Berkeley Schools Excellence Project: A Lot of Bang for the Buck

By Miriam Rokeach Topel
Tuesday June 15, 2004

“Our class is run like a college studio with college-level projects, medium, and materials,” Cragmont Elementary School art teacher Joe McClain explained. He was busy readying the classroom for the third and fourth graders who were about to appear. In hi s Bermuda shorts and abstract art t-shirt he hurried around the room, which was colorfully jumbled with student art, easels and supplies, throwing me information along the way. 

The Cragmont art program is paid for by the Berkeley Schools Excellence Proje ct (BSEP), a Berkeley property tax originally approved by Berkeley voters in 1986. BSEP supports class size reduction, music, libraries, as well as allocating funds to each school to use as it sees fit for enrichment programs. Cragmont’s art program comes out of the school’s site enrichment funds. 

BSEP will expire in 2006. In anticipation of the fast approaching time for renewing this important tax (the district will put it on the ballot this year), I decided to visit a few of the programs schools are cu rrently providing with their site enrichment funds, to see how things are going.  

Joe enlisted my help distributing cut and ripped pieces of magazine paper, pastels, and glue, around the tables. This week’s project would be making collages in preparation for an upcoming field trip to the Romare Bearden exhibit at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. The students filed quietly into the room. Joe showed them where to sit, leaving room for expected students from the special education class to intersperse. Joe took a quick few minutes to explain Bearden’s “scrap art” techniques. Then he set them loose: “Lay out your scraps, fill in the blank spaces with whatever you want.” The students dug into the pile of paper scraps, picking through and selecting, some d iscussing their approach with others at their table. Every student was on task. Joe wanted me to make a collage, too, so I found a seat and joined in. The art class lasts an hour and a half and as its end approached, Joe cheerfully began a countdown. We a ll worked madly in productive frenzied harmony. Those who finished early began cleaning up, in the midst of others still gluing and coloring. When time ran out, everyone turned in their completed collage, said goodbye to Joe, and returned to their regular classroom.  

Meanwhile, at King Middle School, Jan Sells, a licensed psychotherapist, has been counseling students for 15 years with BSEP site enrichment funding. Jan has bootstrapped her half-time BSEP-funded position (with another portion of her salary cobbled together from other sources) into a counseling program with 11 therapists, including seven interns who she supervises (she started out at King as an intern, herself) and three volunteer licensed therapists. That’s a lot of bang for the buck! “The reputation is, kids this age don’t open up, and it’s the opposite,” Jan said. More than 100 students out of a school of 875 are seeing counselors. That’s a lot! Their backgrounds represent the demographics of the school. Most are self-referred, having le arned about the program through Jan’s extensive outreach to sixth grade classes, as well as word of mouth. “Kids talk about suicide a lot…running away from home, …issues of sexual identity, physical abuse, a lot of bereavement and grief issues, … sex, pre gnancy, bullying, and just your day-to-day issues of social acceptance, peer pressure, loneliness, and feeling left out.” Counselors work with families when appropriate, and utilize conflict resolution when students involved agree. Students apparently fin d the counseling helpful, with most returning for multiple sessions. 

We took a tour of the counseling annex. The offices have been colorfully painted by interns in lavender and beige, electric turquoise and mint green. Comfy looking couches are covered w ith flowered throws. Posters, drawings, feathers, sand trays with accompanying toy figures, and art supplies fill the walls and countertops 

As Jan walked me out she called to a student on the playground. It was time for his counseling appointment. She ex plained that this procedure was O.K. because at King, there is no shame in seeing a counselor. He ran up and greeted her with a huge smile.  

Le Conte Elementary School uses some of its BSEP site enrichment funds to support its long-standing farm and gard en program. I visited on one of those first warm days in March. The main garden area is long and lush with a variety of vegetables, climbing roses, and other plants, all in the central courtyard of the school building. Hens pecked along one side of the ga rden while a denim capped scarecrow oversaw the other side. This program, like many others, is pieced together from a variety of sources. “Farmer” Ben Goff who runs the program is paid out of grant funds. BSEP site enrichment funds help pay for AmeriCorps Volunteer Tanya Stiller, Ben’s assistant. Here’s another example of how a small sum can literally blossom into a substantial program. The class began with students flopping down at the picnic table in the cool shade under an awning. Ben helped students l isten to their hearts with stethoscopes before and after doing jumping jacks. Tanya then took them into the garden where they began preparing beds for planting. As they cut up “cover crop” to turn it back into the soil, a licorice-like aroma wafted throug h the air. This particular class was “dual immersion,” with each student speaking English and Spanish, and the chatter in both languages intermingled. One boy teased about whether he should kill a ladybug (“No!”). There were a few shrieks over snails. 

“T he kids love it because it’s a different way of learning…an experiential opportunity,” Tanya told me. Students experience all aspects of gardening, as well as anatomy and physiology of plants, respect for living things and the environment, nutrition and h ealthy lifestyles. They taste everything they grow, and contribute lettuce to the school salad bar. “Those days it gets eaten up,” Tanya said.  

Our schools have been relying on local funding from BSEP for many years to provide valuable and critical progr ams that because of inadequate state funding, the district could not otherwise afford. This is money that is carefully and well-spent. BSEP is up for renewal soon. We can’t afford not to support it. 


Miriam Rokeach Topel served on the Berkeley School Board 1990-98.