About 70 parents and community members came together Monday to challenge the boundaries of the possible and save 250 struggling Berkeley High School freshmen.
The “stone soup” event was organized by Parents of Children of African Descent, a group of parents concerned about the high failure rate of African American students, in particular the 50 percent of African-American ninth graders that are failing one or more classes during their first semester of high school.
Stone soup refers to a meal where everyone brings one ingredient to create soup for the community. These parents want Berkeley to provide each of the components of an intervention plan to help the ninth-graders, of all ethnicities, struggling to succeed.
They want to provide each student with a “learning partner” who will keep the student on task and hold him accountable for every assignment. They want kids who are struggling in Algebra to have double math classes and they want literacy classes for students reading below grade level. They want counselors, volunteer tutors and student mentors.
And they want it all by January 30, the beginning of the next semester.
The proposal sounds impossible, but parent Katrina Scott-George urged Berkeley to make the impossible happen.
“It’s impossible that parents came together over winter break to create a 20-page plan. It’s impossible that we organized this event in a week. It’s impossible that Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa,” she told the audience made up of parents, local politicians and supportive community members. “It is not impossible to work with 250 kids that are failing and help them succeed.”
Parents cited statistics from the Class of 2000 to prove the urgency of their point: The number of African-Americans in prison has quadrupled, while the number in higher education has only risen 29 percent; Of 272 African-Americans in one Berkeley High class, 113 had a grade point average below 2.0, compared to 22 of the 286 white students who had a similarly low GPA.
Parents want the community to understand that these figures represent a crisis. But, said parent Arnold Perkins, “crisis means opportunity.”
Recognizing that creating a resource intensive project would require vast amounts of community support, parents hoped to turn it over to the Berkeley community, urging it to take care of its youth.
Community members, including members of the school board and city council came out in droves to offer resources and ideas.
John Selawsky, director on the Board of Education, said, “I think It’s a great proposal. I think it’s really really important that it be implemented as much as possible as soon as possible.”
He said hiring personnel to fill the various teaching and counseling positions as the biggest obstacle to implementing the proposal. But, he said, that there were certain problems that could be solved without money, like tightening attendance policies.
Sheila Jordan, Alameda County superintendent, felt that many existing resources can be targeted towards the parents’ plan to make a significant difference. She said that canvassing the community, UC Berkeley, local nonprofits and already existing school programs is the best way to find resources to focus on the students.
“Everything is not in terms of dollars, it’s hard to ask for money,”Jordan said. “But if you have resources out there, they can be directed to the project.”
Ninth-grader Bradley Johnson supported the parent’s efforts, but said that even a community of adults needs extra support.
“ I think the next step is to get some of the students involved,” he said. “If you approach a problem from all sides, it’s easier to kill it.”
Johnson said students can help address student culture – one of the major issues affecting student’s efforts to succeed.
“It’s going to take peer pressure,” he said. “One way of getting peer pressure is getting some of the leaders in the cliques at Berkeley High School to sign on. If you reach out to a small number of students the rest will follow.”
Most importantly luncheon attendees felt overwhelmingly positive about the excitement and giving spirit. In two hours, the group raised $2,000 for the students and received a large stack of pink, blue and green letters, where community members wrote down their offers of volunteer hours and support.
Selawsky felt that the community energy represented a challenge to the city wide institutions to examine the education disparity. “It’s a kick in the pants to a lot of business as usual,” he said.
Members of Parents of Children of African Descent prided themselves on providing the pants-kicking.
“We wanted to demonstrate that we, as African-American parents, care about our kids,” said parent Valerie Yerger. “We are taking responsibility – individually and collectively.”