I was dismayed but not surprised to see the large group of privileged parents descend on the community meeting at St. Joseph the Worker’s Church to consider the Berkeley High school redesign proposal. It’s a familiar pattern: the school community spends years reflecting and considering ways to make BHS more successful for all students and, when it comes close to a vote, the predictable group pours out in a vocal campaign of opposition.
In a pattern worthy of Karl Rove campaigns, the key goal was to latch on to and fan fear of change. I heard some parents spreading the most outlandish conspiracy theories—like that this is a secret plan to get rid of honors and advanced placement classes (these charges against a principal who has just about doubled the number of AP offerings). That kids will be released to run wild in the streets. That teachers will not be able to “cover” enough curriculum.
They will probably flex their political muscle and yet again stop any significant progress in Berkeley. That’s tragic. Berkeley could be a beacon of progressive, engaged, holistic education that is a model for the nation as we go into a new and hopeful era. We could begin innovations which really address the achievement gap, which recognize our obligation to be successful with all kids—to finally begin to fulfill the promise of the Brown decision of over 50 years ago. And, I might add, creating such an equitable and engaged education would be excellent for those students who have traditionally done well in grades and college admissions. They could, finally, actually experience diversity in the classroom and not just while crossing Milvia. They could experience deep connections to the community, engaging curriculum which makes them think critically, and a real sense of community. These are the kinds of students our high school should produce—and they are the ones the universities are desperately asking for.
Or we could become another cookie-cutter suburban-style school which students either endure or drop out of. The drumbeat of fear, slander, and elitism is drowning out any thoughtful reflection. No one I heard at this meeting raised any despair or felt any pain about the racist legacy of our school system, the way it reproduces class and racial divisions, the way it builds in failure and sorting. Not even an obligatory liberal gesture of hand wringing. The ones I heard could not care less.
Having taught at Berkeley High School for 11 years, I’ve seen up close the injustices that are built into our system. There is no way an ethical teacher can teach at a school like Berkeley without fighting against the structures of institutional racism that are right in your face. So the great majority of teachers are deeply concerned with searching for a way to make our school work. Yes, there are some who are happy to leave things as they are, to stare in the face of crushed hopes and look the other way. But that is a small minority.
Are the very modest proposals for a more engaging, equitable school—proposals for a block schedule, advisory periods, professional development, and strong assessment of our progress, proposals that have been endorsed by the WASC committee (the state organization that grants us accreditation) and a strong group of staff and students—are they really going to be shouted down?
What a shame.
Rick Ayers is a former Berkeley High School teacher.