Category: Berkeley

Tony Thurmond Wins District 15th Assembly Race

Tony Thurmond and Kamala Harris

Tony Thurmond and Kamala Harris

By Nikolas Zelinski

In a race between two Democrats, Tony Thurmond beat Elizabeth Echols with 54 percent of the vote for the 15th District of the California Assembly.

District 15 includes 11 cities that are found between the southern edges of Oakland and the northern border of Hercules.

The victory is considered “upset” by some due to the political backing Echols received from Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, his wife, State Senator Loni Hancock and termed-out District 15 Assemblymember Nancy Skinner.

This is the first time in years that a candidate had won the seat without support from Bates.

Thurmond gives credit for his victory to the hard work of his supporters. .

“Our win is a testament to our volunteers who walked the precincts every single day and stayed focused,” Thurmond said. “I didn’t get the sense that being in the precincts every day was happening for the other campaign.”

Thurmond’s platform emphasized climate change issues, combatting violent crime, creating jobs, and fostering youth development. He has been outspoken and nurses’ picket lines backing efforts to save Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo.

His first plan of action in Sacramento is to push for youth recidivism and truancy reduction. Schools lose government funding when students are absent; less funding means less supplies and equipment.

Thurmond sees criminal justice reform and truancy reform as interrelated issues, “When young children miss school, their learning suffers, which puts them at risk of dropping out of school and ending up in the criminal justice system.”

Courtesy of the Post News Group, November 7, 2014 (postnewsgroup.com)

Mom Keeps Fighting for Son in Berkeley High Special Education

Anthony Gaines

Anthony Gaines

 

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Nineteen-year-old Berkeley High student Anthony Gaines sits inside a room beyond our understanding within his own mind and wonders why one of his best friends, his mentor, and his constant daytime companion of three years has now deserted him.

Stacey Rodgers

Stacey Rodgers

At least, we believe that’s what Anthony Gaines is thinking. Anthony is non-verbal, has been blind since birth and began losing most of his hearing soon afterwards, and so while his thoughts may be complex, he is only able to express them in the most restricted of forms.

He has been diagnosed with Norrie Syndrome, a rare genetic disease. Because of Anthony’s limited ability to communicate with the world, no-one is able to explain to him that his longtime mentor has not deserted him at all, but has been transferred from responsibility for his care by the helper’s employers, Berkeley High School.

Anthony’s mother, Stacey Rodgers, has an additional reason why she can’t give her son an explanation.

“I can’t tell him why Linnette isn’t working with him any more because I don’t know, myself,” Rodgers said. “They haven’t told me anything other than that they have the authority to transfer her.”

The Linnette that Rodgers is talking about is Linnette Robinson, an Instructional Assistant (IA) at Berkeley High School. As a special needs student, Anthony is eligible to attend public school until he is 22. He attends Berkeley High because he lives full time at Build House, a West Berkeley home for children with severe disabilities.

Rodgers, a single mother, does not live with him, but visits with him several times a week.

While a lead teacher runs the classroom in which Anthony spends his day at Berkeley High, the Instructional Assistant must be at his side constantly while at school, including getting him to and from the bus and the bathroom and overseeing his eating at lunch and snack times.

His IA is his lifeline to the world.

When Robinson first met Anthony at Berkeley High School four years ago, he had been assigned to another IA. “At the time, nobody wanted to work with Anthony because he would have violent outbursts.”

The problem was, Robinson later learned, that neither the teacher nor the instructional assistant assigned to Anthony were communicating with him. “They weren’t signing with him,” she said.

Signing is a particular challenge in communicating with deaf-blind individuals. While a deaf sighted person can see both the familiar standard American Sign Language hand signals as well as the physical expressions and mannerisms of the person they are “talking” with, a deaf-blind person uses a special form of that sign language done exclusively by hand contact.

Anthony has access to a cochlear implant that allows him hearing in one ear, but an earlier device frequently malfunctioned, and he has had trouble adapting to its replacement.

