Berkeley High taking action to close academic achievement gap

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Over the past year, Berkeley High School staff have been meeting with parents and students to review ideas for redesigns to classrooms and teaching styles that aim to end academic achievement disparities between racial and socioeconomic groups.

The Berkeley High Design Team — a group of 40 staff members, parents and students — has been meeting regularly since August 2015 to discuss ideas for redesigning the way students are organized in schools. Additionally, the team has discussed supporting different teaching approaches to optimize schooling outcomes for all students.

“Berkeley High School right now is not aligned (with) what the research, a very broad body of research, says is the most effective structure for all kids,” said Tamara Friedman, a co-facilitator of the Berkeley High School redesign process and BHS professional development co-coordinator.

Currently, all incoming freshman to BHS must immediately choose to join one of five learning communities, according to Friedman. The learning communities — which vary in size, course offerings and academic emphasis — are intended to allow students to be members of smaller communities within the school.

Freshmen often will decide their learning community based on stereotypes within the school, however, according to BHS teacher Glenn Wolkenfeld.

One idea under consideration is to instead have a universal ninth grade in which all incoming freshmen would be placed for one year into separate houses — a randomized and intentionally heterogeneous collection of students who would share a core group of teachers. Students would then have one year to see what the learning communities are like first-hand before they have to decide which one they will join in their sophomore years.

“These teachers could then be watching over these kids, making sure none of them fall through the cracks,” Wolkenfeld said.

Another idea, according to Friedman, is to create an advising period that could provide academic, emotional and social support to students. The advising period would also set aside time for students to discuss course selection and post-graduation plans with their teachers.

Right now, students are really left on their own to make decisions about course selection, and that’s very frustrating to me as a parent,” said Christine Staples, president of the Berkeley PTA Council and member of the Design Team.

Some parents at the meetings have voiced concerns with the redesigns about a possible loss of academic rigor, however, while others have said they felt uncertain whether these changes could work for their children, Staples said.

According to Frank Worrell, professor in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, the effects of new policies can take years before becoming noticeable, meaning that it is important to continuously evaluate implementations long after they have been made.

Worrell added that because the academic achievement disparities among racial and socioeconomic groups arise in elementary and middle school, the Berkeley Unified School District should make similar efforts to reduce disparities earlier on.

Many meetings and forums that intend to inform and gather input from parents and students are planned for the near future, including a student forum that will be held at BHS, likely within the next two weeks, according to Friedman.

Friedman added that once the Design Team’s ideas are drafted into proposals, the earliest they will be implemented is the 2017-18 academic year and thus will not affect current students.

Contact Anna Dell’Amico at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @adellamico_dc.