CAL Prep studentsAt left, CAL Prep students burst with energy; at center left, college pennants on display near the school's front door, over the heads of Jasmine Cervantes, Jonathan Turner, Cody White, Luis Ortega, and Maggie Alonso-Munoz; at center right, Amber Pittman, Maggie Alonso-Munoz, and Dez Climens put their heads together; and right, Edgar Mayoral shows what he thinks of CAL Prep. (Peg Skorpinski photos)

Where everybody knows your name

CAL Prep gets kids ready for Cal — and Cal ready for those kids

| 03 December 2008

In the middle of a recent CAL Prep debate-team face-off, an exchange about cleaning up polluted "brownfields" took a sudden personal turn. A debater from the opposing school suggested that no one who grows up in a dirty, poor neighborhood — the kind where brownfields are often sited — would ever believe they were going to college.

Not true, said Carlene Ervin, a CAL Prep seventh grader from North Oakland. She grew up in such a neighborhood, she said, and she is positive she's going to college.

You're living in a dream world, her opponent fired back.

No, said Ervin, "I go to CAL Prep. We all come from those neighborhoods, and we are all going to college. I know that."

End of debate — on that point, anyway.

Elation buoys CAL Prep Principal Megan Reed's voice as she tells that story, weeks after the fact. That's exactly the determination she wants burning deep inside every one of the 210 seventh through 10th graders at CAL Prep, the charter school that UC Berkeley educators co-founded and co-run in the former St. Joseph the Worker School on Jefferson Street in Berkeley.

CAL Prep Principal Megan Reed with studentsCAL Prep Principal Megan Reed works with seventh graders Keana Bolds (left), Alaundria Evans (center), and Carlene Ervin (right). (Peg Skorpinski photo)

To Reed it's a sign that, in its fourth year, CAL Prep is succeeding in its mission of making college a reality for kids who face barriers because they come from low-income families, or families that lack a college-going tradition, or may speak a language other than English at home.

Another significant sign: CAL Prep students' scores on standardized state tests are rising steadily. Its Academic Performance Index (API), a function of test scores, has gone up each year since CAL Prep opened, from 648 (out of 1000) in 2005-06 to 725 in '06-07 to 771 last year, approaching the state's target of at least 800 for each school.

"I think a lot of [our students start out with] doubt in their hearts that they're college material," says Reed. "Our job is to give them the skills and the materials — not just to get in, but to graduate."

CAL Prep is a rare creature, a public charter school that operates in close collaboration with a major public university as part of the latter's access-and-outreach efforts to primary and secondary schools. Berkeley's partners are Aspire Public Schools, a not-for-profit charter management organization that runs 21 schools in California, and Berkeley City College, whose instructors teach some classes.

Berkeley provides leadership and staffing through both the Graduate School of Education and the Division of Equity and Inclusion, through its Center for Educational Partnerships (CEP), which oversees the campus's work with elementary, secondary, and community-college education.

Through Cal Teach and Cal Corps, Berkeley graduate students and undergraduates teach and tutor some college-level math, science, and humanities classes at CAL Prep. The university's expertise also helps shape educational practices at the school, and at the same time CAL Prep feeds university research in the School of Education.

Gibor Basri, Berkeley's vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, has been a member of CAL Prep's faculty advisory committee from the start. He sees the school as "an exemplary instance of how UC can get more involved with the K-12 problems in the state."

"What better way to do this (and keep it real for us)," Basri has asked, "than to fully partner in a local school — with direct involvement of both faculty and students to turn ideas into practice, as well as develop new ideas informed by practice? [And to do] this while providing direct assistance to a school serving the local urban population, including some children of UC Berkeley staff?"

Planning for CAL Prep began in 2003 with funds from the Gates Foundation, under the guidance of Genaro Padilla, then Berkeley's vice chancellor for student affairs, and P. David Pearson, dean of the Graduate School of Education. Pearson is credited with coming up with a simple definition of its goals: Not only to make the students ready for Cal, but to make Cal ready for the students.

From the beginning, CAL Prep was designed as an Early College High School, meaning that college-level courses would be part of the curriculum. Ninth graders take college-level writing, art history, and technology classes, and 10th graders add Spanish and math.

The idea, which has been promoted nationally by the Gates Foundation, is to smooth the transition to college and to make graduating from college more likely, says Gail Kaufman, who is deeply involved in CAL Prep as CEP deputy director. Berkeley was the first top-tier four-year research university to sign on to the Early College concept, she adds.

