Racial achievement gap in Berkeley public schools persists

During the 1960s, when UC Berkeley students were at the forefront of the Free Speech Movement, city residents were struggling with their own battle against racial inequality in public schools.

Having lived in the Bay Area for his entire life, John Hadsell, a 92-year-old UC Berkeley alumnus, remembers growing up in a segregated Berkeley public school system. He would later become chair of a committee that made recommendations for tackling the desegregation process in all of Berkeley’s public schools.

The committee identified how the segregation of Berkeley’s public schools had detrimental effects on students of color, particularly with the rise of the achievement gap, a trend in which minority children tend to be outperformed by their white classmates.

While the district eventually integrated all of its schools, the struggle to eliminate the gap that Hadsell faced in the 1960s has continued — and in 2008, a coalition of partners, including UC Berkeley, the Berkeley Unified School District and Berkeley City Council, stepped forward to implement a plan called 2020 Vision for Berkeley’s Children and Youth, named after the year they hope to see the achievement gap between African American and Hispanic students and their white classmates closed.

The plan measures and records eight measurable indicators of achievement, such as kindergarten readiness, reading proficiency by third grade and student attendance.

After the creation of the plan, the achievement gap between African American and white students decreased by 30 points from 2009 to 2013 for the Academic Performance Index, measured on a scale of 1,000, with 800 as proficient. Although reports have shown moderate improvement, a noticeable 250-point difference between the two groups still needs to be addressed to reach the 2020 goal.

A history of segregation

In 1968, Berkeley became one of the first school districts in the country to voluntarily desegregate.

The city of Berkeley hoped to increase equality for all children attending Berkeley public schools. At the time, elementary and middle schools were separated based on race, with the exception of Willard Middle School, which was called Willard Junior High at the time, and Berkeley High School.

“A lot of the country was apathetic, but not Berkeley,” Hadsell said. “There was more concern in the Bay Area compared to many other places, particularly because there were a lot of blacks in the Bay Area.”

According to Hadsell, segregation in schools was associated with the locations in which African Americans lived. African Americans tended to be packed in specific geographic locations of the city.

African Americans and other minorities who desired to purchase a house in certain areas were denied, said Amanda Alderton, a UC Berkeley alumna who studied Berkeley’s segregation for her history senior thesis. Factors such as redlining in the real estate market and discrimination in employment resulted in de facto segregation, which is not required by law.

Thus, the neighborhoods came to be characterized by an obvious divide — whites living in the Berkeley Hills and minorities living in the flatlands, which were closer to the bay, according to Alderton.

In the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, de jure segregation — that implemented by law — was ruled unconstitutional in 1954. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling also acknowledged the inferiority complex that black children developed due to segregation, which it found to be psychologically harmful to black children and damaging to society as a whole.

After the decision, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality placed pressure on the Berkeley Unified School District board for change, Alderton said.

And in 1958, the school board established the Staats Committee, the first of three committees aimed at completely desegregating Berkeley.

The Staats Committee researched and identified the problems of segregation, including a sense of inferiority African Americans felt and a disproportionate number of undereducated children among minority racial groups in Berkeley. The Hadsell Committee, which Hadsell chaired, created proposals to desegregate down to the elementary school level, and the Master Plan Committee implemented these proposals.

According to the Hadsell Report, published in 1963, African American students attending segregated schools were not learning language skills as well as Caucasian students in segregated schools.

Although Willard Junior High was integrated at the time, most of its classes within the school were not. According to the Hadsell Report, 50 Caucasian students were in the “top ability level” compared to three African American students in the same level.

“The committee found that they could attribute the segregation into the achievement gap,” Alderton said. “It became about achieving educational equality and eliminating the achievement gap.”

A closer look: The achievement gap

Berkeley’s public schools have one of the greatest equity gaps between African American and Latino students and their white and Asian classmates, according to a 2008 City Council recommendation to approve the adoption of 2020 Vision.

“There were community members who were concerned about the achievement of kids of color,” said Donald Evans, Berkeley Unified School District’s superintendent, who took office this year, about 2020 Vision. “My understanding is that they went to the city and wanted them to act on it. So the city took it upon themselves, and that’s how it all started.”

In the 2012-13 school year, while 85 percent of white third-graders scored at or above reading proficiency levels in the language arts California Standards Test, only 30 percent of African American and 38 percent of Latino third-graders scored at or above reading proficiency levels, according to an Oct. 23 Berkeley School Unified District report.

On a statewide level, whites and Hispanics and Latinos scored higher than California’s average API scores in 2013. African American students, however, scored lower at 625, 32 points lower than California’s average.

Despite Berkeley’s history of desegregation, Evans said that many people have told him that the integration of schools has worsened the achievement gap and has resulted in a lack of cultural competency.

“Some people feel there’s not an understanding of kids of color in terms of … how they learn, the culture,” Evans said. “Therefore, not understanding the student or the student’s background definitely impacts the expectations for many students of color.”

Andrea Prichett, an eighth-grade teacher at Willard Middle School, said it is difficult to bridge the achievement gap when the classroom is so diverse.

“What I notice at schools is that most of the educators are white … so we teach from a white orientation, a white perspective,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of cultural competence to make sure we’re not alienating the kids of color.”

The difficulty in closing the achievement gap lies in multiple factors, one being the socioeconomic disadvantages some students face, school district administrators and Prichett said. Some students do not have Internet access, while others need money to buy materials for a project or to attend a field trip.

“When you look at a home where finances are short, there probably aren’t going to be as many resources,” said Neil Smith, the school district’s assistant superintendent. “The real challenges for the school is, how do you provide the resources to those children?”

What’s next?

Some schools have had more success in reducing the gap than others, Evans said. His idea for closing the gap includes analyzing programs, such as tutoring or mentoring programs, in the most successful schools and applying those models to less successful schools.

“We are looking at what’s working and not working,” Evans said. “I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel when we have people doing such a great job.”

As part of the goal to improve third-grade reading levels, in 2013, tutors from UC Berkeley BUILD, or Berkeley United in Literacy Development, were placed in every Berkeley elementary school.

These tutors were trained in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project reading strategies. The TCRWP, an organization that aims to increase literacy among students, creates assessments to measure academic progress.

Between the 2010 and 2013 school years, African American third-graders who took the assessments improved from 41 percent to 50 percent in English language arts proficiency, according to the Oct. 23 report.

In addition to these programs, Evans emphasized fostering the relationship between parents and schools to ensure that the entire community is working toward the same goal.

“We can close the gap if you just get them here — make sure they’re on time and here every day,” Evans said. “We’re going to have to reach out to them, (and) that may mean we will have some meetings on Saturdays.”

In a recent town hall meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, a group of parents, teachers and school administrators composed of African Americans, whites and Latinos gathered in a large auditorium to discuss updates on issues the district is facing, including the achievement gap.

“This is a difficult job, as you all know,” Evans said to the audience. “As we move forward, you will be a part of the solution, and it starts today. We are a team, and this work we can’t do without you.”

Gladys Rosario covers city news. Contact her at grosario@dailycal.org and follow her on Twitter @gladysrosario93.

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