Reflections on King Middle School

Reflections on King Middle School [NEBA News Spring 2009]

By Sophie Hahn, President of King PTA
Editor’s note: This article was edited for the newsletter. See the full article:

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I attended King Middle School in the mid-1970s. It was a sad looking, run-down school. I remember kids tormenting a “retarded” boy and pouring milkshakes on him at lunch. Someone hit me in the head with a brick while I was leaning into my locker, and girls kept us captive in the bathroom until we took a puff on a cigarette, or submitted to a mild beating with a pair of “clackers,” a popular toy-of-the-moment with large Lucite balls attached to both ends of a string.

Despite all that, King – and all of my Berkeley Public Schools experiences – were deeply formative. I was aware that we were part of a noble experiment – an effort to rectify the racial wrongs of our country through integration and education. I was an enthusiastic participant. I spent three years (in elementary school) in a program called Equal One, where “White” students were purposefully a minority. We learned about African and African-American history. We learned Swahili and – yes – we even sang Kumbaya. The schools felt heady to me, as did my many cross-racial friendships. If we could bridge the divides at school, we would carry our success into adulthood and, as a generation, sweep racism and discrimination away. When I returned to King Middle School with my eldest son 35 years later, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Had things changed for the better? My first impressions of the King Middle School I returned to were – and remain – overwhelmingly positive, despite areas that pose significant challenges. Overall, King is a positive, caring, attractive and well run school, boasting many tangible and intangible assets.

On first glance, King’s most striking improvements over the past 35 years are the physical plant and calm, safe, positive school atmosphere. The main building, renovated with tasteful, durable materials, boasts huge, sunny, well appointed classrooms, and the halls are orderly and clean, despite almost a thousand students passing numerous times each day. The presence of the Chez Panisse Foundation’s Edible Schoolyard and Kitchen provide another truly world class learning environment, and elevate the school on many levels. Students benefit from the curriculum, the hands-on learning and the progressive, empowering philosophy of the program. The garden, chicken coop, compost area, brick oven and other features of this model farm are a delight. The final outstanding feature of King’s physical plant is the brand-new Chez Panisse Foundation Dining Commons. Reminiscent of a lodge at an upscale ski resort, this airy space with signature copper light fixtures, concrete floors and rough hewn wooden tables is another model project of the Foundation. At noontime, each grade files in separately to lunch on mostly-organic, low fat fare, fresh cooked on the premises. The requirement that every student sit for a fixed amount of time has significantly increased the number of students eating a healthy lunch, with positive impacts on health as well as afternoon behavior and learning.

Also palpable at King is the energy and commitment of teachers, administration and staff. Jason Lustig, in his second year as King’s Principal, knows the name of every student in the school (over 900!). So, what’s not to like? The single largest challenge facing King Middle School today is the disparate educational outcomes for kids of higher vs. lower economic backgrounds; of parents with a college education vs. students whose parents did not attend college; and of white students vs. students of color. On all three counts, one group of students is doing very well – even exceptionally, while the other groups, despite some strong outliers, have very poor overall outcomes. People often “blame” this disparity in outcomes on parents. It is claimed that they are not supportive enough, not around enough, not on top of things. After all, if some kids are thriving, the fact that others are not must not be the school’s fault! While I do believe that parent involvement is important and can make a difference for some kids, a good number of parents are simply unable to participate and for many other students, parent participation simply is not enough. The job of schools is to take students as they come, and educate them. If having economically stable, college educated, English speaking parents is a pre-condition to academic success, one could argue that our schools really aren’t providing much! So, how can King meet the needs of the approximately 1/3 of its student body that is chronically underserved?

First, as an important way-station between elementary and high school, I believe Middle Schools should provide intensive, targeted, proven academic support programs and services to bring all students up to, or above, grade level. A second important component of providing a full education for middle school students is to support the social, emotional, ethical and moral development of all students. Given the tremendous personal growth that middle schoolers experience, it is obvious that these grades should be infused with comprehensive programs and services providing guidance and support on a variety of levels. In addition to programs and curriculum for the entire school, an increase in counseling/case management staff is imperative to meet the ongoing needs of the King’s 300+ students who struggle (and the occasional needs of all students). With only two full-time counselors, there simply isn’t enough to go around. Last but not least, our middle schools need to provide tools for families and students to envision and then work towards a successful future in high school and college, and beyond. Going back to the paradigm of schools that are most successful in meeting the needs of students with college educated, economically stable and/or empowered parents, we need to ask ourselves what those families are providing to support their students’ success, and replicate those things in the school setting, making them accessible to all students.

Fortunately for King, the current teachers, staff, parents and administration recognize these three needs – academic support, social/emotional/developmental support and pathways to high school and college – and are working on programs to address them. Plans right now call for very tightly targeted academic and social interventions to raise students’ scores, as measured within several of the District’s ethnic group categories, in Math, Reading and “Habits of Work.” Math and reading were chosen as target areas because they are the building blocks of all learning. Habits of Work (“HOW”) is a measure of each student’s engagement, work habits, attitude and participation in the classroom setting. Improvement in this area will require a series of supports that are currently being devised by teachers and staff. While these three targeted areas do not address all the school hopes to improve, they were selected as the school’s first focus with limited resources.

Sophie Hahn is a King Middle School graduate and mother of two King Middle School students – 6th and 8th graders. She is currently President of the King PTA and is a member and former chair of King’s School Governance Council. The opinions and analysis presented here are hers only.