Instilling a college-bound culture is as important as the classes — and it starts at CAL Prep's front door, where pennants from Cal, UCLA, Tennessee State, and other colleges hang. Hallways and classroom walls are crammed with more, and the teachers make it real (in Basri's phrase) by posting the name of their alma maters and wearing their college sweatshirts on Fridays.

Acculturation and socialization are essential to the program. Cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control are rewarded. Talking back to teachers, yelling, fighting, name-calling, and swearing are not tolerated. Students wear uniforms — khakis and white shirts with the CAL Prep logo — and line up quietly in the halls to enter their classrooms.

Reed's office looks out on the front hall, and she keeps one eye on the students during passing periods. At 32, she has a B.A. from Yale (its banner hangs outside her office) and a master's in administration from San Jose State. This is her first year as principal, after serving as dean of CAL Prep last year.

She frequently calls out to kids passing by, to ask about a test, a uniform infraction, or some detail of their lives. She knows every one of them — not just their names, but their stories, their GPAs and test scores, and how they're doing in general.

So do CAL Prep's nine full-time teachers, plus the Berkeley and City College instructors who come in to teach some classes, and the school's steering-committee members, who make frequent visits. It's an adult-rich campus, by design. There are about 20 adults on campus at any given time, Reed says, and the students feel emotionally safer because of it.

"They feel heard. They have an adult to talk to on campus," she says. "Everyone is completely engaged."

The early college curriculum is challenging, but students get extra help, including mandatory participation in the AVID program, which teaches kids how to study and learn. Field trips take them to the Berkeley campus, among other places.

"We are trying to accelerate underprepared kids," says Kaufman.

Working hard . . . and liking it

Selene Rico, a sophomore in her third year at CAL Prep, says she found the school too strict when she arrived in eighth grade from a Richmond middle school. And she didn't like wearing the uniform.

By the middle of her first year, however, she was happy to be there (though the uniform still bugs her).

"It's giving us opportunities, and the teachers are really into us. If we need help, they'll help us — though we have to put our part in," Rico says.

Back in Richmond, she says, "I was used to not doing the work. The teachers didn't care about what they were doing. I would have bad grades." Kids would fight with teachers, and talk back.

Now, Rico works hard and likes it. And she has plans to go to Berkeley or UC Santa Barbara — to be the first generation in her family to go to college.

A CAL Prep mother, Blanca Sanchez, felt nothing but relief when she was able to place her three children there. Like a fraction of the school's parents, Sanchez works at Berkeley, in the law school library.

The family lives in Richmond, and the children attended Catholic school, but they faced steep fee hikes to continue in high school. Sanchez looked at public schools but was put off by the "negative environment," Sanchez says. She and her husband Andrιs "seriously thought about moving out of state." Then she heard of CAL Prep.

She knows that the school can't get her kids into college — that's up to them, she says. But it's "got the right classes, and the right attitude," Sanchez says — at least it won't get in their way, and it can help them make the best of themselves.

They started in spring 2005. Now in ninth grade, twins Andrιs and Daniel are both thriving at CAL Prep; daughter Bianca, a sophomore, misses her old friends and is struggling, her mother says. Whether Bianca settles in or not, she adds, "my kids are the first to say how much it's better for them."

It's too early to tell where CAL Prep students will end up going to college. Its first senior class won't graduate until 2011.

By then, the school hopes to have found a new space big enough to accommodate its original vision: grades 6-12 under one roof.

One grade is added each year — but for now, that means a bifurcated campus, with sixth graders attending another Aspire school, Berkley Maynard Academy, on San Pablo Avenue in North Oakland. CAL Prep opened in that location before moving to its current site. Next year, to make room for the 11th grade, seventh graders will go to Berkley Maynard as well.

"We desperately need a new site, for the continuity of the culture from middle school to high school," says Reed.

The faculty committee is supportive of the search, and Berkeley's commitment to CAL Prep is underscored in Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's new vision statement, "Access and Excellence," in which he says that the school can serve as a model for the ways regional cooperation and innovation can "help reverse the trend of educational underachievement in urban communities."

Ideally, the school would be on the Berkeley campus, or at least close by, Reed says, so the school could be truly integrated into the college community and provide easy access for Berkeley's teaching program.

But she adds, "I'd take anything with six more rooms."