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Black studies program back at Berkeley High

David Scharfenberg
Thursday September 26, 2002

Berkeley High School’s African-American studies department has been reinstatement, said department Chairman Robert McKnight to wild cheers at a dramatic Board of Education meeting Wednesday night. 

An Aug. 20 agreement between the school district and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers called for the high school, in a cost-cutting measure, to fold the 34 year-old program into one or more unspecified departments this fall. 

The move would have brought an end to the first and only African-American studies department at a public high school in the nation. Classes would have remained in place, but the department would have lost its chairperson and meeting time for its teachers. 

The agreement went largely unnoticed until an article on the deal appeared in the Daily Planet Tuesday. Amid community outrage, McKnight met twice with Superintendent Michele Lawrence Wednesday before the school board meeting. 

Lawrence issued a one-paragraph statement announcing the reinstatement of the program Wednesday night. McKnight read the statement aloud at the meeting to the applause of dozens of parents and students. 

“I want to thank you, Dr. Lawrence, for your consideration and for this resolution,” said McKnight, after reading the release. 

“I do want to extend my apologies for any misunderstanding,” said Lawrence, as a few boos rose from the crowd. “There was no disrespect meant at all.” 

Lawrence told the crowd that neither she nor the school board knew about the details of the Aug. 20 agreement, and the consolidation of the department, until a story appeared in the Daily Planet Tuesday. Lower level staff, she said, had crafted the deal.  

School board President Shirley Issel said the consolidation of the department was “completely discrepant with the values of the board, with the values of the community. 

“I want to apologize on behalf of the board,” she continued, “and assure you that we are pleased with the [reinstatement] agreement you have heard tonight.” 

Members of the audience demanded to know why the district had pushed for the consolidation plan in the first place. Issel said she did not entirely know and could only offer a “lame” explanation.  

Issel told the audience that district negotiators pushed for the consolidation of African-American studies and several other small departments as part of an effort to close a $3.9 million budget deficit. 

“Decisions were made without an awareness of the consequences to the department. This is unimaginable to us that this lack of awareness would happen,” she said. “Once it came to our attention what the consequences were, we were all appalled and we took corrective action.” 

A parade of students, in the public comment section that followed, praised the African-American studies department and chastised the board and administration for letting the Aug. 20 agreement happen in the first place. 

“The next time you even think about looking at the African-American studies department ... you think about how many people are here today,” said Joseph Abhulimen, a Berkeley High junior, referring to the packed hearing room. “Because next time, there are going to be twice as many people.” 

At the start of the public comment period, Issel announced that the board would let students speak first, then parents. But after students spoke for nearly an hour, and a scheduled presentation on after school programs approached, Issel cut off the comment period. 

Several parents expressed frustration that adults were not allowed to speak and press the board on the issue. 

McKnight, in the end, said he was pleased with the reinstatement of the department. 

“I’m just extremely hopeful that they will stand by this decision,” he said. 

It was unclear at press time how other departments scheduled for consolidation as a result of the Aug. 20 agreement, including the English Language Learners and visual and performing arts departments, will fare. 

The Aug. 20 agreement focused on stipends for department chairs. Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Barry Fike said the union, during negotiations, wanted to keep all the existing departments in place. But, he said, BFT agreed to some consolidations, and the loss of a few department chairs, in exchange for “above average” stipends for the remaining department chairs.