Pasquale Scuderi, Principal of Berkeley High School: "The first year has been like being in a washing machine". Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Pasquale Scuderi accepted the position of Principal of Berkeley High School one year ago this month, succeeding Jim Slemp, who headed the school for six years. Scuderi came to the district in 2006 and was formerly a Vice Principal at BHS before moving to a post in the district administration.

The position of Principal did not prove an easy one to fill, despite a national search. Few are in any doubt that running Berkeley’s only mainstream high school, which is on an open campus in the city’s downtown with a register of more than 3,200 students, is a challenging task.

Scuderi’s first year on the job has required him to deal with a slate of gun-related incidents at the school, as well as budgetary pressures, the aftermath of an at-times bitter battle over science labs at BHS, and the transition of one of the small schools into the Green Academy. There were also compensations inside the classrooms and out, including a state girls’ basketball championship game and an early morning pig roast.

Berkeleyside interviewed Scuderi on June 27. We asked him for his perspective on the past academic year, reflections on successes and frustrations, and to outline his priorities for the next 12 months. The full transcript of the interview can be read here.

Interview snapshot
* Gun incidents at BHS made headlines this year, but great learning and inspiring achievements not covered by the media happened every day on campus.
* Scuderi’s primary goal in his first year was to get into classrooms to be able to observe teaching and give direct feedback to teachers and students. He achieved this on average 1.5 days a week.
* Scuderi feels he has earned the respect of students, partly because he listens to them and takes their opinions into account.
* On safety, a renewed intensity in dealing with prevention has paid off, but there is no room for complacency.
* A focus on attendance will go some way to tackling non-permitted out-of-district students and the historic achievement gap between white and non-white students.
* Scuderi’s four focus areas for next year are attendance, assessment, instruction and program development.

Berkeleyside: Looking back at the year, what would you say were the highlights for you?

I feel I have just started to get things done in a job that has been like being in a washing machine from the beginning. There hasn’t been time to stop and reflect because the one thing the job is is constant in terms of its pace.

It was easy for people who are not part of our daily operations to just let what was covered – the weapons and such – define us. For those of us who are here every day, that wasn’t the case. We’re still sending kids to Ivy League schools and running some very creative programs.

I could point to something in almost every community that was emblematic of the great work and great teaching that was going on in all of those communities, from the bus commemorating the Montgomery boycott that AHA did, to the girls’ basketball team… The list is too long to enumerate, but I can say there was something pretty terrific happening here every day in terms of teaching and learning.

That’s something that you don’t see if you’re not here every day, and it’s not something that people write about. You saw a kid give a fantastic presentation in a random biology class, or you watched a great bit of lecturing or a great Socratic seminar going on with the kids in a classroom. They tend not to make the headlines but they happen pretty consistently and pretty well here.

Berkeleyside: Did you go into the year with a few specific goals and did you manage to achieve them?

The primary goal was for me to get a sense of what was going on here, so the one commitment that I did make was to try to be in classrooms with a much higher frequency one would imagine someone in my position and in a place this size would be.

Last year I spent an average of one and a half days a week in classrooms. I don’t personally think that there is anything I can do that will make a bigger impact on improving teaching and learning than actually being in classrooms and giving direct feedback to teachers and students. I think that’s quality control, and education consulting and just good policy as a principal.

What we’ve found is that the demands on my time actually went down the more I was out because those conversations that teachers, students, and staff members think require a meeting to talk to me for 15 or 30 minutes are often things that can be solved in a brief five-minute conversation in the hallways, or after the bell when I was sitting in the classroom. So that negates the need to take up time in my calendar – that’s a benefit as well.

Berkeleyside: Do you feel you have earned the respect and trust of the students and how important is student involvement in deciding school policy and direction?

It’s hard to say. We haven’t administered any sort of customer survey at this point to gauge kids’ reactions. In general I would say my interactions with students were overall very positive. I genuinely like our kids and enjoy working with them. If it was all adults here I certainly wouldn’t be working here. The fact that I get to work with some pretty brilliant and exciting developing minds is part of why I’m here.

That said, there are days when you have to be the adult and the educator and the teacher. You’ve got to draw boundaries for kids. So there are kids I had perfect relationship with one day, but that relationship is strained the next day when I have to tell them something they don’t like.

I think part of the reason I had a pretty good year in terms of student relationships was that there were many conversations where kids openly disagreed with a decision we made or a policy we tried to put in place. And in some cases kids were right. Someone got a consequence for a behavior that they felt was unfair and we listened to that and at the end of the day reason prevailed.

If kids know that you are genuinely listening, there’s no better way to validate that — to, on occasion, when it’s warranted, let their reason and let their argument change your decision. There’s definitely times that we’ve done that.