Berkeley High School

Berkeley High School

“If he was wearing his cochlear implant, they would simply give him orders, versus him being able to communicate back to them,” Robinson said. “He had no way of releasing any information.”

Robinson was soon assigned to take over instructional assistant responsibilities for Anthony. The first thing she said she did was to ask the lead teacher in the class: “What sign language does Anthony use? What words does he know? And the teacher didn’t know. Nobody had told him.

“So I started working with Anthony to do things like say that he had to go to the bathroom. I started getting him to walk up and down the hallway until he could do it on his own.”

Robinson began to see progress: “We got to the point where we would sit there arguing back and forth using sign language. The other staff members couldn’t believe it. They didn’t know he could do things like that.

“We had progressed to the point where Anthony’s mother said he had signed to her that he needed to go to the bathroom, and then got up and went. He’d never done that before.”

Anthony’s mother had made formal complaints to Berkeley school officials about Anthony’s educational environment during his first year at Berkeley High. Although Rogers continued to press Berkeley High School officials to add more items to her son’s learning day, she held off on formal complaints after Robinson took over as Anthony’s IA and she began to see him progressing at the school for the first time.

At the same time, his outbursts and acting out at school decreased dramatically. But then abruptly after three years of progress, without prior warning to either Robinson or Rodgers, Robinson was taken off Anthony’s assignment at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year.

In a complaint filed with Berkeley Unified School District in January of this year, Rodgers wrote that “Anthony had formed a trusting relationship with [Robinson] and had progressed well under her instruction. I was promised [by school officials] that the new IA was trained in sign language and that [Robinson] would train the new person so that a transition…would occur.”

“Both things…were lies,” she continued. “The first week of school my son worked with a substitute Instructional Assistant. In the first month of school my son experienced a new untrained classroom teacher (no deaf/blind training), a new classroom in a new building, and an IA with absolutely no training.”

Responding, Berkeley Unified School District Public Information Officer Mark Copland called the Robinson complaint “ancient history,” adding that the Berkeley School Board had already upheld Robinson’s transfer from working with Anthony.

Copland did not return several phone messages asking to speak with someone at Berkeley High with direct knowledge about Anthony’s case.

While Robinson wants to be returned to work with Anthony, she said she has been told by school officials that they want to use her skills with other children. However, she has her own theory about her reassignment.

“It’s because I talk to Stacey,” Robinson said, explaining, “I think it’s a Black-White thing. I’ve seen a number of Caucasian kids – if their parents don’t want a particular staff member on their case, they take them off their case. If they say they want something for their student, they get something for their student.”

“Since Stacey is a fighter, they’re going to show her she’s not going to get what she wants,” Robinson said. “They told me before I met her that she was crazy, but after I met her, I found out all she was trying to do was get them to do the things they’re supposed to do for her child, like any parent would do.”

Anthony, Rodgers and Robinson are African-American.

Robinson said that by her observation, Anthony has regressed in the year since she was removed from his assignment. “They’re back to doing things for him, when I had been getting him to do things for himself,” she said.

“They’re not challenging him,” she continued. All that dancing and happiness he had, he doesn’t do any more. He has a sullen look on his face all the time.”

He has also acted out in other ways, with increasing incidents of stripping off his clothes at school or becoming violent with school staff.

“I’m going to ask them again to assign Linnette to Anothony,” Rodgers said as the new school year begins. “I hope they listen to me this time. He was doing so well with her. He’s going to end up being at Berkeley High for seven years. I don’t want the rest of his time to be a waste.”

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, September 27, 2014 (postnewsgroup.com)

Whistle Blowing Teacher Says He Faces Firing for Revealing Discrimination

By Ken A. Epstein

Brian Crowell, a Berkeley High School history teacher, is locked in a fight with his school and district over the Berkeley Peer Assistance and Review (B-PAR) program, which was originally designed to help underperforming teachers improve their teaching.

Brian Crowell

Brian Crowell

But he says the program – as it operates in practice – is punitive, arbitrary and discriminatory and that it harasses and targets African American and older women teachers and pushes them out of their jobs.

