by Gretchen Kell
Jason King may be a graduate student at Berkeley, but this fall, you also can find him in a high school chemistry class.
It isn't that King needs remedial work. Instead, he is one of 350 Berkeley students and professors who have volunteered for the Richmond Project, an effort the campus began in 1992 to help the bankrupt Richmond Unified School District. The district's financial woes led to teacher layoffs and drastic cuts in programs for students.
Run by Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, the project has provided El Cerrito and Kennedy high schools with tutors, teaching assistants, used equipment, books, and guest lecturers. Berkeley also holds a twice-yearly "Open Lab Day" to give teen-age science buffs a glimpse of its research labs.
Today, the district--now called the West Contra Costa Unified School District--remains in a budget crisis. And the campus's response continues to grow. This fall, Berkeley is adding two more schools--Portola Middle School and Harding Elementary School--to its list.
"People on campus take their commitment to the community seriously," said Nina Gabelko, director of the Richmond Project.
"The program is sustaining itself and growing long after the district has left the headlines."
Bob Fabini, a physics and chemistry teacher at El Cerrito High School, said Berkeley is creating a model for how universities should interact with surrounding schools.
"Universities and high schools usually don't have a lot to do with each other," said Fabini. "But everything we've wound up doing with people from Berkeley has been 100 percent successful."
Small colleges often lend a hand to the towns they inhabit, said Gabelko, but "it's extremely rare for a large university to have a warm peer relationship with the outlying community."
Rather than offering to share their resources, university experts typically "tell schools what to do," she said, "as if they knew the school's business."
King, a tutor and lab assistant for Fabini's students, is organizing--with Fabini's approval--enough Berkeley volunteers to assist in all of El Cerrito's chemistry classes one day each week. Last year, he set up a similar team to help supervise labs, provide tutoring and lunchtime study sessions, and repair equipment.
"It was depressing to see the large class loads teachers had," said King. "Many students were not prepared in math for the chemistry class. Many students were very mature and wanted to do well, but with the high student-to-teacher ratio, it was difficult for them to succeed."
Fabini, the only physics teacher at El Cerrito, now feels he has colleagues. "When I have an idea about trying something, there's someone I can bounce the idea off of," he said. Jeremy Avigad, a PhD student in math, has paired up professionally with Linda O'Connor, a math teacher at El Cerrito. Avigad is rounding up other Berkeley tutors by tacking up posters on campus challenging students to "justify your existence" by helping high school students.
The Richmond Project came about after Fabini and his friend Stan Prussin, a nuclear engineering professor at Berkeley, approached John Heilbron, then the vice chancellor, for help.
"Right away Vice Chancellor Heilbron said, 'We'll do something. The University has an obligation to the surrounding community,'" said Fabini.
After Heilbron sent off a letter asking the campus community to help, "there was a huge response," said Prussin. "Everybody pulled together, and I think what's being done is making a difference."
Some 250 people responded to the letter, putting their names on a list of volunteers. Of the 350 names on the list today, nearly 100 undergraduate and graduate students will work in the schools each month, and 40 professors will play an active role.
In its early days, the Richmond Project took the form of Cal Days, when students and professors from campus would visit a school for a day and give lectures on topics in the sciences and humanities.
Tutoring high school students also was part of the project from the outset, and Open Lab Days followed, with professors opening up dozens of Berkeley labs to visiting high school students. The next Open Lab Day will be held in November.
Gabelko said the project has had many volunteers from the sciences, but this year, "I'm putting a big push into writing. Our next big push will be into the social sciences."
She added that when she approaches people on campus to join the project, "they don't say no. They are phenomenally busy, but Berkeley folks are dedicated to K-12 education."
King said he and his peers "have many other responsibilities, but there is a lot of reward from this." Some of them have decided to enter teaching after working in the high schools.
"The best part is interacting with the students," said King. "Some have so much enthusiasm that it spills over onto you."
When the district went bankrupt, said Fabini, students watched their education erode and "felt they were not valued."
"This program counteracts this notion completely," he said. "I've had students ask how much the tutors get paid, and when I say, 'Nothing, they just want to help you,' they almost fall out of their chairs."