At 3:30 on a blustery Friday afternoon a group of Cragmont Elementary fourth graders are lining up in the hallway in front of Room 209 for the second part of their educational day.
For the next two hours—while most Bay Area elementary school students are already deep into their weekends, wearing out their fingers on XBox keys or engaged in other leisurely pursuits—13 members of the Cragmont Scholars program are honing up on their state testing skills or learning how to write science reports.
The teacher for the first hour is Cragmont’s principal, Jason Lustig, who hears groans as he passes out a pile of thick Spectrum California Test Practice Books.
“Are we going to do all of this today?” one girl asks, flipping through the hundred or so pages.
“I love your ambition,” Lustig answers in quiet deadpan. “Maybe you should hold a sleepover and stay until we finish it.”
There are general shouts of “yeah!” around the room, but Lustig dampens their enthusiasm. “No,” he says, “we don’t want to do these too fast. The purpose is to learn how to do it, not to rush through it.”
It is not until later that the reporter learns that the program actually does hold sleepovers for its students, but just not for this particular night. We are learning already that this is not your regular classroom.
“Will we get graded on this?” another girl asks.
“On practice?” Lustig answers. “Do you get graded on anything in Scholars?”
He gets nods all around. One boy gives him a serious stare and says, “But it will help us with our education.”
“You don’t sound convinced,” Lustig says.
But, actually, they do seem convinced and for the next hour—instead of nodding off in their seats, hitting each other with wadded paper, or staring out the window at Cragmont’s spectacular view of sunset over the San Francisco Bay—the Scholars (as Lustig refers to them) follow along, clearly engaged. That engagement takes them over regular weekly and Saturday sessions, as well as three to four week sessions during the summer.
At 4:30 fourth grade teacher Kathy Freeburg takes over, starting with jumping jacks, toe-touchings, and a deep breath.
The planned calisthenics are hardly necessary. Periodically the room lights suddenly go out during Freeburg’s portion of the program, the children all leap from their seats as if making for the light switch, and then, just as suddenly, the lights go back on, and the children jump back in their seats and continue the work as if nothing had happened. It is not until later that the reporter is told that the lights are on motion sensors, and some movement is needed every now and then to keep them going.
As Freeburg arranges the students in a circle on the floor and begins leading them in preparation for upcoming astronomy reports, the reporter makes another discovery while making a head count. Of the 13 Cragmont Scholars in the day’s session, four are African-American, nine are Latino.
It’s not by accident. The Cragmont Scholars program is aimed specifically at African-American and Latino students, and closing the education gap with whites and Asians that has occupied so much of Berkeley’s public education debate and policy. The difference at Cragmont is that—if state test scores are any indication—they have fashioned a solution.
Between 2003 and 2004, state performance scores for African-American students at Cragmont rose 66 points; Latino students’ scores rose 110 points. The closest African-American score gain in the rest of Berkeley’s elementary schools in the same period was 60 points at Jefferson; the closest Latino gain was 27 points at Thousand Oaks. In fact, leaving out Cragmont, the remaining 10 Berkeley elementary schools witnessed an average gain of 9.1 points in African-American API scores; the Latino average actually dropped close to half a point.
While Freeburg helps the Scholars find out how to come up with good research questions (“If the sun blows up, what will happen to the earth?” is better than “Do you like the sun?”), the program’s other teacher—Mary Martin—explains the rationale behind Cragmont Scholars.
“We don’t want these students just to think about getting out of school and getting a job,” she says. “But we want them to see being a student as their job. We don’t want them to think that average is all right. We want them to think about going to college. In fact, everything we do is geared towards college, college, college. We want to create a tightly-knit peer group where the focus is on raising expectations.”
The Scholars program had its genesis in a long-term project put together several years ago by UC Berkeley’s Stiles Hall at Cragmont and three other Berkeley Unified elementary schools. That project—which is following four groups of students from grade to grade—was geared towards “at-risk students with social or emotional problems,” according to Cragmont principal Lustig.
In contrast, he says, the two-year Cragmont Scholars program “targets African-American and Latino students who we believe should be going to top-tier colleges based upon their test scores, but who might drop off in middle school or high school if they don’t get support. We’re not just telling these students that they’re smart. Of course they’re smart. Everybody’s smart. We’re telling them that they need to work.”
When the Scholars program was started for fourth graders last year, participants were picked on three criteria: grades, teacher recommendation, and scores on their third grade achievement tests. According to Martin, most of last year’s participants remained to form the core of this year’s 5th grade group, and new students are added “by word of mouth. I was talking to one student about our Saturday program, and they said, ‘why would I want to come to school on Saturday?’ And one of the Scholars said, ‘you want to come on Saturday because we have a good time.’ And so the student ended up coming.”
Lustig says that while the Scholars functions as an accelerated learning program, it also “goes back to basics when gaps in academic knowledge gets exposed. So it’s essentially a hybrid program.”
And the key to its success at Cragmont, he said, is that the Scholars program does not close the gap by focusing on African-Americans and Latinos at the expense of whites and Asian-Americans.
“The first thing we did was bring the scores of the entire student population up in the years before the Scholars program got started,” he said. “You can’t run this kind of program unless you’re at a certain academic level.”
Back in Room 209, the students in Ms. Freeburg’s class learn that they are writing their own small books to be produced in a few weeks, each one with her or his own individual astronomy topic. They call out the subjects: Neptune, Saturn, black holes, Jupiter, stars. High in the hills above Berkeley, the real stars are being developed.›