Berkeley Schools’ Achievement Gap Is Widest in County

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday July 14, 2006

Berkeley’s African-American students earned the second lowest standardized test scores in the county, whereas Berkeley’s white students laid claim to some of the highest, according to United In Action, a local minority student advocacy group. 

Data from the 2005 Academic Performance Index (API), a statewide indicator of student achievement, confirmed that African-American students in Berkeley performed worse than African-American students in all other Alameda County school districts except Oakland. 

By comparison, Berkeley’s white students performed better than white students in other school districts, save Albany and Piedmont. That gives Berkeley the widest black-white achievement gap of any district in Alameda County with statistically significant minority student populations. 

“It’s something we should be ashamed of in Berkeley,” said Karen Hemphill, a member of United In Action, and candidate for the upcoming school board election. 

API scores, on a scale of 200 to 1,000, are based on students’ standardized test scores. Schools strive to achieve 800. Last year, white students in the Berkeley Unified School District surpassed the 800-mark by 84 points; their African-American counterparts missed that level by 290 points on average. 

The district has seen a 19-point deepening of the separation since 2002. While both white and African-American students have improved over the years, white students have improved more, a trend mirrored in districts throughout the county, state and nation. 

BUSD also has the second largest achievement gap in the county when comparing whites to Latinos, United In Action says. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence says the gamut of the district’s initiatives—school site plans, addressing social and emotional issues, staff development, breaking up the high school into smaller schools, the school lunch initiative and others—attempt to narrow disparities. 

“Almost the entire work we do is to try to address equity and achievement,” she said. “There isn’t a single answer to this. You cannot put in a program and expect the achievement gap to disappear overnight.” 

Hemphill said the educational system in Berkeley, with emphases on independence and personal choice, doesn’t bode well for some students of color.  

“There are things about Berkeley schools—they’re not necessarily bad things—but there are consequences that play out (differently) for certain groups,” she said. 

Berkeley teachers may be more inclined to simultaneously assume “friend” and “authority” roles, for example, sending mixed messages to some black students, who come from families with traditional modes of authority, she said. 

BUSD needs more teachers of color, she said. About 70 percent of Berkeley’s teachers are white, according to the Education Data Partnership.  

Annie Johnston, a teacher at Community Partnerships Academy (CPA), a small school within Berkeley High School, attributes BUSD’s achievement gap to the difficulty of educating a diverse student body. About a third of the population is African-American, 28 percent is white, 16 percent is Latino and 7 percent is Asian.  

“Being as diverse as we are, you have kids whose parents are determined to get them into ivy leagues and kids whose parents are determined to get them into a school that won’t fail them,” she said. “I don’t think it’s because Berkeley does a worse job (than other school districts). I just think it’s because Berkeley hangs on to that diverse spectrum of students.” 

The push for small schools within the larger high school was, in part, an effort to shrink the achievement gap. An analysis of 103 research documents, conducted by The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, shows poor and minority students perform as well in small schools as in large schools, if not better. 

At CPA, which just completed its second year as a small school—though it was a program at Berkeley High for 15 years—and where about 60 percent of the students are African-American, efforts are underway to narrow the gap, said Johnston. The school stresses a strong student support system, focused on marshalling parents, teachers and peers behind each student’s education, and tamps down inequities by standardizing curricula, she said. 

Data on whether those initiatives—and others at Berkeley’s small schools—are working are inconclusive, however.  

Washington Elementary School is also taking steps toward reducing inequities. The school has hired consultants to train classroom teachers in diversity and equity, and has set up cultural parent organizations, Hemphill said, whose daughter attended Washington. 

Individual pockets notwithstanding, the district is failing to address the problem as a whole, said Antonio Cebiel, a United In Action member and Berkeley resident.  

“You could call it ironic, because Berkeley considers itself a progressive city and was the first to desegregate schools,” he said. “You have all the kids in there together, but with this huge gap.” 

Cebiel, a former deputy superintendent for the Boston public schools, is now principal at Emery Secondary School in Emeryville. 

“Clearly there’s an issue of will,” he continued. “In Berkeley, it doesn’t rise to the top of the priority list. People pay lip service to all students achieving, but there is not a real strategy for doing that.” 

Other districts have implemented “Education 101 type things that Berkeley has not gotten on the ball (about),” Cebiel said, such as benchmark testing that supplements state-mandated exams, teacher training programs and aligning curricula.