Leib Sutcher, Class of 2015
Contemporary Issues In Urban Schooling: Theory and Reform, a brand new course, has consumed my consciousness for the last 10 weeks. I was not teaching this course or a student of it, I was designing it to be offered to the young adults at Berkeley High School. With the help of three master teachers I spent the summer creating a course that gives high school students the opportunity to develop a vocabulary and understanding of the current education system in order to critically examine their own experience within it.
Berkeley High School is home to the largest achievement gap in California. Many of the students at Berkeley High have attended the Berkeley Public Schools their entire lives experiencing these stark educational inequalities. Students, however, are not given the opportunity to study these inequalities, the larger social structures that allow this situation to exist, nor a forum to compare their experiences to the situation in the wider United States and in international communities. Along with three Berkeley High teachers, I set out to give high school students, the very ones stuck at ground zero, the chance to engage in the study of education.
My days were spent buried in a pile of books or more usually a virtual pile of PDFs, taking notes, synthesizing information, and building this course step by step. I brainstormed with my teacher team, discussed potential activities, and checked in about thoughts and ideas I had on a regular basis. I spent many hours putting myself in students’ shoes, imagining how they would react to a particular reading or activity. I used what I know from my own experience as a former Berkeley High student to guide the development of a curriculum that would put students at the center of the experience. I worked to create ways to access students’ expertise of their 12 years of experience in a school district where stark educational inequalities are played out, and to immerse students in the issues they are studying. My days were hard, but there wasn’t anything I would rather have been doing than this.
This opportunity has put me on the front lines with some of the best teachers at Berkeley High. It has allowed me to use my past experiences along with my current knowledge to hone my perspective as well as build intellectual experience. In doing so I have learned the challenges and strategies that come along with developing curriculum. In preparing for the petition process to enable this course to be recognized by the school district, I have continue to learn more about bureaucracies and interworking’s of a high school with 3400 students and the larger district within which it exists.
If there is anything one can learn by studying education, it is that there is no easy fix or silver bullet to right the wrongs in our education system. Rather, reform comes about through a wide range of efforts by communities and the people who are part of them. Hopefully this course will be part of that piecework that is necessary to begin to heal a struggling schooling system, and the students who take part in this course will be some of those you step forward to take on a piece of that work in the future.
Left to Right: Amy Crawford (English teacher at Berkeley High for 15 years), Leib Sutcher 15’, Dana Moran (Berkeley high graduate and History and Social Justice Teacher at Berkeley high for 20 years)