As far as formal input, we’ll always look for ways to improve that. We had a really well functioning student leadership program this year and Chris Young did some great things – everything from our election convention to taking the student leadership group and making it far more a community minded body than just a social planning body.

I’m very proud of the students we had sitting on both Site Council and the BSEP Committee [Berkeley Schools for Excellence Project]. They gave really constructive feedback and decisive input when it came to deciding on budgets and weighing in on school policy.

Other areas where kids contributed were where we had folks sitting on the Ad Hoc Safety Committee. And there were some people that were pretty open about thinking that students shouldn’t have a voice in that, that that was an adult decision, but I think it was the right decision to have student perspective there.

One of the things we really want to pay attention to next year is day-to-day discipline and the disruptive behavior and the defiant behavior that ends up with the kid getting a referral down to OCI [On-Campus Intervention]. You put five or six of those things together and you’re talking about missing a week of class time in that particular class. We want to really engage students around how to get a more constructive and effective policy on how to deal with that lower level discipline that will allow teachers to keep teaching and allow some of those kids to be in the classroom more often.

Berkeleyside: How do you do that?

It’s about reaching out to kids that have experienced that directly. It’s a dilemma that you have in the classroom. You have the same five or six kids who always raise their hands, but how do you get the perspective of the kids who are not that willing to engage?

But we have that data. It’s easy to get the kids in and say, look, you had 20 referrals for defiant behavior last year, for talking in a classroom. What can we do to get to a better place on this? We don’t want to eliminate the possibility that you have some insight that can help us understand why you are being so defiant and disruptive. But we have got to get to a place where you can learn and a teacher can continue to teach.

I don’t think getting input from kids who aren’t as willing historically to give us input is as difficult as we have made it. I think it’s a matter of slowing down and saying, look we have data that can point to exactly who these kids are. Let’s reach out to them personally. Survey them, discuss this with them. I think there’s a lot of perspective out there that’s not as difficult to get as people may think.

Berkeleyside: How do you feel that you’ve dealt with safety issues at the school, given this year’s gun incidents? Are you feeling confident moving forward into next year?

I don’t know that we’ll ever say we are absolutely confident in what’s going on. What’s happened this year is that we’ve had to deal with some very eye-opening incidents that I think are reflective of a larger societal problem. And I don’t say that to dilute our responsibility in protecting our kids. That’s always going to be number one.

Am I pleased with how we handled the incidents in question? The answer is yes. I think I had a bunch of people on campus behave as they should in very responsible and professional ways to prevent kids getting hurt.

The adjustments we’ve made in the aftermath of some of those incidents leave me with some confidence that we can continuously get better in terms of preserving student safety and preventing other incidents of that type.

I didn’t want to say this earlier in the school year, but the fact is that the incidents dropped off in what is traditionally the most chaotic time of the year – the end of the school year. We didn’t have any incidents even remotely similar to those things. I can tell you with confidence that I don’t think that happened purely by accident. I think the adjustments we made and a renewed intensity we brought to that, particularly in terms of supervision, led to some really good outcomes.

I’m confident that we’re going to maintain that type of intensity when it comes to that issue.

We are always going to have to play defense, we’re always going to have to be aware, and we’re never going to be able to get complacent about it. We’re a very big campus in a fairly populous environment that’s very accessible to public transportation.

Berkeleyside: You mention public transport and that brings up an issue that is brought up again and again by our readers – out-of-district students. Is this an issue at the school in terms of the number of students who are not eligible to be at BHS? Is it something that you track very closely?

I know that most of the students we have are, at least on paper, supposed to be here. Our database has Berkeley addresses. Now there are always questions about the legitimacy of those addresses. I couldn’t tell you what percentage of our kids are actually not in district.

There’s an amount of inter-district permits that are granted. But I think your question is about kids who don’t have a permit and don’t live in district.

One of the things I’m really going to focus on next year is attendance and in the work that we’re planning on doing and the type of documentation and workflow that we’re going to do on attendance I think some of those things are going to come to light sooner rather than later. When we start talking about really implementing a formal attendance policy that’s in line with the state ed code, you’re going to see a lot more kids from Berkeley High being referred to the district and that’s going to require more home visits and more home address verifications.

Berkeleyside: Another big issue is the achievement gap. What measures are being taken on this?

I’m going to go back to attendance because it’s one of the four major areas I want to focus on next year. And when you look at our attendance, whether it’s kids with a high number of unexcused absences or students that have three plus absences in the first month of school — anyway that I look at my attendance data it’s pretty correlative with our performance gaps.

