The Debate: Should Small Schools Exist at Berkeley High?

Context: Berkeley High School (BHS) is divided into Small Learning Communities (SLC). This SLC system consists of five main communities: Communications Arts and Sciences (CAS), Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA), Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS), Academic Choice (AC), and Berkeley International High School (BIHS). CAS, AHA, and AMPS are known as the small schools.

Student Opinion:​

“Small schools shouldn’t exist in the way that they currently do. They are highly restricting — in the 2017-18 school year there was not a single AP level class offered to AMPS seniors. They’re hard to switch out of and are cesspools of drama. Sure, they work great for some people, but they’re utterly awful for those that get trapped in them.”

-Alix Abrahams, BHS senior

Small Learning Communities are essential to the success of BHS. That’s not to say the current system is perfect, but without the SLC system, BHS would fall apart. BHS has a student population of about 3,200 students, which would be  impossible to successfully manage as one big group. By separating that huge number into manageable chunks with their own leadership teams, counselors, and faculty, it is easier to handle conflict, adjust schedules, and plan activities.

With the new Universal 9th Grade (U9), freshmen are given more time and information to make their small school decision. Students are less likely to end up in a learning community that they don’t want to be in. Luckily, since the small schools are in such high demand, it’s really easy to switch out if one decides the environment isn’t right for them.

In small schools, it can often be difficult to get into a class that is not offered in your SLC. However, having an elective chosen for you is not a bad thing. The mandatory electives are related to the overall theme of the small school, and are very high-quality classes. A major argument against the SLC system is the lack of Advanced Placement (AP) classes offered in small schools. Nevertheless, small schools have begun to offer select AP classes, and now, all CAS and AHA juniors take AP Language and Composition. By requiring the entire grade to participate in the AP class, small schools are recognizing the potential of every single one of their students. This not only helps students get into college, but it also shows students who may not have considered themselves “AP level” that they can achieve more.

Many also argue that small schools perpetuate segregation. However, under any other system at BHS, the segregation would still persist. In one huge school, not only would students self-segregate, but the history indicates that high level courses like AP and Honors classes would remain overwhelmingly white. The Department of Education reported that in 2012, African American students represented 16% of nationwide high school enrollment, but only 8% of the students enrolled in advanced calculus. This is due to the historically institutionalized racism within the school system that has now been internalized by all BHS students.

Overall, the small school system is not perfect, but with changes like U9 and AP course offerings, it is improving. Nonetheless, learning community stereotypes continue. Until we can all understand their individual values and respect each other’s choices in where they choose to spend their time at BHS, we will remain divided and unhappy.

— Arev Walker

The small schools — AMPS, AHA, and CAS — are designed to be environments that provide an education that is more specialized than a large school. These can help students who face challenges in their daily life in and outside of school that make it more difficult for them to excel in school. Among these hurdles are language barriers, economic stress, food insecurity, and discrimination. In theory, the small school system would allow BHS to provide its most vulnerable students with the additional academic support that they would benefit from. In practice, however, small school students are sometimes left behind and lack some of the opportunities that students in bigger learning communities have.

Small schools often restrict their students’ schedules. Students in AC and BIHS have three years to take AP or IB science courses while students in smaller schools can only take AP science courses in their senior year, unless they appeal to their counselor. Students in AC have immediate access to AP options for United States History and Government, while students in small schools do not. AMPS Students rarely have any AP English options available to them. In these core subjects of Science, History, and English, students in smaller schools have more limited and in some cases no access to AP and IB courses. This means that when they apply for college, small school students’ have comparatively less AP scores and less grades to show in AP or IB classes than their peers in AC and BIHS, simply because small school students just don’t have the same access to those classes. Small schools are, in a way, adding limitations on many students who already face personal challenges.

It is a recent development that CAS and AHA have all juniors take AP English, but there is an extra after school section of the class devoted to preparing for the actual exam. Students can only enroll in this section if they don’t have to help support their families by working or taking care of siblings after school. A product of this could be that teachers spend more time teaching and supporting their privileged students, even though small schools like CAS or AHA should be providing more support for underprivileged students.

Having big schools and small schools makes for a struggle between dominant and nondominant groups for school resources. In pursuit of a more pluralistic community, we should break up the whole school into small schools for core classes and provide students in all of those small schools with the same opportunities for advanced or niche elective classes.

— Teoman Tezcan

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