A group of eight Berkeley educators and activists left for an East Coast tour of “small schools” Monday amid controversy over the racial make-up and mission of the delegation.
The team, composed of Superintendent Michele Lawrence, Berkeley High School co-principal Mary Ann Valles, three BHS teachers, two activists and a student, plans to visit three schools in New York City and two schools near Boston, Mass. during its five-day trip.
The group hopes to learn more about small schools while Berkeley considers transforming BHS into a series of “small learning communities” with different themes.
The delegation will consider a wide range of issues, from finances and administration, to staff development, to parental involvement, to concerns about maintaining racial balance among schools-within-a-school. After the trip, the group will work together to prepare a report to the superintendent. Lawrence plans to present the findings and make recommendations to the board about next steps by the end of the school year.
The visit grew out of a strong push this fall by the Coalition for Excellence and Equity, a community group, to transform Berkeley High School into a series of small schools with different themes by the fall of 2003, in part to address the “achievement gap” separating white and Asian students from blacks and Hispanics.
The Board of Education tabled the proposal in December, arguing that the plan needed more study and the district had to focus on its financial crisis. But Superintendent Michele Lawrence pledged to arrange for small schools visits by May.
Vikki Davis, a member of Parents of Children of African Descent, an advocacy group that is part of the larger Coalition for Excellence and Equity, said the district invited coalition member Kalima Rose at the outset, but did not extend an invitation to an African-American parent from PCAD until activists raised concerns.
Lawrence said there was no attempt to exclude any voices from the delegation.
“I tried to balance the perspectives as best I could,” she said, noting that she moved to include community members, teachers and a student, and a variety of views on small schools, while keeping the delegation at a reasonable size.
Rose said she was generally pleased with the final composition of the group, which includes PCAD member Gina Wolley. But she worried that the delegation may not have much authority, given that the report will be funneled through Lawrence’s office and the superintendent will make recommendations to the board.
Rose said the Coalition for Excellence and Equity will likely hold a community forum of its own to share the findings of the trip.
Lawrence said the purpose of the trip is to educate the superintendent on small schools, and the process reflects that purpose.
But she said the public will have ample opportunity to debate the report.
“Nobody is going to be inhibited in this community from saying whether they like or don’t like the report,” added school board member Ted Schultz.