There were many celebrities at the Berkeley Public Education Foundation’s “Seeding the Vision” spring luncheon May 15, but the real stars of the evening were less conspicuous.
They were ordinary people—the teachers, administrators, volunteers and community members who make a difference in the lives of Berkeley’s children every day.
The Berkeley Public Education Foundation (BPEF), now in its 26th year, honored three individuals and a cooperative whose hard work and compassion reflect the spirit of the 2020 Vision, a citywide initiative to close the achievement gap by taking the effort beyond the campus and into the community.
The luncheon was held at Hs Lordships Restaurant on the Berkeley Marina.
Among the honorees was Karen Meryash, founder and coordinator of Willard Elementary School’s Mathworks tutoring program, which pairs struggling middle-schoolers with Berkeley High students for tutoring and mentoring.
An active parent volunteer who often dons bumble bee costumes to support important causes, Meryash’s background in biology inspired her to write grants for a science lab at her daughter's school, Emerson Elementary, in the mid-1990s. Meryash later became a teacher at Emerson.
North Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective, which has donated food, funds and services to Berkeley classrooms since it opened in 1967, was named BPEF’s “distinguished partner,” receiving a standing ovation for its years of service and generosity to the community.
The “distinguished educator” title went to Cheryl Chinn, principal at Malcolm X Elementary, and Berkeley High English teacher Susannah Bell.
Bell spoke passionately about the success of her augmentation class, which prepares students for the Advanced Placement exam, while Chinn shared memories of triumphs and challenges at Malcolm X, including the recent swine flu scare, which shut the school down for two days.
BPEF Executive Director Molly Fraker acknowledged in her welcome address that while the impact of their work could not “gloss over a broader persistence of troubling disparities in achievement,” it demonstrated creative ways of moving forward.
In his speech, Berkeley Unified Superintendent Bill Huyett referred to a recent report which cites the district as having the largest achievement gap among all school districts in California.
The report, prepared by San Francisco-based School Wise Press, took data from API scores reported by schools to the state Department of Education in November 2007 and calculated gaps between the highest and lowest APIs for ethnic groups alone.
School districts in the Bay Area account for 17 of the 20 districts with the largest API gaps, the report said, explaining that this could be a reflection of the large gaps in household income typical of the region.
Oakland Unified showed the third-highest achievement gap (280), San Francisco Unified was seventh (268), and Fremont Unified came in at number eight (265). Berkeley High’s API ethnicity gap topped the list at 286.
“The difference between our highest-achieving students and lowest-achieving students is more than [those of] thousands of school districts in California,” Huyett said. “That’s why I came to Berkeley Unified School District. The achievement gap is due to the great diversity we have in our school district. It doesn’t mean we don’t work hard, it means we have a lot of challenges. We have to address the needs of all students, and the city needs to get involved.”
Huyett said the district had come up with a five-point plan, which includes ways to improve curriculum development, parent involvement and student performance in pre-school, explaining that the achievement gap is present even before kids reach kindergarten.
“It’s a little embarrassing being number one,” Board Vice President Karen Hemphill told the Daily Planet. “The good news is we have a community that has made bridging the gap our number one priority.”
Hemphill said that it was disturbing that on average the district’s black and Latino students were getting almost 300 points less than their white peers, who receive an API score of around 900.
“It’s a class issue as much as anything else,” she said. “We have very well educated, affluent households sitting with less-educated, poor families. If you have a school district that is homogenous in terms of affluence, then there is less of a gap.”
At a Berkeley Board of Education meeting last month, board members approved an 18-month plan, as part of the five-point strategy, to help close the achievement gap for the current school year and the next, calling on 2020 Vision's citywide equity task force to establish long-range goals.
Highlights of the plan include creating and implementing a comprehensive curriculum for pre-school through 12th grade; instruction and assessment which will embrace district-wide math assessments; increased support for English language learners; and intervention programs for students facing multiple suspensions or expulsions. Board Director John Selawsky called for a truancy policy in the district to address students who willfully cut school and sometimes commit daytime street crimes
There are also plans to involve parents, hire and retain minority teachers, and conduct focus groups with African-American and Latino teachers to get an idea of what is lacking in the district.
Hemphill said the district should look at creative ways to complete graduation requirements, calling the current approach “punitive.”
For more information on the School Wise Press achievement gap report, see www.schoolwisepress.com/compare/links/AchievementGap.pdf.