We are blessed to live in a community with international renown for having one of the most prestigious universities in the world. We are also blessed in that we nurture some students in our own K-12 schools who are sought after by some of the most elite universities in the country.
Berkeley is also known for being at the forefront of meaningful change. We pat ourselves on the back for being the third most sustainable community in the country, the first school system to desegregate, the birthplace of the disability civil rights movement, or for our progressive stands against war, capital punishment, and the exploitation of others. Such distinction is part of what makes us proud to live here.
Yet, underlying this activist and progressive image of ourselves is a serious misperception, a disconnect really, between how we think our school system is perfoming and what actually goes on in our K through 12 schools. We are miles away from having the kind of educational system that many, if not most, of us mistakenly believe we already have.
75 percent score at Basic or Below
In September 2007, a new generation of our beautiful children began kindergarten in the Berkeley school system. They will graduate in the year 2020. They and their parents entered the system full of hope and excitement that they were beginning a journey toward a much-improved life. They entrust that hope to their wonderful teachers, to the district and to this community.
Unfortunately, if we do not change things dramatically, so many of those who began kindergarten this year in Berkeley will end up by the time they reach grade twelve in the year 2020 at the same or at a worse level of “achievement” than when they started. When an African American or Latino child starts in our elementary schools and is tested in grade 2, only 25 percent score at “Proficient or Advanced.” That means that 75 percent score at “Basic or Far Below Basic.” Compare that to 75 percent of white children who score at “Proficient or Advanced” (25 percent scoring at basic or far below). Move that along to high school and 75 to 85 percent of African American and Latino children still score at “Basic or Far Below Basic,” and about 20 percent of White children score at that level.
These scores are not just numbers, these are real children and families failing in our community, and it is profoundly hurtful. How does a young person or a parent internalize the stigma of the message—a message that represents the daily loss of potential, slipping away across ground that cannot be easily made up, like trying to catch a train pulling out of the station? That slippage, that distance, is like a wound aggravated by the regular comparison to those who excel through their advantage – those on the train. To the parents and children left behind, it creates resentment, division and a profound loss of hope. One ugly outcome of the disparity, which is not so uncommon among those who set the style standards for youth culture today, is to wrap it all up into a self-fulfilling rationalization to not only stop trying, but to even ridicule effort and intelligence. As the rapper Saafir tells us, it gets to the point that “showing your brains implies that you are weak.” Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy.
An urgent 2020 Vision
Because school failure is a Whole Community problem not just a school problem, we will ultimately need to challenge and systematically mobilize all sectors of Berkeley into the effort—the city, our local colleges, the teachers union, our profit and non-profit organizations and businesses, and the parents. We do not need to look backward for blame, but rather forward at solutions to the real culprit. That culprit is failure and we need to urgently prioritize the issue, see it for the crisis that it is, and mobilize the entire community to invent or import the proven programs and leaders that can convert failure to success.
Our 2020 Vision is the blueprint that guides us in developing the structure, support, resources and relationships to help our children attain educational success at all levels. The Vision makes this the first year of our partnering effort with all sectors of Berkeley to educate all of our children in a total community approach.
The most immediate and urgent step we can do to accomplish the 2020 Vision is to make absolutely sure that the new Superintendent (still not finalized) is a demonstrated leader in making achievement the Number One educational priority.
Beyond that, the effort to change the course of education will require (1) a bold new educational framework and model, (2) a refocusing & integration of city, school, university, and business and private resources (3) an extensive expansion of parental engagement, (4) an aggressive recruitment of innovators and professionals at all levels, and (5) the development of more culturally sensitive and student centered measures of educational success that do not stigmatize a whole class of people.
Our schools, particularly the elementary level, are the central institution through which we can preventively address an entire range of community issues before they become resistant, if not impossible, to turn around. At the same time we can deliver what the “public” in public education is all about—the primary instrument of making outcomes humanly enriching and equitable. That is the promise we need to make to the 2020 generation.
There are solutions
Jeffrey Sachs, the author of “The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time,” argues that “There are two overwhelming barriers in this country: People think there are no solutions other than what we are doing, and that we are doing enough.”
There ARE solutions and we are NOT doing enough! For too long we have been asked to be patient. We cannot be patient any longer. Let’s address educational equity with the urgency that it merits and make success for all of our children a central benchmark of what Berkeley is all about?
Please join us in supporting the formation of a city-wide partnership, spearheaded by an Equity Task Force made up of local and national experts, who will help us jump start our children’s world class educational journey to 2020 and beyond.
Santiago Casal and Michael Miller are members of United In Action, a multi-ethnic organization devoted to making the case for urgent change in our schools. Combined they sent four children through 52 years of BUSD education.