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Class dismissed

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Editor
Wednesday October 18, 2000

Research on health and schools, a wake-up call 


Editor’s view 

Some books have the power to reveal, to shock, then actually become the catalysts for change.  

Two such tomes released this year shine a glaring spotlight on scars and malignancies in our city that we don’t like to talk about.  

Now, we can no longer hide behind the awe of the Campanile, the history of the Free Speech Movement, the brilliance of our Nobel Laureates. We can no longer say, we didn’t know. 

Both works show intense research and, ultimately, a love of our city and can serve as a jumping-off place for those who refuse to turn a blind eye to the facts. 

One of the books is Meredith Maran's 299-page “Class Dismissed: A Year in the Life of an American High School, a Glimpse into the Heart of a Nation,” just released from St. Martin’s Press, which describes a year in the lives of three high school seniors and tells how their school, Berkeley High, sometimes helps and supports them, yet oftentimes abandons them. 

The second tome is the 169-page “City of Berkeley: Health Status Report 1999,” authored by Health Officer Dr. Poki Namkung and Epidemiologist Dr. Jose Ducos.  

The report describes how African Americans living in our flatlands have some of the worst health outcomes in the nation. 

Why pair these two carefully-researched works? One is a fast read, where the author skillfully weaves the lives of her three subjects into the historical and social context of Berkeley high. The book has catapulted to the seventh-place spot on The Chronicle’s nonfiction best-selling list.  

The other work, filled with charts and graphs, is less poetic. Its summary, read by a few reporters and broadcast in 10-second sound bites, gathers dust on the Health Department’s shelves – with some notable exception. There are city officials and resident volunteers using the work as a basis for designing new health programs. This one will never make a best-seller list. 

Berkeley High’s onerous tracking system – left over from the days when blacks could not live above Grove Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Way; left over from the not-so-long ago days when there were no teachers of color in the Berkeley schools; left over, yes, from the long-gone days of slavery – is exposed in Maran’s book. 

Autumn Morris is one of the seniors Maran follows for a year. The teen’s Caucasian alcoholic father abandoned the family when she was 10 years old, and her African-American mother works too many jobs to oversee her daughter's schooling or life. By the grace of her amazing inner fortitude, friends who hold her up emotionally and the church which sustains her spiritually, Autumn has fought her way into advanced placement classes, where students of African-American, Native -American and Latino heritage are few. 

Most the students in her AP classes are privileged white kids from the hills who will end up at Harvard, Yale or Princeton, the kids who take college courses at UC Berkeley in their senior year, the kids born with a silver peace sign. 

That’s the divide. The crevice. The chasm that is our city’s shame. It begins in the womb and extends to death. 

“Six years after the New York Times pronounced Berkeley High ‘the most integrated high school in America,’ Berkeley High continues to bequeath two separate and distinctly unequal fates to its 3,200 students,” Maran writes. 

Meanwhile, the Health Status report reveals: 

• Comprising just 19 percent of Berkeley's population, African Americans represent over 31 percent of the total AIDS cases. “This growing disparity is recognized as being a direct result of lack of access to the new modalities of treatment and care and the changing mode of exposure to HIV.” 

• In 1998, 96 percent of White and Hispanic women received early prenatal care compared to 83 percent of African-American women. 

• Between 1993 and 1995, Berkeley ranked the third highest in the nation in the proportion of African American low-birth weight births. 

• In 1997 the mortality rate for African-American women was twice that of Caucasian women. 

• The risk of dying of breast cancer is higher for African-American women than it is for all other races/ethnicities combined. 

Maran’s language is more lofty than that used in the Health Status Report as she describes the first day of school: 

“By 8 a.m. the Berkeley sky is cornflower blue, its air summer-warm, its commuters entangled in the morning transbay rush to the towers of San Francisco. Today’s a big day in Berkeley: the first day of school. All over town the schoolchildren – six-year-olds with Lunchables in their Pokemon lunchboxes and sixteen-year-olds with Master P in their Discmans; children chattering in Spanish or Tagalog or Farsi and children who don’t talk at all; sons of janitors and daughters of judges; kids who will surprise no one by going to Harvard and kids who will surprise no one by going to Juvenile Hall – are tying their shoelaces, shrugging into their backpacks, setting off to see their old friends, to meet their new teachers, to start their new school year.” 

Through the eyes and hearts of the three teens she follows, Maran says what many of the African American parents in Berkeley's flatlands, and their parents before them, already know: there are, in reality, two high schools under one roof in Berkeley: “a good public school for rich white kids and a ‘bad’ school for poor kids of color.’” 

Can we ask teachers, principals or superintendents of schools to fix the problem? 

Maran quotes an article in Berkeley High’s student newspaper, the Jacket: “‘The problems that our school faces surrounding race will probably be around as long as Berkeley High remains a microcosm of America.’” 

If that’s true, does that mean that we in Berkeley should tune out till the revolution or second coming repairs the inequities which have plagued this nation from the time we wrested it from the Native Americans? 

Dedicated teachers are reaching for answers. Maran points to several mini-schools set up within the huge impersonal high school where teachers, often working more than 12 hours each day, lend their support to struggling students. 

At the same time, the city’s health department is addressing head on the needs of the city’s most disenfranchised people, making sure youngsters get inoculations when they enter kindergarten, offering much-touted health services at the high school, credited with drastically reducing the number of teenage pregnancies. 

Teams of citizens and health professionals meet regularly to find new ways to support pregnant mothers and to offer better health-care services to the city’s African-American population. Their work is informed by the Health Status Report. 

Still, school needs and health needs, the need for secure housing and regular employment that pays the bills, the need to be free from harassment from the police, disbelief by the medical system, lack of understanding from teachers are addressed by separate committees as if the problems exist in isolation. 

As Maran writes in the “afterward,” stomping out small fires at Berkeley High is absolutely necessary – the tracking, the inequities, the bad pay teachers get. If these things are not changed, the whole school will burn. 

But Maran’s solutions are just that – crushing individual embers, while the fire still smolders. The only way we in Berkeley can attack the overwhelming problems head on – all of us: city government, schools, newspapers, religious institutions – need to take up the challenge. 

We have addressed the problems piecemeal, attacking teen pregnancy here, funding homeless shelters there, spending city funds on needle exchanges and HIV testing, after school programs and day care needs.  

The schools committees are not meeting at the churches with the citizens addressing health care needs. Those advocating affordable housing are not talking to teachers of homeless kids.  

When the fire erupts, all of us from the flats to the hills may be caught. The problem is ours to ignore or face head on.