Berkeley High School. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Berkeley High School is considering ways to achieve its longstanding achievement gap. Photo: Nancy Rubin

For the past 10 months, a group of Berkeley High School administrators, teachers, staff, parents and students has been spending long hours brainstorming ways to reduce the school’s achievement gap.

While African-American and Latino students have made great strides in recent years, many are still not performing at the level of their white and Asian peers, according to school officials. And often they are not getting access to the kinds of classes and opportunities that could help them excel.

Consider these statistics:

The graduation rate for African-American and Latino students at Berkeley High is markedly higher than the rates for surrounding schools and the state, according to BUSD statistics. And they are going to college in large numbers. Eighty-five percent of the African-American students who graduated in 2013 were enrolled in college within two years of graduation; the rate for Hispanic and Latino students was 83.3%, according to Sam Pasarow, the BHS principal.

Yet white students are four more times likely to be in an advanced math class than African-American students, and seven times more likely to be in an AP science class than Latino students.

“There is still a fairly profound achievement gap,” said Tamara Friedman, one of the co-facilitators of the Berkeley High Design Team. “A value that is held in the school and the city is one of social justice. We feel we could do better.”

Berkeley High and Berkeley Unified School District have adopted numerous programs over the years to reduce the academic disparities, but those efforts have only changed things slightly.

Now BHS is considering upending its current structure to strengthen the school culture and create the kind of learning environment that research shows is effective. Some of the most important factors in helping students learn, according to numerous studies cited by the BHS Design Team, include creating a personalized environment that helps students develop meaningful and sustained relationships with teachers, giving every student a chance to take challenging classes, and providing a better transition between eighth and ninth grades.

The Berkeley High Redesign Team has spent many hours in this room in the "C" Building considering mechanisms to change school culture. From left, to right, Sam Pasarow, BHS principal, Hasmig Minassian, history teacher at CAS and co-facilitator of the Redesign Team, and Tamara Friedman, the other co-facilitator and the BHS professional development coordinator. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The Berkeley High Design Team has spent many hours in this room in the “C” Building considering mechanisms to change school culture. Left to right: Sam Pasarow, BHS principal; Hasmig Minassian, history teacher at CAS and co-facilitator of the Design Team; and Tamara Friedman, the other co-facilitator and BHS professional development coordinator. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The Berkeley High Design Team has spent many hours in this room in the “C” Building considering mechanisms to change school culture. Left to right: Sam Pasarow, BHS principal; Hasmig Minassian, history teacher at CAS and co-facilitator of the Design Team; and Tamara Friedman, the other co-facilitator and BHS professional development coordinator. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Representatives from the 35-member BHS Design Team presented a working plan to transform Berkeley High to the School Board on May 25, part of a series of presentations it has made to students, staff, parents and guardians.

A recent poll of BHS teachers and staff showed that close to 84% supported the concepts put forward in the plan, which will be refined further as more input is gathered, said Friedman. If the board votes to adopt the changes (the proposal could come before them in early fall), they would be rolled in over a period of years. The first visible changes would not come before the 2017-2018 school year.

The proposed redesign would shift the school’s current structure, which has students enter specific learning communities (Academic Choice, Arts and Humanities Academy, Academy of Medicine and Public Service, Communication Arts and Sciences and International High School) in ninth grade. One of the biggest challenges in the school is a sense of fragmentation created by immediately placing students in separate schools, said Friedman. The proposal addresses that issue by creating a universal ninth grade. Entering students would be placed in diverse cohorts of 112 to 120, and would be taught English, math, science and an advisory period by four core teachers. The BHS Design Team believes this will create a sense of unity and school spirit, offer students a chance to work closely with a specific set of teachers, and break down barriers.

“A positive school culture, an inclusive school culture, where there are structures that unify students with common experiences, as in the proposed universal ninth grade, would give us the opportunity to build more interconnectedness between students across socio-economic lines, across ethnic lines,” said Pasarow.

The new design proposes that there be seven, not six, periods in a day. The extra period would allow the addition of an advisory period for ninth and 10th graders and more planning and collaboration time for teachers. Instead of going to every class every day, the school would adopt a modified block system with longer classes. Students would go to all their classes one day a week and then alternate longer class blocks twice a week.

Significantly, the redesign plan would push entry into distinct learning communities from ninth to 10th grade. While the small schools (CAS, AHA, AMPS) would continue, there would no longer be an International School or an Academic Choice program, although students could still take AP and IB classes and would be able to get an IB diploma. Instead, the students not in the small schools would continue to learn in their diverse cohorts with a core group of teachers. The BHS Design Team believes this could free up more time in a student’s junior and senior years to take electives, do an internship, or do career training.

The Design Team is recommending that the lottery system be eliminated. They believe that it is based on an outdated zone model and has not led to learning communities that accurately reflect the diversity of Berkeley. For example, African-American students are underrepresented in BIHS, just as whites are underrepresented in AMPS, according to Pasarow. Students instead would apply to each school. Administrators would assemble a demographically diverse cohort for each learning community, based on a number of factors, including race, parent education level, socio-economic level and learning ability level.

Postponing the selection of a specific learning community for a year will have the added benefit of having students choose a school based on real knowledge about that program rather than reputation, sad Friedman.

“The lottery in the eighth grade is problematic in the sense our incoming eighth graders are not informed and educated about their choices,” said Friedman. “They make choices based on community narratives that are not always completely accurate.”

The Design Team sees the advisory period as a place to talk about many issues that confront students and society. Teachers would be trained to offer academic support and social-emotional learning, according to the Design Team. There could be class restorative circles or strategy sessions on establishing a college- and career-focused culture. The advisory period could also be used to discuss how to deal with social issues such as racism, sexual harassment and homophobia. Currently, there is no good place outside academic classes to have discussions about issues that come up, said Pasarow.

To implement the redesign, Berkeley High would need 13 additional teachers, which would cost an additional $1.3 million a year, according to the report presented to the School Board. Any changes to teachers’ duties would have to be negotiated with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, said Hasmig Minassian, one of the co-facilitators of the Berkeley High Design Team, and one of the heads of CAS.

During the May 25 discussion about the proposed design, board members expressed support for the intent of the design, as well as wariness about the scope of the change. The board will probably discuss the plan at least two more times before voting on it, said Friedman.

“We are dealing with a huge opportunity gap and achievement gap along racial lines that culminates at Berkeley High and the outcomes are very very different,” said Karen Hemphill, whose two sons graduated from Berkeley High.

Hemphill pointed out one issue: that there are very few African-American teachers at Berkeley High. She expressed concern that the proposed configuration might mean that some student of color do not have any black teachers.

Director Judy Appel said one aspect of the plan she appreciated was its emphasis on making sure students are “noticed,” and they don’t just float through the system. She has two children at Berkeley High. One is a straight white cis-gendered man who felt he was ignored by the system. The other is queer and assertive and is able to get the attention they need. Appel said she thought the proposed plan would ensure that more students get the personalized attention her straight son could have used.

See the BUSD webpage on the redesign process.

Bridge program helps narrow Berkeley’s achievement gap (06.10.14)
2020 Vision: Skills improve, absences down, gap remains  (01.31.14)
Berkeley students narrow achievement gap, work needed (09.05.13)
2020 Vision symposium highlights progress in Berkeley (10.15.12)
Pilot 2020 Vision projects announced (03.24.10)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...