Segregation Remains a Significant Influence in BHS Academics
Nearly sixty years have passed since Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that desegregated schools in the United States. In many ways, however, schools have continued to segregate. School Colors, a 1994 documentary that focused on academic, social, and racial segregation at Berkeley High School, argued that such segregation continued in the school despite supposed desegregation.
Nearly all those interviewed today indicated that they felt that segregation continues to be a large problem at BHS, albeit in less blatant ways. The 1994 BHS administration in School Colors took an active stance against segregation. Perhaps the BHS administration of today, too, needs to take action.
Looking Back, Looking Forward.
Berkeley High has no doubt changed since 1994.
Alan Miller, an English teacher in Berkeley International High School, conjured a very different picture of BHS.
“In 1994, BHS was a filthy school,” said Miller. “There were no gates around the campus, people would come through and walk their pets and carry their groceries, and graffiti lined the hallways. The state of the campus reflected the state of the academic environment: chaos.”
BHS’s 1990’s were also plagued with tension between new and tenured teachers.
“Jim Henderson [BHS principal at the time] pitted older teachers against new ones, and gave special privileges to those with seniority,” said Miller. “Instead of huge issues like segregation being addressed, the staff fought and there were no productive talks going on.”
Miller now sees a progressive change in the BHS atmosphere.
“In the past there were black classes and white classes,” Miller said. “Four tracks would exist for the same United States history course, but some were basic classes and others were advanced classes, and the racial differences were huge.”
Miller cited a variety of reasons for diminished segregation at BHS: the end of testing to get into Advanced Placement courses, the Berkeley School Excellence Program, Measure BB (a measure that allocates funds for maintenance works at BHS), the introduction of routine teacher evaluations, blowback from School Colors, and the stability that Jim Slemp, BHS principal for seven years, brought to the school. Nevertheless, Miller believes BHS isn’t entirely in the clear.
“BHS is still by no means fully integrated,” he said. “Upper level math and science classes [in particular] are not very diverse.”
Dana Moran, a current Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) instructor who was also a teacher at BHS in 1994, sees the BHS of that time period in a very different way.
“[School Colors] was filmed right at the beginning of this initiative of desegregation,” said Moran. “There was a one–semester ninth grade ethnic studies requirement so that students could learn more about each other’s cultures. A vice principal strenuously created humanity cores, with a huge effort to make diverse core classes based on ethnicity and achievement.”
However Moran argues that any such progress in the fight against segregation has dissipated since the making of School Colors.
“[Academic Choice and BIHS] especially are almost completely segregated by the time twelfth grade rolls around,” Moran said. “When I applied to work at BHS, I was told that if I taught a certain way, certain students wouldn’t want to take your class. In other words, there’s a mentality in the larger schools that it’s a student’s fault for doing poorly in advanced courses because they signed up for them and shouldn’t have taken your class. For this reason, in some ways, minority students who need more academic attention are being filtered into the smaller learning communities.”
Large School Perspective, Small School Perspective
Although Dan Plonsey, a math teacher in AC, hasn’t been a teacher at BHS for nearly as many years as Miller or Moran, he has also seen trends of segregation.
“One such trend has been a policy over the past three years to accelerate and focus on advanced math students,” Plonsey said. “Three years ago, roughly twelve middle school students took geometry, and now around a hundred students do. The program is almost entirely white, and one student of color dropped out because he felt the environment was not the right fit for him.”
Moran feels that small school programs offer support that larger schools can’t provide. In contrast to the trend of self–segregation she described taking place by the time students reach twelfth grade in the two larger schools, Moran finds that a greater diversity exists in the small schools.
“In the larger schools, you either get [the material], or there’s not much support for you,” Moran said. “In programs like CAS or [Arts and Humanities Academy], a team of teachers is supporting you, and in this way minority students are getting the help they need.”
However, the effect of filtering of minority students into smaller learning communities isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“Kids are wandering around in separate worlds here,” Moran said. “I think that the lottery that lets students prioritize which learning communities they want needs to be seriously reconsidered in order to force the mixing of classes and force all teachers to teach all kinds of kids, instead of tailoring its efforts to typical high–achieving students.”
Students Speak Out
Teachers aren’t the only ones that have something to say about segregation at BHS. Ian Alexander, a senior in AC, finds that his AP classes do not represent the diversity of the student body.
“Sophomore year I was the only black student in my AP Chemistry class; another black student transferred in the next semester but quickly transferred out,” Alexander said. “It was the same deal with my AP Biology class. I think AP classes can provide a hostile environment for minority students, namely because no one else looks like them, and that’s intimidating.”
Amelia Ravitz–Dworkin, a junior in Green Academy, agrees with this notion of underlying segregation.
“Racial segregation, in a lot of ways, is still very internalized,” Ravitz–Dworkin said. “We can say Berkeley is a very diverse place and that we are accepting of others, but that needs to transfer over to the classrooms to hold true. Even in my smaller learning community I feel that we don’t have enough discussions about issues like race and racial segregation in schools, so it makes me feel like I shouldn’t be bringing it up.”
The Big Picture
When asked about racial segregation, Plonsey wasn’t content to leave out the larger issues of segregation present in Berkeley. The issue of segregation at BHS extends beyond BUSD and stems from larger institutions. He cites the work of Sean Reardon, a professor of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, who estimates that over the past 25 years inequity in education caused by poverty has grown by around thirty percent.
Such inequity in Berkeley is certainty present. For example, life expectancy for residents living in South Berkeley — which is 73 percent African–American — is 62 to 64 years. In contrast, those living in the Berkeley hills — an area that is between 73 and 90 percent white — are expected to live an average of 80 to 84 years, according to a Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report. In fact, Berkeley has the widest gap between rich and poor in the Bay Area, according to recently released data from the Census Bureau.
BHS and Berkeley are not intentionally apathetic to segregation, as many positive changes have been made to eradicate it. However it is widely agreed that the problem of segregation still exists in our community. A new conversation about segregation, needs to be started, both in the school and in the community.