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Starting Blocks Goes to Texas

February 20, 2010

Starting Blocks featured as Poster Presentation at the Seventh Annual Abriendo Brecha Conference at UT

By Elana Ford

Last month, Starting Blocks was honored to be included in a poster presentation at the Seventh Annual Abriendo Brecha (Breaking New Ground) conference hosted by the University of Texas at Austin. This conference provided an important opportunity to share the Starting Blocks story with a broader audience and to get feedback on the program model from leading academics dedicated to Social Justice issues.

Abriendo Brecha
According to the conference organizers “Abriendo Brecha VII call(ed) for a renewed discussion on the meanings and practices of activist scholarship”. Poster presentations supplemented the speakers, panel discussions and workshops as visual displays of programs and projects that relate to social justice or activist scholarship. The posters were displayed in the main hall throughout the duration of the conference and presenters facilitated discussions about the display. Our poster was presented by Ms. Jessica Dunning-Lozano, a member of the Starting Blocks Educators Support Network, and Sociology PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.

Berkeley High School as a Unique Urban School
Berkeley High School, one of the largest public high schools in California, has always reflected the diversity and passion of the city it represents. Known nationally for being a progressive learning community, the school struggles to create an environment that supports the broad needs of its ethnically and academically diverse student body. These struggles have been under the microscope of the public eye via documentaries such as PBS’s School Colors filmed during my time as a BHS student, “YellowJackets,” a play by fellow BHS alum Itamar Moses that premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2009 and “Tearing Down the Gates” by Peter Sacks, where BHS is featured prominently as a case study. The challenges facing Berkeley High are complex in nature and the achievement gap, a measure of a school’s ability to create positive academic outcomes for students of all ethnic backgrounds, persists. Referring to these issues, Dunning-Lozano writes, “in light of the city’s history, it is nothing short of ironic that Berkeley is home to one of the most racially and ethnically integrated school systems in the country, yet operates through a system of highly segregated classrooms and small schools.

Are Small Schools a Solution?
Over the past decade, BHS has been re-organized into four small schools to supplement the comprehensive academic programs that were already in place. Since this re-organization, every student attends one specific learning community; there is no longer a “general Berkeley High School.” Each of the small school curricula is centered around a specific theme, although the other two programs (which include an International Baccalaureate program) are more traditional in their pedagogy. The decision to move to a small schools framework was driven in large part by The Diversity Project, headed by UC Berkeley Researcher Pedro Noguera in the 1990s. The Abriendo Brecha presentation pointed out that “although the Diversity Project advocated for the creation of small learning communities to address the inequality issues prevalent in urban education, these communities have fallen short of many of their goals. For example, in the School for Social Justice and Ecology where the Starting Blocks pilot is operating, African American students in particular are overrepresented (45% in SSJE vs. 30% of overall BHS population), while white students are underrepresented (19% in SSJE vs. 37% of overall population) (Berkeley High School Report).” Further, evidence from the BHS report is that at the time of its publication, 35% of SSJE students had received at least one D or F on their last report card vs only 20% and 26% in AC and BIHS respectively. “The objective of the Berkeley Small Schools was to circumvent the stratified system of AC and BIHS course streams, yet years after implementation…these small schools have adapted to the tracking scheme in place at BHS” (Noguera-Wing 2006).

Starting Blocks as a Stepping Stone
In this framework, Dunning-Lozano presented Starting Blocks as a response to the limits of the small school system, specifically via its mission to introduce students to new forms of social capital (networks of individuals who can support them in setting and achieving their goals). Research indicates that access to social and cultural capital while growing up can be an important indicator of long-term well-being. By expanding their networks and teaching specific skills that relate to their professional, personal, academic, and economic success, we help students build a path to rise above their current circumstances. “Starting Blocks has worked to capitalize on the high aspirations and drives possessed by the youths who attend these schools that often go unnoticed and undervalued…This is a program that draws from the strengths of the community…through a series of workshops, guest speakers, and mentors from the local community who discuss their professional and academic trajectories and assist youths in realizing their own goal” said Lozano in her presentation.

Well Received
Feedback to the poster board was quite positive, indicating that the program was ideal and promising. One man, whose daughter lives in Berkeley, encouraged Dunning-Lozano to “keep doing the good and necessary work” and another woman commented that such a program “that emphasized college, professionalization, and mentoring  – for high school students for whom it has not been assumed or imagined that they would attain any of the aforementioned things, is surely life changing!”

For more information on the Abriendo Brecha conference, please click here http://www.utexas.edu/diversity/abriendobrecha/

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