Poetry slammer Nico Cary, a Berkeley High sophomore, kicked off a discussion on school reform Wednesday with a poem that explores the connection between economic inequality and racial inequality.
“Sometimes the way to knowledge be too high,” Cary said, in a lyrical, rapid fire performance that elicited laughter and more than a few spontaneous bursts of affirmation from the crowd gathered at south Berkeley’s La Peña Cafe .
“My nigger’s lost on the information highway.”
The poem was an appropriate beginning to the night, where some 50 Berkeley High students, teachers and parents wrestled with the question of how Berkeley High can be reformed to serve its African-American and Latino students as well as it serves its white and Asian-American students.
Although many students of color excel at Berkeley High, statistics suggest that students of color are much more likely to fail or skip classes (the two are usually related) or face suspension for disciplinary reasons. Berkeley High’s students of color also historically underperform their white and Asian American peers on standardized tests.
The Diversity Project, a multi-year study that attempted to pinpoint the reasons for the so-called “racial achievement gap” at Berkeley High, found that African-American students accounted for 68 percent of suspensions during the 1997-1998 school year, although they represented only 36 percent of the total student body at that time.
“We cannot dismiss the high number of suspensions as due to a handful of struggling students bumping their heads up against the school rules,” the Diversity Project concluded in its May 2000 Discipline Report. “Instead, we must take seriously that a large number of students (primarily African American students) are struggling in the system as it exists.”
Nicole Heyman, a Berkeley High senior, organized Wednesday’s forum as part a senior project for Berkeley High’s Communication Arts and Sciences program (CAS).
She said she planned the forum so the adults who are pushing education reform for Berkeley High could hear more of what students have to say.
“If we’re going to design these (small learning communities), then students need to be as much of a part of it as adults are,” Heyman said.
The specific reform plan under consideration these days, with the help of a $50,000 federal planning grant, calls for Berkeley High to follow the lead of some other large high schools in the country and divide its 3,200 students into a number of “small learning communities.”
Such communities allow teachers to give students more personalized attention, supporters says, so those with special needs don’t “fall through the cracks.”
Heyman said she supports the idea of small schools.
Before joining the CAS program – in itself a small learning community within Berkeley High, focused on instilling a sense of social justice in students through their studies of core topics like history and English – Heyman said she was just kind of coasting through high school waiting for it to end.
“I was just another high school student who didn’t know where to put my efforts or what to do,” Heyman said.
“My whole world changed” after entering the CAS program, Heyman said. “The sense of community, the kind of closeness I got with teachers...It got me interested in what we were learning.”
After reviewing some of the Diversity Report’s most salient findings, Heyman opened up the floor to discussion Wednesday. Most students voiced support for the idea of small learning communities, but some in the audience expressed concerns.
One parent said she had children in one of the small learning communities already in place at Berkeley High (there are three up and running) who still “are not succeeding at Berkeley High.”
Berkeley High teacher Marcela Taylor said giving teachers more opportunity to work one on one with students will not necessarily impact the achievement gap at Berkeley High.
“Most African American and Latino students are failing ninth grade,” Taylor said. “And even a teacher of color like me, who supposedly ‘understands them,’ quote unquote, can’t help them.”
Reform needs to involve outreach to the families of failing children, Taylor said.
A different group of students – those hanging out in Civic Center Park across from the high school Thursday afternoon – registered mixed feelings about the potential of small learning communities to cure Berkeley High’s ills.
“Our school is too big,” conceded graduating senior Carrie Hoskins. But she said the students who struggle at Berkeley High do so in large measure because they arrive on the campus woefully unprepared.
As for the problem of chronic class cutting (Hoskins said she spent three full months of her sophomore year hanging out in the park, skipping class), Hoskins and other students in the park said too many teachers at the school fail to make class meaningful.
Some were skeptical that small communities alone would address this problem.
“It’s not the subject, it’s how it’s taught,” Hoskins said.
Others couldn’t wait to sign up.
“I’m doing Common Ground next year ’cause I can’t deal with the regular Berkeley High any more,” said sophomore Michael Cochrane, referring to one of the small learning communities already in place at the school. Cochrane said he was looking forward to “more interaction with the teachers as a whole, and less just barking at you from a book.”