Berkeley High School’s four co-principals, hoping to maintain accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, presented a series of draft reform proposals Tuesday night during a meeting of the high school’s Parent Teacher Student Association.
WASC, a regional accrediting group, identified 11 problem areas at the high school in 1999, and has threatened to withdraw its seal of approval if BHS does not make progress in those areas.
WASC’s accreditation runs through June. The organization will visit BHS in mid-May and will then decide whether to extend or cease the school’s accreditation.
The co-principals’ proposals included an expansion of the “senior bridge” program, which pairs fourth-year tutors with struggling freshmen, a monthly departmental meeting focused on aligning curriculum from class to class and a requirement that teachers call parents after a student’s fourth unexcused absence. After the first unexcused absence, parents already receive notice from a computerized dialing system at the high school.
But, with the district’s budget in disarray, and state funding cuts possible next year, administrators warned that some of their more expensive proposals might not come to fruition.
“We’re going to have to do this within the system we have,” said co-principal Laura Leventer. “We’re in a budget crisis.”
Some of the parents in attendance were skeptical of the proposed reform given budgetary realities.
“I don’t think you have the resources to do what you put up on the screen,” said Bill Savidge, parent of a sophomore.
The proposals come in the wake of a March 5 report, issued by WASC, which criticized the high school’s efforts to make improvements in those 11 problem areas.
“Progress is, at best, spotty and fragmented,” the report read. “It’s sad to see the lack of progress made by a staff and community so rich in talent and resources.”
Several parents at the Tuesday night meeting said the current leadership team, which took the reins in the fall after principal Frank Lynch resigned, appears to be making more progress than previous administrators at the high school.
“I think, more than any other administrators, they are taking WASC seriously and making strides,” said Cindy Cohen, president of the PTSA. “I think they really want to make change at Berkeley High School.”
The four co-principals, Leventer, MaryAnn Valles, Lawrence Lee, and Mike Hassett, presented recommendations in four areas: attendance, discipline, staff development, and the ninth grade program.
Four focus groups, composed of high school administrators, BHS staff, district personnel, parents, and a few interested students, developed the recommendations early in the school year.
Administrators convened the four groups after Superintendent Michele Lawrence held discussions with WASC and school administrators earlier this year, and decided to hone in on five of the concerns – the four considered by the focus groups, and a fifth involving the lack of “well-structured planning and decision-making process.”
School administrators said they began to address the decision-making process earlier this year with the establishment of a new shared governance structure at the high school including administrators, department heads and a representative from the School Site Council. Co-principal Valles said this new structure has helped to centralize and clarify the process.
Some activists have raised concerns about the apparent focus on only five of the issues, worrying that other problems identified by WASC, including the “achievement gap” separating white and minority students, are not being properly addressed.
“I’m not suggesting they’re intentionally trying to hide it,” said Kathryn Burroughs, parent of a senior at BHS, discussing the achievement gap. “But, it seems to me that it’s out of sight, out of mind...We need to be talking about the root causes of disparity in achievement.”
School and district administrators say that the high school has embedded concerns about the achievement gap in each of the focus group studies, arguing that improvements in attendance, discipline, staff development and the ninth-grade program will all help address the disparity.
“I think everything we’re doing addresses the gap,” said Chris Lim, associate superintendent for instruction.
Lim added that a series of programs put in place in the last couple of years also address the problem directly. The “Critical Pathways” and “Smart” programs, for instance, provide at-risk freshmen with a summer orientation and intensive support in English and math.
The Proposed Reforms
Berkeley High School’s four co-principals have proposed a series of reforms in four areas: attendance, discipline, staff development, and the ninth-grade program.
“I know these don’t sound like state-of-the-art things,” said MaryAnn Valles one of the co-principals, “but we have basic systems to fix.”
The following is a list of the highlights:
• Teachers will call parents after a fourth unexcused absence.
• As truancy problems escalate, the school will convene parent conferences, send home letters to parents, and develop intervention plans.
• BHS will have two new deans focused on attendance and discipline beginning next semester.
• The school will refine its security camera system to cover more “dead spots” on campus.
• A new information system will allow for a broader dissemination of information among guidance counselors, staff at the BHS Health Center and special education instructors.
• Administrators will have meetings with suspended students after they return to school, and will better monitor their progress.
• The departments will convene monthly curriculum meetings to align curriculum from class to class and discuss teaching methods.
• Teachers in a voluntary program, will visit other classrooms to learn what works and what does not. Over 80 percent of teachers, in an internal survey, said they would take part in the program.
• BHS will provide monthly learning opportunities for its teachers, covering everything from curriculum to technology.
Ninth grade program
• The school will expand the Summer Bridge program, a summer orientation session for at-risk students.
• BHS will expand its “senior bridge” program to include math. Currently, the program focuses on English, pairing fourth-year tutors with struggling freshmen.