Members of Berkeley’s African American community – church leaders, community leaders, parents, teachers, and students – turned out en masse at the Wednesday night School Board meeting to denounce the school district for not doing enough to help students of color improve their academic skills.
“The level of disenchantment with this school district by black people in particular, and people of color in general, is rather astounding,” said Alex Papillon, president of the Berkeley Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In a separate meeting last week at St. Joseph the Worker Church, members of Berkeley’s Latino community listed grievances against Berkeley High School, arguing that their children are receiving a second-class education through the school’s English Language Learner program.
On Wednesday, African Americans also focused their complaints on the high school, arguing that the administration has done nothing to address the achievement gap and is even turning its back on a popular, parent-backed program aimed at addressing the issue.
Concerned that 242 Berkeley High freshman were in danger of failing two or more classes midway through the first semester this year, the group Parents of Children of African Descent (PCAD) took a plan for intervention to the school board in January. The school board later joined the city in giving PCAD the money it needed to launch its program for eight months – from the beginning of the second semester to the end of the summer.
The program they called “Rebound” took 50 of the 180 students who finished the semester with failing grades in two or more classes and placed them in smaller classes of longer duration, where teachers could give students more one on one attention.
According to statistics presented to the school board by Rebound supporters Wednesday, Rebound students’ grades and attendance improved dramatically in just their first few months in the program.
The statistics compare 30 Rebound students to a “control group” of 30 freshman from similar racial and economic backgrounds who were also failing two or more classes at the end of the first semester but did not join Rebound.
Of the 30 students in the control group, all were failing English at the end of the first semester and 26 were still failing midway through the second semester. Of the 30 Rebound students, 29 were failing English at the end of the first semester but only 11 were still failing the class midway through the second semester.
Rebound students posted similar grade gains over their peers in algebra and history classes, although Berkeley High Principal Frank Lynch cautioned Thursday the results from statewide standardized tests taken in the spring will provide a more objective measure of changes in students’ academic performance.
Rebound supporters also argued Wednesday that the program had a dramatic impact on student attendance. Whereas the 30 Rebound students accumulated 259 absences in the math class during the first half of the first semester, they accumulated only 121 absences in the class during the first half of the second semester. In the control group, meanwhile, 268 math absences in the first half of the first semester grew to 464 absences in the first half of the second semester.
Rebound student Elizabeth Feamster explained the difference to the school board. There was a large group of students of color who “messed up the first semester and decided to just give up,” she said.
“It’s hard to be in a big class...where you don’t know what to do and you’re scared to ask because you feel like you’re the dumb one,” Feamster said.
“Once you fall short on your grades, you’re in the lost land of no support at Berkeley High school,” agreed Ryan Collins-Lee, a Berkeley High freshman who didn’t join Rebound and barely managed to pass his classes.
Despite graduating Willard Middle School with a 3.7 GPA, Collins-Lee said, he nearly didn’t make it to his sophomore year at Berkeley High.
“No one seems to care, except for a very few teachers, and my parents and my friends, who give me the power to keep going,” Collins-Lee said.
Given the universal acknowledgment of the seriousness of the achievement gap problem at Berkeley High, PCAD Steering Committee member Debrah Watson said she was “at a loss” to understand why school board members and other school administrators haven’t paid closer attention to Rebound’s successes, or laid out plans for emulating those successes in the larger Berkeley High community.
“By not doing anything, they have shown that they are not concerned about the community or the students,” Watson said.
In a comment that brought applauding audience members to their feet Wednesday, Peralta Community College District Board member Darryl Moore said: “Instead of eliminating (Rebound), the program should be expanded.”
Lynch said Thursday that, as he understood it, there was never any intention either by the school board or PCAD to continue Rebound beyond the end of the summer. It was a pilot program to identify effective ways for addressing the achievement gap, which it did, he said.
“We learned from (Rebound), and we will do something, but we can’t replicate what’s been going on,” Lynch said.
With five teachers and one coordinator working with just 50 students, the Rebound program provided a level of support to students and their parents that simply isn’t feasible in the larger school environment, where teachers have an average of 150 to 180 students passing through their classroom each day, Lynch said.
Rebound supporters are justly proud of the record for getting parents involved in the academic life of their students through weekly meetings and phone calls, Lynch said. But the sheer numbers make this strategy unworkable for other Berkeley High teachers, he said.
The school does plan to follow Rebound’s lead next year, Lynch said, by dividing incoming freshman into different core groups based on their academic support needs and then connecting them with backup programs, counseling and after school services.
“The only thing that we can’t duplicate is the 12-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio,” Lynch said. “That’s totally impossible to do, unless you’re a school district rolling in dollars.”
It’s not ideal, Lynch said. It just the way it is.
“As long as you have students in classes with 30-to-1 ratios as opposed to 12-1 (some students) are going to feel like people don’t care,” Lynch said. “And that is really unfortunate.”
Still, PCAD members and their supporters vowed to continue fighting Wednesday until the district institutes reforms that truly impact the achievement gap.
“PCAD is not going to stop until those kids have the same opportunities” as other Berkeley High students, PCAD Steering Committee member Michael Miller told the school board.
The NAACP’s Papillon said the time has come for Berkeley’s African American community to come together in a “town hall” meeting to bring more pressure to bear on the school board.
“It is abundantly clear that this school district will not respond to the concerns that we have until we stand before you at the size of a gorilla,” Papillon said Wednesday.