ran in the February 27 Jacket. He said the science teachers' claims were "unsubstantiated." But Halpern failed to undermine the claims. Rather, he spent a few paragraphs carping about the dangers of "turning on one another in an adversarial, confrontational, and public way." In the interest of making everyone just get along, Halpern proposed a series of lunchtime dialogues about improving teacher relations at Berkeley High. Halpern would co-host them with Hansen. But after the first dialogue on March 2, Halpern rescinded his offer. About twenty people attended, he said, and he and Hansen could not, in fact, get along. She kept steering the conversation toward morality and ethics, he said.

"As of today I've divorced myself from her," Halpern said. "I thought it was worth a try. I thought we could do better. But she's just not into it. ... Just because something is true doesn't mean it deserves front-page coverage."

The debate did indeed get front-page coverage from the Jacket, in the form of a fairly comprehensive article by Winkelman and Orenstein. It provided substantive evidence for the science teachers' accusations. Small schools teachers made no bones about holding multiple classes together in the same room during the same period. They didn't protest the charges of grade inflation. Confronted a few days later, lead teacher Annie Johnston of the Community Partnerships Academy said the rightness or wrongness of the accusations depended on which belief system you embraced. "Those people, their philosophy is that it's inviolate — 'You did the class, stamp, D student,'" she said. "It's a different philosophy about what the grade means."

Grading is evidently more relative at Berkeley's four small schools.


Last Thursday's project in Susannah Bell's senior English class at Community Partnerships Academy was to rebut the article in the Berkeley High Jacket. Editor Winkelman had invited the class to write a response that she would run in the next issue, provided they could hand it in by Friday.

"I will be the first to admit that I've done it one time," said Bell, Berkeley High School's new Distinguished Educator of the Year. "In my twenty-year career, I have asked a teacher to change a student's grade one time. She had an 89.9 percent, and I asked if there was anything she could do to change the 89.9 percent to an A. He said no. I said, 'Okay, I hope I didn't offend you.'"

"He's a jerk," someone shouted from the back of the room.

"Pressure," Bell continued, "That's a loaded term. ... One of the main overarching things here is that small schools are preparing you for the application process, making sure your transcript looks good, and not helping you once you get there. Heavy on claim, light on evidence — right?"

In the back of the room students jeered. A student named Prentice said that the letter made blanket statements about small schools. Bell began scribbling on the whiteboard in red pen: "Blanket statements — Prentice." Then another student, Chelsa, raised her hand and pointed out that everyone had to take the same exit exam, SATs, and standards test, so how could testing be different at small schools?

"What does that mean, that we cheated on that too?" demanded a girl in the second row.

"Illegal, corrupt, pressure," Bell said. "All loaded terms. Anything else we want to add to this?"

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