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.

Berkeley High School is no stranger to controversy, especially when it comes to student achievement. During the 1990s it came under fire for having one of the most integrated school populations in the United States and one of the worst achievement gaps. At that time, a large proportion of white and Asian-American students were getting routed into honors and advanced placement classes, while their African-American and Latino counterparts were overrepresented in special education and remedial classes. It was a stark and painful example of racial inequality right in the middle of progressive, politically correct Berkeley.

In the mid-'90s, outside researchers started exposing these inequities, first in the 1994 PBS documentary School Colors, which showed that kids of different races didn't even mix during lunchtime, and then in the four-year Diversity Project, led by former Berkeley High teacher Pedro Noguera and a team of UC Berkeley scholars. Their conclusions, published ten years later in the book Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools, were damning. Well-to-do white kids were getting the lion's share of the resources, while African-American and Latino kids were falling through the cracks.

More than one decade later, Berkeley High is attempting to reverse that pattern by "redesigning" itself in a way that better serves its non-white student population. The school's leaders think they have found the answer in personalized, theme-based "small learning communities," which teach a curriculum based on skill mastery, rather than rote memorization.

Small schools were trendy on the East Coast in the '80s and '90s. Their nontraditional approach found favor with university scholars and, eventually, Bill Gates, whose foundation ended up financing a lot of them. In the late '90s, several groups in Berkeley coalesced to form a local small schools movement. They saw small schools as the way to create parity between kids of different races and socioeconomic classes. Their movement gained momentum in 2002, when Oakland's school system created several autonomous small schools and specialized academies within its existing high schools.

Berkeley High already had two prototypes. In 1990, it launched the Computer Academy, which recruited "at-risk" students from the general population and enrolled them in small classes with a technology focus. That school was later renamed the Community Partnerships Academy and given a focus on technology and internships. Meanwhile, in 1997, English teacher Rick Ayers founded Berkeley High's first official small learning community, Communication Arts & Sciences, which specialized in arts and media and became a bona fide small school in 2002.

For years, small schools backers pointed to these two programs as a model for converting Berkeley High into wall-to-wall small schools. Then, in 2003, Berkeley High hired Principal Jim Slemp, who had a reputation as Mr. Small School when he came to Berkeley High from Oregon. Berkeley also obtained some seed funding from the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES).

In 2003, the once-hesitant school board passed a Small Schools Reform Initiative designed to guarantee, in BayCES' words — a "personalized preparatory education for every student." Slemp and former superintendent Michelle Lawrence eventually fashioned a compromise between the folks who wanted wall-to-wall small schools and the traditionalists who wanted to keep Berkeley High as it was. They reconfigured Berkeley High into four theme-based small schools (Arts and Humanities Academy, Community Arts and Sciences, Community Partnerships Academy, and the School of Social Justice and Ecology) and two traditional large schools (Academic Choice and the International High School).

The schools theoretically all had to fit within the larger structure of Berkeley High, following the same rules and using the same standards for testing and grading. But it hasn't quite worked out that way. While these new small schools were created to level the playing field between students, the evidence suggests that they may be exacerbating the very problem they were supposed to solve.

For one thing, the lottery system used to determine which students went to which school didn't work. That left Berkeley High's four small schools about almost twice as African American and half as white as its two large schools. Thus, Berkeley High is now more separate than ever.

But it's also less equal. Small and large schools use completely different teaching methodologies. They have different grading standards. And Berkeley High has failed to produce the data to show that small schools actually close the achievement gap. If all that were not enough, 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.

In short, Berkeley High has taken a leap of faith into a giant, piecemeal reform project whose efficacy it can't prove. Now it is planning the next phase of its redesign at a time when the school district faces up to $9 million in budget cuts. Test scores haven't budged, the community is highly polarized, and Berkeley has no clear plan for how to bankroll its redesigned vision beyond 2011. Small schools advocates continue to tout the benefits of reduced class size and personalized education. But so far the gains they've made are mostly intangible.

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