“How can we create schools that expect all children to reach for their dreams?”
“I felt guilty that I was teaching children who, by the end of the year, I hadn’t reached the way I wanted to…”
These are just some of the comments a small group of Berkeley High School parents and teachers heard one day last week as they gathered during the school’s lunch period to watch a film entitled, “Tell No Lies.”
Produced by The Small Schools Workshop of Chicago — a group of educators, organizers and researchers working to promote smaller public schools — the film tells, among other stories, how Chicago’s Vocational High School has reorganized into “small learning communities” to address the increasing alienation of poor performing students.
Since last fall, Berkeley High has made use of a $50,000 federal planning grant to examine whether small learning communities might solve some of the school’s most intractable problems, such as the achievement gap between white students and students of color.
If enough parents, teachers and students lend their support to the concept by this spring, the school’s Small Learning Communities Committee will be charged with drawing up a proposal. The proposal, in turn, would be used to apply for up to $1 million in federal money to implement small learning communities at Berkeley High for the fall of 2002.
All around the country, large schools are looking at the idea of small learning communities as a way to offer alternatives for students who learn in different ways and have different academic goals. It is no longer realistic, parents and educators argue, to expect all students to adhere to a one-size-fits-all curriculum.
Supporters point to research that shows small learning communities: raise student achievement and engagement by having a team of teachers dedicated to the success of a small group of students; reduce feelings of isolation and anonymity by placing students into groups small enough to have a sense of community; increase attendance and lower drop out rates by assuring that all students can find a course of study of interest and of use to them; elevate teacher satisfaction and reduce incidents of violence and disruptive behavior.
“It’s astonishing that a nation so hugely, flagrantly nostalgic for the personal touch and the family doctor, the community festival and the small town, has watched quietly while its high schools have grown into big cities,” observed a Newsweek article last week, examining the connection between bigger schools and the raging epidemic of school shootings.
Average school enrollment in the United States increased fivefold between 1940 and 1990, the article reported. With 3,200 students, Berkeley High ranks with Chicago Vocational High School among the largest high schools in the country.
Berkeley High teacher Rick Ayers is coordinating the small learning communities planning process at the school. He has been meeting with small groups of teachers since last fall and is now expanding the process to larger community meetings, including two that have been scheduled tentatively for April 17 and May 3.
Ayers, who began as a elementary school teacher in Berkeley and now teaches some of the same students in high school, said he’s seen too many students who were engaged in the lower grades lose interest by the time they reached high school.
“When did the dreams crash?” Ayers asked after showing the segment of “Tell No Lies.” on Wednesday. “What happened and what can we do?”
Frances Martinez, one of the Berkeley High parents in the audience Wednesday, said she has already seen a small learning community work for her son, who is part of Berkeley High’s Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) program.
“It’s given him an opportunity not to be lost in this vast school,” Martinez said. “(CAS Teachers) know their students and they care about what they’re doing and it really shows.”
Berkeley High has three small learning communities already up and running and one more on the way. The programs were launched by groups of teachers with a vision to enhance students’ experience of the Berkeley High curriculum by creating schools-within-a-school, each with a specific mission. CAS students learn to use modern media tools to work on projects that promote social justice. Students in the Common Ground program, another small learning community, focus on ecological literacy and then work to promote environmental causes in the larger community.
Still, Ayers said, the success of these programs rests largely on the dedication of the small group of founding teachers who go to extraordinary lengths to keep it functioning. If these programs are to continue to thrive, Ayers said, the whole school needs to move to a small learning community model.
Berkeley High parent Iris Starr has played a central role in organizing the small learning community planning process at the school.
“It’s not like a brand new, untested thing,” Starr said. “People are doing it. What we’re doing isn’t working, so there’s no harm in looking.”
But for the planning process to be legitimate, Starr said it is important to have teachers, parents, students and administrators all working together.
“We’re trying to have a long enough open period so people can get an idea that this is being discussed before anything moves,” Starr said. “We’re trying to form this so everybody has a clear say.”
For more information about small learning communities at Berkeley High, contact Rick Ayers at 644-4586.