The Editor's Back Fence

The Editor's Back Fence

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday May 27, 2008 - 12:06:00 PM

In today's experiment, the executive editor will answer a couple of letters. We've been longing to try this ever since the paper was started. For years letters to the editor and the editor's often sarcastic replies were the centerpiece of the much-enjoyed Anderson Valley Advertiser. The Greater Berkeley Area takes itself more seriously than the Anderson Valley, so what he did there might not work here. But occasionally we get letters that deserve an answer, serious and not-so-serious.  

Here's a serious one: 

I am sick and tired reading about how bad Willard is. Riya has never had anything good to say about us. Instead of investigating the reality here at Willard, she just rehashes old news about our ex-vice principal and reports on faulty data. Had she spoken with our Principal like any reporter worth their weight would do, she would have a more balanced report. But as with the other articles she has written about us, Riya again just publishes inaccuracies.  

I have been teaching here for 9 years and have seen Willard go from a rough school to a diamond in the rough. Report on our increased API scores last year (biggest gain of all middle schools), report on the fact that in a school survey completed by students and parents, 92% felt that Willard is a safe place, report about the fact that we were the only middle school to reach our participation percentages on the standardized testing last year, report on the fact that we don't hide any data about our school - we are an open book and we have nothing to hide. We know we are good, I just wish those who report about us do their job better and stop bashing Willard.  

Sharon Arthur
6th grade teacher.

I emailed back to Ms. Arthur: The principal refuses to return phone calls. Perhaps you could discuss this with him. The data we published was also in the Chronicle. If the data was faulty, he or anyone is welcome to provide correct data, to us and to the Chronicle.  

But there's much more to say. This case is a good illustration of why Berkeley needs a sunshine ordinance, preferably one which applies to the public schools as well as to the city. Actually, we'd settle for compliance with the California Public Records Act, which is already the law. Riya Bhattacharjee, our education reporter, has gone to great lengths trying unsuccessfully to get accurate data about suspensions at Willard, including a string of CPRA requests which were largely ignored plus many letters and phone calls to all sorts of BUSD officials, also ignored.  

The Chronicle's respected and very experienced education reporter Nanette Asimov had similar problems getting accurate information about what's happening at Willard.. In case you no longer read the Chronicle, here's what she said: 

With 254 incidents, Willard reported one of the highest violent-suspension rates in the Bay Area last year: 1 for every two students, or 54 percent.  

Principal Robert Ithurburn said Willard actually had 177 violence suspensions, a rate of 38 percent. The discrepancy could not be readily explained.  

Either way, Willard's rate far exceeds 5 percent, and Ithurburn said he is working to change a culture of lax supervision.  

It's important to keep good track of what you're doing to know what effect it has. It looks like Willard is suspending lots of kids, but how many and to what effect can't be assessed with no data. 

As regards the departed ex-vice principal, whatever she did or didn't do about suspensions, it's safe to bet that without Bhattacharjee's investigative pieces she'd still be working at Willard. We still don't know exactly why she left so suddenly.  

What's wrong with lots of suspensions? you might ask. As an experienced parent whose three daughters went through Willard, and a grandparent of a current junior high school student in another city, I view suspensions as failures. Whether you're kicking half your kids out of school or only two-fifths of them, when they're not in school they're not learning. And if the parents are working as most are (or are absent, as is the case for all too many students these days) the student is out in the street looking for trouble. 

"Changing a culture of lax supervision" at school, if that's a problem, might be fine, but suspension doesn't solve that one—supervision is not done by students, but by teachers and administrators. And the school my granddaughter attends has almost identical test scores to Willard's when broken down by ethnicity, with a much lower suspension rate. Why is that? 

I answered the question of educators' eternal desire to have only the good news reported in the press long ago, in 2003. Through the magic of the Internet, you can find what I wrote then here. 

Not much seems to have changed. 

And now the less serious answer:  

Dear Editor, 

You comment on the front page of your website, in an article "The Editor's Soapbox," dated May 13, defending your frequency of publication of news, "Friends, there’s new stuff posted on this web site almost every single day: news, opinions both letters and commentary, columnists, you name it, something new every time you turn around..." Today is May 24, and there is not a single article less than ten days old on the front page. There is a "Flash News Update: Man Shot to Death on Durant Avenue" dated May 14. It is embarrassing to call ten day old events "flash news," and even more so to then harass your readers for calling for more frequent updates.  

Scott Fay
Berkeley Resident

My answer to Mr. Fay: 

You don't seem to be looking at the current issue--perhaps you haven't refreshed your browser?  

I make the same mistake myself sometimes—it's easy to do. You can also hit the "current issue" button near the top left of the online Planet's home page to get the latest articles.