Candidates Turn Attention to Gap In Achievement

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With recent SAT scores for Berkeley High School showing a large disparity between scores of white students and those of underrepresented minorities, several Berkeley Board of Education candidates yesterday squared their sights on closing the district's glaring "achievement gap."

Sherri Morton is running in November's election because of the experience of her three children in Berkeley's public schools.

"Watching them do well and seeing others fall behind prompted me to get involved," said Morton, a senior business consultant. "We can save (students who are struggling) one at a time, but we want to be more broad."

Morton is competing with four other candidates, one of whom is an incumbent, for two seats on the board. She said the district should implement more after-school tutoring programs for all students, especially for those slipping in school.

Incumbent Joaquin Rivera, currently serving as the board's president, said closing the achievement gap was the reason he ran for the position four years ago, and is still his top priority.

"You have to go one step at a time," he said. "We have just started."

The first step was Reading Recovery, a program working one-on-one for a half hour every day with students at the low end of their first grade classes. The program, which Rivera helped implement, needs to be extended beyond elementary school, he said.

Morton agreed that the district should take successful programs, such as Reading Recovery, and extend them to all schools. It is simply a matter of using what works, she said.

Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico and graduated from UC Berkeley, said it was his experience as a teacher that made him realize that even college students lack basic skills.

"One of the reasons kids fall behind is because they cannot read," said Rivera, who teaches chemistry at a community college in San Bruno.

Rivera also said he wants to focus on the problems at Berkeley High School, which is recovering from a year of arsons and student unrest.

This issue, said John Selawsky, another candidate, highlights how disconnected the district's administration is from the community.

"I have three issues - accountability, accountability and accountability," Selawsky said. "The fires at Berkeley High School are indicative of people being asleep at the wheel. I think it's a systemic (problem)."

Selawsky, who has a son at Willard Junior High School, characterized the district as having a "top-down" approach. Instead, he said he wants to forge a "culture of participation."

"I see myself as a three-way bridge between the Berkeley community, the city and the school district," said Selawsky, who is chair of the city's Community Environmental Advisory Commission.

Selawsky became involved with the district through the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project, which administers the $8 million Berkeley's schools receive every year from parcel taxes. For the last two years, he served as co-chair of the project's Planning and Oversight Committee, which makes recommendations to the board. He has also worked with the advisory committee on the district's music programs since 1995.

"The school district is a major developer, policy maker and decision maker and there is too little community input," he said. "If there is input, it's usually an afterthought."

UC Berkeley needs to get involved too, according to Selawsky. With the district's teachers' low wages and little support, the university can provide training and after-school workshops, he said.

"We need to get a real commitment from the UC about what they can do for schools in Berkeley," he said.

Irma Parker and Murray Powers, the two other candidates for the board, were not available for comment yesterday.


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