HAYWARD — Nine teenage boys and one teenage girl sat grouped around a set of desks arranged in a rectangle. Their eyes were focused on another boy standing in front of them, who was reading from his report on the effects of marijuana.
“People are introduced to marijuana usually by their friends, older sister or brother, or someone they know,” said the speaker, who looked up from his paper to flash a smile at his classmates, who then started to talk.
“You are doing very well,” said Annie Green, the teacher, who, without missing a beat, turned to the class and told them to tone down their chatter. “Save your comments for later,” she said. Green then turned her attention back to her standing student and started to probe some of the points he made in his presentation, particularly what marijuana does to pregnant women.
The scene could be one from any Bay Area high school with its mix of restless students and a teacher trying to tamp down their chatter. But this didn’t happen in an ordinary school. It took place recently at the Hayward Community School, a school run by the Alameda County Office of Education for students who have been expelled by their own school districts for truancy, bad behavior, repeated suspensions, and violent acts like carrying a weapon to school. Some may have served time in juvenile hall.
Nestled in the back of the bright yellow Eden Youth and Family Center on West Tennyson, right next to a pediatric clinic, a day care center and a day labor program, the Hayward Community School serves 64 of Alameda County’s toughest students, those, who, despite repeated chances, could not make it at their own high schools. They have been sent to the community school to sit out their expulsions, which may range from a semester to a year.
Four of the students at the Hayward Community School live in Berkeley, and soon, in the 2011-2012 school year, students like them might be able to attend classes in their hometown rather than have to travel to Hayward. The Alameda County Office of Education and the Berkeley Unified School District are proposing to create a small community school inside the Berkeley Adult School on San Pablo Avenue near Virgina.
About 15 students from Berkeley, Emeryville, Alameda, Piedmont, and North Oakland would attend the new community school from 9 am to 2 pm each day. Another 17 students on independent study would rotate in and out weekly to work with a teacher.
The community school would provide counseling and individualized attention to the students, along with continual monitoring so they don’t act out in class. The aim is to work closely with the high-risk students, both academically and socially, and get them prepared to return to a normal school setting.
To go back to their old school, the students have to demonstrate good attendance, get passing grades, and not do anything considered a suspendable or expellable offense, according to Robert Crose, Alameda County’s assistant superintendent of student programs. Some of the students must also complete 30 to 50 hours of community service.
“A big comprehensive high school is a confusing place and a hard place to manage for a lot of kids,” said Crose. “It’s easier to get lost in a 2,000-person high school than a small place with a ratio of 15:1”
The BUSD Board will take up the matter in late June, possibly on June 22.
The idea of bringing a group of high-risk students into northwest Berkeley does not sit well with a group of nearby residents, who expressed their concerns at a community meeting on March 16. They are afraid the presence of the kids will lead to more crime, which will depress property values. They do not think the school district has analyzed the implications of placing a school near a residential neighborhood, nor has it done a site suitability study. They also complain that the district has been uncommunicative.
The situation has been made more volatile by the outbreak of violence this year at Berkeley high schools. Since the start of the 2010-2011 year, one student has shot and killed another off campus, and police have arrested seven students for bringing weapons to school. In March, two boys in a portable classroom at BHS discharged a gun, sending a bullet through the wall. No one was hurt. In addition, some parents think the district does not do a good job cracking down on bullies who beat up and rob other students.
“I don’t see any emphasis on safety,” said Vanessa Arce Kaskiri, who lives on Francisco Street. “I think they don’t see it as something they are supposed to address”
“The reason I am 100% opposed to it (the new community school) is I have no faith in the Berkeley Unified School District,” said Heather Wood, who lives in the neighborhood. *
Vanessa Arce Kaskiri, who lives on Virginia, right near the Adult School. Historically, there have been so many problems with problem students, especially at Berkeley High. They have been incapable of dealing with these kids in a fashion that makes sense. The schools do nothing, thus I have no faith that no matter how they run this program they won’t take responsibility to make the community safe.”
For years, BUSD sent its expelled students to a Rock La Fleche, a county-run community school in Oakland. But the county closed the campus in 2009 because of cost concerns. Ever since then, Berkeley has been looking for a place to educate the kids it expels each year. (This year the district has expelled 17 students.)
“These are students we need to serve,” said Superintendent Bill Huyett at the May 11 BUSD board meeting. “These are young people that have made mistakes in their lives and who are working to correct those mistakes. They have to have a place to go to school. It is better to house them in the community then send them 30 miles out of the community.”
