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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"Hi haters," said a girl in the front row.

"I think a really big reason why they're saying all this is that they're focused on us being rowdy," said a girl in the back. "Most kids in AP classes are from Academic Choice," she added.

Someone pointed out that Hansen, who wrote the letter, is known for making students cry.

"Damn," said Prentice. "I wish I had her class. I would have made Ms. Hansen cry."


Berkeley keeps plowing ahead with new reforms. This February the district unveiled the next phase of its redesign. Beginning next fall, Berkeley High will launch a spate of new educational reforms, including staff diversity training and student advisors, wherein every staff member gets assigned twenty students to monitor. In the 2010-2011 academic year, the high school will convert to blocked scheduling, meaning that each class will meet less frequently, but for longer periods.

These proposed changes ignited a new battle royale in Berkeley. Hundreds of parents (279 to date) petitioned against the proposed scheduling changes. Students launched their own Facebook group against the redesign. School board meetings became a site of heated debate over competing educational philosophies. But the board voted four-to-one in favor of the redesign on February 11, with only Shirley Issel in opposition.

District spokesman Mark Coplan — an adherent of the small schools movement along with current superintendent Huyett and PTA president Mark van Krieken — said the redesign will go on. "We've really raised the bar across the board," he said.

But roughly a decade and more than $2 million dollars since small schools launched at Berkeley High, their future looks uncertain. First of all, there's no more money coming in from the Gates Foundation. Bill Gates recently changed his mind and decided to stop throwing money at small schools. His sudden shift created a crisis in all the districts whose reformation programs he'd bankrolled, including Oakland and Berkeley.

"I think they had unreasonable expectations and were uninformed about the nature of the beast they were trying to tame," said Jubb, the former executive director of BayCES. "You had people who had just gotten their small schools up and running. In their first year of implementation someone who's always been a thorn in their side waltzes in with a piece of paper and says, 'See, even Bill Gates doesn't like what you're doing.'"

Spokesman Coplan thinks the system will be sustainable by 2011, but his reasoning isn't clear. In fact, the small school system costs a lot more. Money has to go toward paying a stipend whenever a teacher gets promoted to administrate over a small school. It has to go toward creating a new program and buying new materials. More personnel have to be hired in order to retain a counseling staff for each school and keep the reduced student-teacher ratio. And administrators at Berkeley High want to add another school next year — one based on ecology and the green economy — which will add to their projected expenses.

Meanwhile, the small schools set unrealistic equity goals that all but require teachers to inflate grades and doctor students' transcripts. At Community Partnerships Academy, for example, teachers agreed that 70 percent of the tenth graders who started out with basic or below eighth grade scores on the California Standards Test should be UC or California State University eligible by the end of the school year, as long as their grades don't decline in the second semester. In essence, this means that teachers have given themselves the near-impossible task of making up for two years of school work in less than one year — with an experimental curriculum and an alternative way of teaching it. Even if the accusations in Hansen, McHugh, and Kavaler's letter were are false, the mere fact that five Community Partnerships Academy seniors could not pass the state exit exam last year — despite having enough credits to graduate — suggests that some type of social promotion is going on.

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