It seems to me that those who are opposed to the Berkeley Unified School District taking recommendations from the 2020 Vision Planning Team feel this way because they misunderstand the intentions. According to the Berkeley Unified School District, “2020 Vision is a call to action to make educational success and well-being of all Berkeley’s children and youth a community-wide priority.” After reading through the recommendations draft myself, I can confidently say that I agree with the synopsis. However, this positive step toward improving academic and health outcomes among Berkeley’s most vulnerable youth is being unfairly portrayed by opposing groups as unnecessary, and even racist.
In a recently published opinion piece, the author stated that many of the recommendations aren’t concerning K–12 education. But shouldn’t a plan to make substantial change over the next 11 years have a larger scope than just K–12 education? No matter how much change is made around curriculum or the school’s structure, if the larger factors that affect how youth and their families are interacting with the school remain the same, why should we expect to see improvement?
The 2020 Vision recommendations range from changing the curriculum and instruction to creating partnerships with schools and city of Berkeley services to addressing the root causes of poor health. Placing the responsibility simply on accountability of the Berkeley Unified School District School Board does little to acknowledge the trends of underachievement, especially among students of color, or the explanations for them. The planning team is recommending an approach similar to that of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has been wildly successful in reaching youth and providing them and their families with services and resources that set them up for productive, healthy lives.
Opposing groups have also sharply criticized the 2020 Vision recommendations for prioritizing African-American and Latino youth. True, there are students of all backgrounds who aren’t performing academically up to standard under the current public education system. But there is no denying the fact that here, in Berkeley, African-American and Latino youth are disproportionately scoring below average in academic performance, and well below their White counterparts. In fact, the achievement gap in this city falls quite neatly along racial lines.
Whenever race is pulled into the spotlight, people get uncomfortable. But it’s crucial to address the elephant in the room in order to make some changes that will actually be meaningful. It’s not racist to shed light on the facts about the existing disparity in the school district, it’s being race conscious, which is a refreshing and overdue perspective on what needs to be done to effectively close the achievement gap.
Since we know that academic achievement trends, as well as other health indicators, don’t fare well for African-American and Latino people in Berkeley, something should be done to explicitly target these communities. The issue is not that African-American and Latino youth are not as intellectually capable or lack the interest to be academically competitive; the problem truly exists at the institutional and community level. The 2020 vision recommendations illustrate the planning team’s deep understanding and concern, and I think it represents a voice that needs to be heard.
A real investment by the school district and the city to improve the lives of Berkeley’s most vulnerable youth by providing more thoughtful services and opportunities is a crucial step toward closing the achievement gap in the next decade and giving today’s youth a better chance to live productive, healthy lives. By seriously considering the 2020 Vision recommendations presented on Tuesday at the Joint School Board and City Council Meeting, the elected leaders will be showing their commitment to supporting all of Berkeley’s youth, especially those who have not been prioritized in the past.
Jennifer Tillett is a graduate student at UC Berkeley School of Public Health.