So if my attendance rates for African American students are not as good as they are for white students or Asian students, I have a problem right off the bat in that whatever I do programmatically or in terms of classroom instruction, if a kid’s not there to be impacted by those adjustments or those creative ideas, obviously that’s not going to yield any performance improvement. I’ve got to get the kids who are struggling in class more often.

That’s not to say that white kids aren’t cutting class as well, but there is sufficient data to say that the attendance problem disproportionately affects the kids who are also most affected by the proverbial achievement gap.

In terms of the whole school and instructionally we’ve really got to get better about assessment. Right now the information we are relying on is two tests. We’re relying on the CST – and I’m not here to bash CST but we know that the higher that you get in terms of grade level, by the time I get to my juniors, getting those kids to participate, and participate in a very authentic way, has been a challenge.

We made some efforts to make that happen and we’re really thinking that we’ve positioned ourselves to get an academic performance index, but if we really want to get better in terms of education you can’t just rely on two annual measures: your exit exam data and your CST. We’ve got to be looking at far more consistent measures that are really rooted in the classrooms.

We’ve got people in the math department now who are trying to put the finishing touches on us having a common mid-term and a common final in all three of our beginning subjects: algebra, algebra 2 and geometry and that type of formative assessment really needs to be made available.

We’re talking in Academic Choice about giving every ninth grader a standard skills inventory so that right off the bat, so that if you’re a ninth grade teacher in that program – and there are other people who are considering adopting this type of program anyway – you get a pretty good indication of where your kids are strong and where they’re weak. And that stuff can be disaggregated by racial groups so that people can really focus on where there are gaps.

I don’t think we’ve done as good a job as we could in terms of actually defining the problem. What are skills in that gap consisting of? I want to be able to have every ninth grade English teacher start off the year saying  that I know that the kids sitting in front of me particularly the black and brown kids are struggling with this type of writing convention, or struggling with literary response and analysis.

And you can do the same thing across the board and across the subjects. The science department has done a good job of putting together a common biology mid-term and final and also considering doing the same kind of pre-test if you will.

So I think assessment is really, really a huge part of it – and assessment that is not just the state-mandated annual kind, but assessment that teachers can use in their own classrooms. Because if they use that in their own classrooms they’re able to assign value to it that kids may not see in some of those other measures.

In other words, if a formative assessment I give you counts for your weekly grade, you’re more likely to put an effort into that because it’s going to affect your grade. So not only do I get the benefit of getting really good information about what you know and don’t know that informs my teaching, but I can also make this have value to you and it’s harder to deal with these big-ticket annual exams.

Berkeleyside: You mentioned you have four goals for next year and you’ve discussed attendance and assessment. Are those two of them, and what are the four?

We’re more comfortable calling them focus areas than goals because we’re going to have some formal goals that are going to come out in our self-study and our school-wide action plan. But rather than wait until March of next year when that action plan is put before the Site Council and then put before the School Board, and subsequently adopted, we need some sort of proxy vision to work with.

So, in addition to assessment and attendance, we’re also looking at instruction in general, and I go back to what I was talking about and the need to have people in the classroom.

I want myself and my administrative teams to be very much cognizant of research-based classroom strategies. Are there clear lesson outcomes and objectives put on the board? It sounds like such a simple thing. And I’m not trying to standardize the school or sap people of their autonomy. But there are some things that I think should be consistent tools. Kids should be able to walk into any classroom and have some expectation of where to look and understand what it is that they are going to be expected to learn that day.

As a whole we need to get better at saying what our learning goals are for kids. I think sometimes educators get confused with writing what you’re going to do on a board with a learning goal. Saying read chapter five on the Vietnam War is not a learning goal, that’s an activity. Having kids know that by the time they leave a classroom they will be expected to comment and reflect on what US policy was in Cambodia during the Vietnam War – that’s a learning objective, that’s a goal. I think we need to see a little more sophistication.

There are plenty of teachers on campus that do this very well. What I’m advocating is that we see that on a more consistent basis.

I talked about using some pre-assessments to get an idea of where things are going. I think that if administrators have in their hands these sort of general learning profiles that let them as well as teachers know ahead of time what students are strong at in terms of skills and concepts and where they are lacking that’s a very powerful tool for an administrator to walk in with.

Because, again, if writing conventions are something you know throughout the ninth grade in a particular learning community kids are struggling with, you’re going to need to know why you’re not seeing kids writing a lot or getting explicit instructions on writing in those classrooms. That’s something they can have going in.

Supervision and evaluation are very important. We want to get to a place where evaluation is used to deal with teachers who are not performing well. We have so many tremendous people on staff where I think the supervision and evaluation component can become a very genuine conversation about what’s working and how to get that information out to other teachers who need additional strategies.

