Monday, June 16, 2008

High 9’s, low 9’s and homerooms

When I was working at Bret Harte, a closet in my room became the depository for old school memorabilia. Whenever people found something ancient in one of the many stray cupboards or mildewed corners on campus, they knew to bring it to me. I was very interested in the history of the school and would accept the discoveries as if they were gold.

One day I was looking at an old photo of the school's first graduating class (the Class of 1930) and suddenly realized that the 75th class was going to graduate that school year. I immediately started planning for an anniversary celebration to take place in May 2005.

In preparation for the event I sought out former teachers and students. A number of people responded and I was delighted to tap into their memories. By talking with them, and by studying old documents and photos, I have learned quite a bit about the school. Someday I might get around to compiling the bits and pieces into a narrative. It would certainly reveal how much things have changed, but also how much things have remained the same.

Here's a short background. Bret Harte (in Oakland, California) was a junior high from 1930 until 1996. The following year, the school was turned into a middle school; ninth graders had been eliminated and sixth graders had been added. From counting up the number of graduating students pictured in old yearbooks and class photos, I learned that the size of the graduating class has always fallen in the 275 to 339 student range. For its entire life it has been a large school with about 900 students. Bret Harte was placed in Program Improvement Year 4 for 2007-2008.

Small schools and “small learning communities” are the popular models for school reform these days, and large schools have become a threatened species. However, one problem that seems to be arising with small schools is that they are more expensive to operate. Another is that the choice of classes they are able to offer to their students is more limited. So the pursuit to develop ever-more-perfect models continues on. I read recently that one Texas school district “is trying to implement smaller learning communities within the confines of bigger high school campuses” by dividing up a high school into two 400-student “houses” per grade level.¹ What I know from studying the history of Bret Harte is that something similar to this was in place long ago.

From 1930 to the 1950’s, each grade level was split into two groups. Old panoramic photos of graduating classes show that each of those groups had 140 to 150 students. One group finished their school year in the wintertime and the other finished in June. My neighbor who attended the school in the 1940’s recalled that the two class groups were organized by the age of the incoming students. For instance, the younger seventh graders were grouped together as “low 7’s”; the older ones were grouped together as “high 7’s.” The “high” and “low” terminology continued through the 9th grade. I would love to find out the details of this system, such as how scheduling and instruction were implemented and how students were advanced into high school, but not too many of those teachers would still be alive today, so it might just be too late.

Another “innovation” being tried at the Texas high school is providing each house of students with “…dedicated counselors who stay with that class of students from ninth through 12th grade.” That’s funny because Bret Harte used to do something like that, too, before services were whittled away.

Today the 850 student middle school has just one counselor. On the other hand, for the nearly thirty years between the early 1970’s and 1997 it was staffed with three counselors, one for each grade. From 1998 to 2002 the school had two counselors. With the rapid staff turnover and ongoing loss of institutional memory, if it wasn’t for the memorabilia, how would anyone know that there had been such a drastic change?

In the near future, I won’t be surprised if school reformers come up with a new innovation called “homerooms.” Maybe they could use the model of homerooms that existed at Bret Harte from 1930 until at least 1971. In these homerooms, a group of students (alphabetically assigned) met together for one period everyday to take care of important assorted business before they all split off into their other classes.

The best thing about this concept is that a mixture of students was kept together in the same group, in the same homeroom, with the same teacher – for all three years they attended the school. Talk about providing a way for kids to bond with other people at the school! And because of the way they were organized, I wouldn't be surprised if homerooms might have helped a bit with combating some of the harmful aspects of school cliques.

The former teachers and students I spoke with had very fond memories of their homerooms, all because of the deeper relationships that developed in those rooms over the years. One alumna from 1933 told me a lovely story of how her class group bonded with their homeroom teacher so strongly that they had reunions with her for decades, and most of her classmates stayed in touch with each other into old age.

Schools in the past knew that homerooms and a sufficient supply of school counselors were a great way to support their students. I don’t know why these things were eliminated, but I would guess it probably had something to do with meeting goals of instructional minutes and coping with decreases in school funding.

I want to mention a couple of other changes that are revealed in Bret Harte's yearbooks. One is that a school librarian was pictured every year from the 1960’s on, until 2002 when the position was finally eliminated. Another is that school used to have many, many after school student clubs. They’ve come and gone, but in previous years the students had an Art Club, a Golf Club, a Bowling Club, a Welcome Wagon Club, a Safety Patrol Council, a History Club, a Human Relations Club, a Stage Crew, a Book Club, a Dance Committee, Campus Commissioners, Junior Red Cross, a Hiking Club, and a Photography Club, just to name a few. Typically, teachers would stay after school to be advisors for these student-run clubs.

These types of clubs are non-existent today, and have been for a number of years. When I asked a teacher why he thought this was so, he told me that it's probably because teachers are so burned out at the end of the day, none of them want to stay around to help with an after school club.

For the past several years, after school activities at Bret Harte have been provided by an outside, grant-funded program. So rather than being given opportunities for practicing leadership skills by being in charge of a club, students take a class. And rather than having the opportunity to make a deeper connection with a teacher who is dedicated to the school, students have a set of part-time, minimally experienced, young adult instructors revolving in and out of their afternoon lives.

I’m not so naïve to think that the problems in our schools would be fixed if we could only go back to the “the good old days.” However, by gleaning information from yearbooks, old photos, and conversations with former students and teachers, I know at least one school in Oakland was doing things years ago that worked out better for its students.

Knowing some of the details of the past can be useful as we sit in that pot of water on the stove – by helping us perceive how much the temperature of the water has changed.

¹ “Is bigger better? Advocates say smaller schools provide better learning environment,” The Brownsville Herald, 6/14/08,

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