06/07/2007 02:45 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Graduation Metaphor

"I've never heard high school kids say 'I love you' so much." That was the comment of the older brother of a CAS student upon witnessing the CAS graduation last Friday. CAS -- the Communication Arts and Sciences small school at Berkeley High -- holds its own awards ceremony a few weeks before the "big school" graduation.

Whenever anyone wants to understand what's going on in small schools, at least in this small public school within the larger BHS, I tell them to go to CAS graduation. It is a love fest. The teachers are giving tribute to the students -- in detail, with stories and anecdotes going back through 4 years of work together. The students are giving thanks to parents, peers, and teachers -- with examples of crises, conflicts, and epiphanies shared.

One thing that is special at CAS graduation is that each student is introduced, and appreciated, by a staff member. Then that student comes up and gives a short talk, giving thanks, memories, and hopes for the future. This year I'm not on the stage, having given over leadership to a new generation of young, powerful teachers. But I'm especially proud to sit in the front row and see how the traditions, and the power, of this small school have persisted.

And I'm wondering. What is the formula? What is special? It has to be in the community-building, the care that we give to the relationships, to the emerging teenage identities, to the whole student. But it also must be in the curriculum -- the way we develop a coherent set of studies and community-based experiences that encourage students to question, to challenge, to think about how the world is and how it might be. During CAS graduation, students at the microphone bring up both these points. Something the class studied or did, some aspect of community or personal connection.

For student success, you must pay attention to both social/emotional and skills development. I'm convinced that the social/emotional is 90 percent of the fight. Students who have bought in, who care about school and who have an adult who knows them well and is pushing them -- they can always get the skills. Students who are alienated, angry, resistant - -they never will.

And, no, our small school does not have the advantage of a privileged selection of students. We do not cream off the academically strongest, the richest, or the most compliant. CAS students reflect the range of kids at Berkeley High, perhaps the most diverse (in ethnicity and in family income) in the country.

And, yes, we still have an achievement gap within CAS. In standardized tests and traditional assessments, there is still a huge range. But these data only show how resistant the standardized tests are to teaching. Test scores most reliably track with student income -- and don't change from 1st grade through 12th. But you have to come to CAS graduation to get the real picture -- the qualitative data -- that tells what has happened in these youngsters' lives. Yes, it is anecdotal. But enough anecdotal evidence, story after story after story, must finally add up to data.

The young woman who thanked CAS for being her family when she found herself leaving a dysfunctional home and being homeless; the first member of the immigrant family who was grateful to find a place to make school work; the gay student who found a safe place to come out; the wealthy student who learned how to live in a diverse world; the student who stayed up all night with her team to complete a group presentation; the other one who worked for civil rights for day laborers; and on and on.

The ceremonies stand as a kind of metaphor for the two visions of education. CAS holds its graduation at the Berkeley Repertory Theater -- with participants moving around the sets that are built for this week's play. Berkeley High holds its at the massive Greek Theater on the UC Berkeley campus. In CAS graduation, each student has a chance to speak and then dons a sash; at the BHS graduation, students are rushed across the stage, given a blank diploma holder to avoid confusion. In CAS graduation, students strain to hear every word said by their peers and their teachers; at the BHS graduation, students try to outdo each other in disruption, horns and beach balls and raspberries. In CAS graduation, there are hugs and tears; at the BHS graduation, there are threats of diplomas withheld if students misbehave. In one, the staff is like family with the students; in the other, they are forced to act as police.

I prefer the CAS graduation.