The community group, which has started a web page and Facebook group called Berkeley Adult School Neighbors, seems most concerned that bringing these students into the area will cause a spike in crime. Once the kids leave the campus at 2 pm, they will no longer be supervised as they walk to BART or catch a bus to go home — and that could mean trouble, they contend.
As proof that proximity to a school means an increase in crime, they point to statistics for neighborhoods around BHS and B-Tech, the alternative school. Those neighborhoods see a high level of burglary. For example, in one 180-day period, there were 85 thefts around Berkeley High. That is significantly higher than the area around the Adult School. During the same period, that neighborhood experienced 32 thefts. (And crime has gone up around the Berkeley Adult School ever since it opened about five years ago, the group points out.)
“The school district isn’t talking about serving these kids,” said Wood, who leaves near the Adult School. “They are talking about warehousing them for six hours a day and then throwing them out at 2 pm. How is that serving them? Kids with these problems need structure and oversight and that is not what they are going to get.”
Crose does not believe the students at the community school will hang around after school and prowl the neighborhood. In Hayward, as soon as school lets out the students make a dash for their neighborhoods – and friends.
“When the kids are dismissed, they beeline to the nearest public transportation or head to their parents’ cars,” said Crose. “We’ve never been able to get the kids to participate in after-school programs. Kids go home to where their friends are.”
Sheila Jordan, the superintendent of the Alameda County Office of Education, said it is a fallacy to think the proposed community school will concentrate high-risk kids in Berkeley, leading to more crime. Many of the kids who have been expelled by the district are still living in Berkeley. Why is it any more dangerous for them to be in a school setting than at their Berkeley homes?
“These are young people who are already walking the streets,” said Jordan. “You want them to be integrated into the fabric of the community and stay out of trouble. The best way they can stay out of trouble is to be educated.”
The residents have other questions about the program – questions they say they cannot get answers for. One worry is that the 15 kids and 17 independent study students will be coming onto a campus that has adult students, some who are ex-felons or are on probation. Another worry is that when the students go to the bathroom, for instance, it will be in the common area of the Adult School and they could run into adults who might be a bad influence.
Crose does not think that will happen as the students will be monitored closely.
“I can’t imagine an opportunity for an adult to corrupt one of our kids in the community school,” he said. “That’s an unlikely thing.”
But concern about students interacting too closely with adults led former superintendent Michelle Lawrence to reject an earlier proposal to put a community school on the BAS campus.
The students at the Hayward Community School don’t get much opportunity to act out. They are closely watched. A teacher runs a metal detector over them each morning and checks their backpacks to make sure there is no contraband. (Officials are more worried about distracting cellphones than guns.) They must be escorted to the bathroom and are supposed to stay in the school’s courtyard during break and lunch.
Whenever Mary Fisher, the school’s principal, sees a kid wandering around, she is quick to ask him or her where she is going.
“You are messing around instead of doing what you are supposed to do,” Fisher called out to one student one day last week. “If you are not going to class, you are going home.”
In the classroom, the reins are even tighter. When one student kept talking while his classmate gave a presentation, Green, the teacher, told him to stand outside for a bit.
“Are you disrupting?” she asked. “Go stand outside. Anytime you disrupt the speaker you are disrupting me and the speaker.”
Later she told Berkeleyside: “We watch them like hawks. We have to, because they are our responsibility.”
Many of the students dislike the monitoring, but some acknowledge it has helped them change their behavior.
“It’s okay,” said one girl who had been expelled from the New Haven School District in Union City. “It teaches a kid a lesson about being expelled or being in trouble. But we get treated like juvenile delinquents.”
“You can’t even go to the bathroom whenever you want,” added another student.
The Berkeley school board has not yet decided whether to place the community school at the Berkeley Adult School. But there is already a creeping concern among officials that neighborhood opposition will scuttle the plan.
While BUSD is legally required to provide an education for its expelled students, the Alameda County Office of Education is under no legal requirement to do so. ACOE is able to access state dollars to educate high-risk youths that BUSD and other districts do not have access to, so most districts want to partake of ACOE’s programs. Otherwise, they would have to set up their own costly community day schools.
“I find it interesting that they (the neighborhood group) are saying “Not in my backyard,’” said Crose. “There’s no qualms about shipping them to someone else’s backyard.”
* Berkeleyside interviewed Wood and Kaskiri together and tried to keep track of who made which comment. After this article was published, Kaskiri contacted me to say Wood had made that statement, not her. I regret my error.