Most of the teachers who are placed in the program “are forced to resign or retire,” he said.  “That’s the real purpose – not to improve your teaching practice. That’s a total lie.”

Crowell has taught 9th and 10th grade history classes at Berkeley High School since 2007 and been teaching for 14 years.

An elected building rep – shop steward – for his fellow teachers since 2009 at Academic Choice – the biggest of the schools into which Berkeley High has been subdivided – he began to represent teachers who were subjected to the PAR process and soon began to advocate to shut it down.

“I thought there was discrimination in which people were being referred to PAR,” he said in an interview with the Post.

“It’s a horrible process,” Crowell said. “It is not a program of helping teachers. It is a program of forced retirement and discrimination.”

“Nobody has ever said: ‘PAR has made me a better teacher.’ Ever. Nobody has ever said: ‘It helped me,’” said Crowell.  What teachers told him, instead, is “It’s like being in prison. It’s hell. It’s twilight zone. It made me want to quit.”

Defending B-Par, School Board Director Karen Hemphill told the Daily Californian newspaper that the program is designed to fairly evaluate underperforming teachers and allows teachers to improve their teaching after receiving unsatisfactory evaluations instead of dismissing them outright. The B-PAR panel is made up of both teachers and administrators who jointly make evaluations.

Though he was a building rep, Crowell has not had the backing of his union. The union president serves on the B-PAR panel, and the union does not represent teachers who have complaints about the process, he said.

Crowell, who was popular with students and always received excellent job evaluations, soon found himself in B-PAR’s crosshairs when he began to demand demographic data on which teachers were assigned to the program.

Berkeley High School

Berkeley High School

Denied the information despite a Public Records Act request, he finally was able to receive the data after he talked to and received support from the school board president.

Only a few days after receiving the information last spring, his department chair came to his classroom and cursed him out in the hallway, within earshot of his students, said Crowell.

He also received notice he was being placed in the PAR program, accused of “unprofessional behavior” for giving a couple of classes high grades and for clerical errors during two weeks of taking attendance, he said.

“Proving retaliation is never easy, (but) there was immediate retaliation,” he said. “They started the investigation on me the same day that I got the (demographic) information,” he said.

What the B-Par data revealed was startling.  Almost all (20 out of 22) of the women in B-PAR since 2002 were over 55 years of age. Almost all of the teachers in B-PAR had high levels of experience and education, which meant they placed higher than average on the salary scale.

In addition, 24 percent of the teachers in B-Par (10 of 41) were African American, though only 6.5 percent  (39 out of 604 in 2010) of Berkeley Unified teachers were Black.

“I’m a whistle blower,” he said. “I’m proud. This is happening because I blew the whistle on this problem.”

However, the constant stress has taken a toll on his health, says Crowell, who has been on medical leave since September.

“What it does to your health is devastating,” he said. “When I came back to work (last) fall, they were harassing me. They were trying to get me to curse at them, get me angry so they could fire me.”

It was clear they were saying: “He’s a trouble maker. Go after Brian,” he said. “But I was trying to make the union strong. I was trying to give the teachers their power back.”

The son of two educators, Crowell is married to an elementary school teacher, and the couple has two children who go to school in Oakland.

The practice of B-PAR, though not necessarily the written policy makes someone who is placed in the process into a second-class citizen, says Crowell.

“You are evaluated every single year for the rest of your career,” compared to other teachers who are evaluated every second year. “You can’t have a student teacher. You can’t be a union rep.  You can’t file a grievance against anything that happens in the PAR process. You’re considered a bad teacher by your colleagues.”

“This is how it plays out in practice.”

Crowell says he is going through the legal process. He has filed complaints against the district for discrimination and against the union for failure to represent him.

If those complaints are rejected, he plans to go to court.

Berkeley Unified has not responded to the Post’s questions about B-PAR, and according to a staffer at the union, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, “Because of pending litigation against the union, our attorney has advised us not comment.”

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, February 27, 2014 (www.postnewsgroup.com)