We need to know what things are working and how people are being successful in classrooms. Really having administrators out in the classroom and demystifying the fact that someone walks in the classroom with a pad is not synonymous with a cold or clinical audit but it’s the beginning of a really genuine productive conversation about teaching and learning – bringing coaching into that supervision and evaluation process.

Berkeleyside: By my count that’s three areas. Is that right?

Three areas. I’ll go into the fourth even though I’m trying to hold back. It’s summer and I’m still drinking like five cups of tea a day – that’s what this place does to you!

The last area that we’ve outlined is what we’re calling program development. And program development is for us just really looking at how we support students. We’re talking about not only developing our curriculum, which is critical – and that’s obviously tied to instruction and development – but I think having some coherence around our curriculum, from program to program and from department to department is really critical.

Program development is something we’re looking at in terms of really tightening up and making more effective the programs that we have on campus to do with kids who are struggling. We want to get better at dealing with English language learners. We want to see math scores improve for all kids, but in particularly for our African American and Latino kids. We’re talking about ways of supporting achievement in either progression of math.

And also we want to be very, very conscious of not just adopting an intervention or a support program because someone says its intent is to help kids. I’ve started trying to bring this into our consciousness a little more. When someone says they’ve got a great idea that’s going to help black or brown kids succeed better academically, the first question I’m going to ask them is the same question I would ask my curriculum teachers – which is “how am I going to know when your program has made an impact?”

We’ve seen some quantifiable success, albeit mild success in areas like our summer bridge program which I think was pretty effective where we took a group of bubble students – kids that could have gone either way, kids that were maybe not completely chronic truants or struggling students, but maybe C, C- students who could go either way – and supported them in a summer session prior to the ninth grade year. And then had an after-school class that provided direct study skills support, a space for them to do their homework… almost a case management model.

And we saw some improvement in GPA in those kids compared to kids who could have been selected for that program but didn’t get that intervention. So that’s the type of thing that we want to keep exploring.

We have a new person going into our academic support coordinator position. I want to see our tutoring programs get a lot more connected to what’s actually happening in the classroom. We want to tighten that up.

We realized that we were spending a disproportionate amount of money on administering the amount of tutoring services we were putting out there. The BSEP committee had decided to roll back that position a little and I think it’s now proportionate with what they are going to be administering.

And again, not to keep coming back to this, but one way our development programs are thinking a little tighter, what we’re looking for in terms of attendance is having a workflow that’s actually a web-based spreadsheet where any kid who’s getting into trouble with attendance – which is usually a pretty good indicator that there’s going to be some other issues – a counselor, the intervention teams and an administrator will all get to look at this spreadsheet and hopefully steer the kids to the services they need a little better.

We’re going to look to have all our newcomer English language learners and our long-term English language learners with one counselor this year and also have someone do some little case management with those kids and hopefully see some improvement with the kids that are getting reclassified to full English proficient.

So not only tying together the resources we have on campus but taking a really hard look at these things we’ve carried at no small expense for a long time and asking whether or not they are effective. I would rather have fewer programs that have a genuine, positive impact on the most struggling kids than just sort of flood the market with anything that says it’s supposed to be a positive for those kids. That’s a sort of complacency thing. We have all these programs but if they’re not having an impact they’re just perpetuating the problem.

So it may be taking a few steps back in terms of program development to ultimately to go forward. Or whatever that cliché is that I’m looking for!

Berkeleyside: What is the budget looking like going into next year?

We were planning for the worst. We had three versions of the budget in anticipation of the worst. So we really couldn’t have got better news in terms of the budget. We’re still looking to be right within our class sizes that are dictated by the local parcel tax measures.

The school board has been very generous in giving me a half-time Dean of Attendance position. I made a recommendation this afternoon on an individual to fill that position — an administrator to supervise this renewed and formalized effort to deal with attendance.

So we’ve got some resources. I could always ask for more but I’m grateful with how generous the board and district staff have been in setting us up for next year.

At a place this big with all the challenges we could always use more but we should be able to make a pretty good run with what we have.

Berkeleyside: That may be a good place to end. But one further question: are you ever going to get a vacation?

I will eke out five or six days in July. There certainly are people in my life who would wish I had more time off, but I didn’t sign up for a job that was going to give me these long leisurely breaks.

But I’m trying to find some time. The one thing this first year has taught me is that if you don’t find some space – it sounds cliché – but if you don’t find some space to take care of yourself, there’s absolutely no way you can take care of other people. And there’s absolutely no way you can take care of 3,200 teenagers. So I do plan on trying to find some rest.

Q: Well I hope you achieve that, and have a good summer. Thank you so much for talking to us.

You’re welcome. I hope we get to talk about a ton more positive things next year.

[Hat-tip to Berkeleyside reader Laurie Kahn for the idea for this interview.]

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...