Letters for April 8 

Readers sound off on Berkeley High's small schools, marijuana testing, and Amazon.com.

"Small Schools, Big Debate," Feature, 3/11

Fact-Check Much?

I found this text above the section for reader comments: "Editor's Note: Comments are not edited or fact-checked by the East Bay Express." After reading Rachel Swan's article on Berkeley small schools, perhaps her article should carry a similar disclaimer? As a teacher at BHS with plenty of my own mixed feelings about small schools, I found many of the statements and assertions made in the article about the practices of small schools to be, at best, unsubstantiated and anecdotal — and, at worst, highly prejudicial and inflammatory. You allowed your newspaper to become an uncritical mouthpiece for the opposition to small schools and redesign at Berkeley High. Perhaps this opposition is warranted, perhaps not. But I believe journalists must do more than cherry-pick evidence to echo the claims of unedited, unaccountable sources such as student Facebook pages or the Berkeley Parents Network. You allowed Ms. Swan to present anecdotes and sweeping generalizations as serious journalism. I find this ironic in an article whose purpose was to critique a supposed lack of rigor and standards at Berkeley High.

Andrew Peck, Berkeley

Jacket Editors Respond

As the authors of the Berkeley High Jacket article referred to in Rachel Swan's article and as the editor-in-chief and features editor of the Jacket, we feel thoroughly misrepresented by Ms. Swan's reporting and personally offended by the article's inaccuracies and lack of journalistic integrity.

Ms. Swan misused our article and in-person discussions with her. She wrote, "Two weeks ago the Berkeley High Jacket reported that teachers in charge of small schools are pressuring the science departments at Berkeley High to inflate the grades of small school students." The intent of our article was to provide a balanced portrayal of the current debate about small school practices and overall BHS culture. We did not report that grade pressuring was occurring, especially on the scale indicated by the authors of the original letter. Ms. Swan wrote that our article "provided substantive evidence for the science teacher's accusations." As the authors, we firmly believe it did not provide this evidence. We did not write an exposé.

In fact, we reported that we found "only one specific instance of grade pressuring." Many of the teachers, counselors, and administrators across schools, whom we interviewed at length, denied any knowledge of this practice. We told Ms. Swan as much when she approached us, and explained that, to the best of our understanding, this was an issue of differences in teaching philosophies and not of unethical or inequitable small school practices. We feel Ms. Swan manipulated our reporting to sensationalize and create controversy that ultimately distracts from Berkeley's equity discussion.

Ms. Swan quotes an anonymous parent on the Berkeley Parents' Network web site, stating that "CPA kids can't take English or History APs." Not surprisingly, this anonymous Internet source is incorrect: CPA students can and do take AP English Language and AP English Literature. As journalists ourselves, albeit less experienced, we know to check our facts. Even the most basic fact-checking requires checking the spelling of names, but Megan Winkelman, the editor-in-chief of the paper whose name appears on the front page of the article Ms. Swan summed up so inaccurately, as addressed in the prior paragraph, is referred to as "Coleman" throughout her misleading report. Additionally, the student identified as "Ronald Purnell" is actually Ronald Pernell.

In general we found Ms. Swan entirely misrepresented many aspects of Berkeley High and the small schools within it. While we do not believe it is our place to address all these points, we hope that other members and leaders of the Berkeley High community will challenge Ms. Swan's assertions.

Megan Winkelman and Natalie Orenstein, Berkeley

Where's the Evidence?

I am deeply offended by Rachel Swan's obvious hit piece on small schools at Berkeley High School. In her effort to line up "evidence" for her slanted viewpoint, Ms. Swan relied on outdated, biased information and perpetuated inaccuracies about small schools, especially my school, Community Partnerships Academy (CPA). I personally spent much of my valuable time talking with Ms. Swan about CPA, my teaching philosophy, and the work I have done around offering Advanced Placement curriculum to all of my students. I even provided her with copies of my curriculum. But none of the positive information I provided appeared in her article. Instead, she chose to feature as "evidence" for her article an outdated (2005), anonymous posting from Berkeley Parents Network that asserted "CPA kids can't take AP English."

As evidence for her claim that small school teachers give our students "the perception that they're doing better than they really are," Ms. Swan used a posting from a student's Facebook page. Similarly ludicrous "evidence" litters her article, which is one of the most irresponsible examples of journalism I have ever seen. Indeed, if Ms. Swan insisted upon using sources such as these, why couldn't she have presented a more balanced perspective, such as a more recent (2008) posting on Berkeley Parents Network which strives to illustrate how CPA, despite lower overall standardized test scores, prepares students for success in college:

BHS standardized test scores are only one indicator of how well the various programs/small schools are doing in preparing students for "real world" academic success. For example, CPA has relatively low CST standardized test scores, but last year, 100 percent of seniors graduated and 100 percent completed the A-G requirements for four-year college. And, of this year's senior class: one-fourth are taking AP Calculus and one-fourth are taking AP English Composition. So, obviously, the CST scores don't necessarily correlate with academic success in "real world" measures of graduation rates and college preparedness.

The article perpetuates the unsubstantiated accusations from a letter that appeared in our school newspaper, the Berkeley High Jacket, wherein the authors allege that small schools are merely trying to make student transcripts attractive for college admission, rather than to prepare students for college itself. As my students' rebuttal to this article asserted:

If this were true, how could we host up to thirty current college students and college graduates every semester to speak about their successes on Mr. Skeels' alumni panels? Why would 20 percent of us elect to take an additional English class for AP credit that meets at 7:30 in the morning? How could Ms. Bell, one of our AP English teachers, require fifteen essays per semester? For a paper she presented at a state educational research conference, Ms. Bell conducted interviews of the CPA Class of 2007, in which she determined that over 90 percent of those students attended college after graduation and over 90 percent of that group earned an A or B in their first semester of college English.

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