Public Comment

Will Berkeley Lead or Lag? 

By Paul Perry
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:50:00 AM

Our city is on the verge of an incredible achievement. Across the country, city officials and their school district counterparts often bicker about everything under the sun relating to youth and their needs within a given jurisdiction. All the while, the children they are responsible for educating are lost in the shuffle. Low-income, African-American and Latino children fall the furthest behind and often drop out of the system altogether.  

But here in Berkeley, there is broad consensus on what needs to be done to ensure that all of our children are achieving at the impressive rates that many of our white and Asian children are achieving. In fact, they are doing so well that many of them lead the state in Academic Performance Index (API) scores.  

There is no reason that our black and brown students do not deserve and cannot achieve the same success. More importantly, there is no reason that Berkeley, the home of the world’s leading public university, should also claim the largest racial achievement gap within its public schools in the state of California. 

  Berkeley’s 2020 Vision process is an opportunity for us to change all of that. The plan emphasizes the inherent connection between health and educational outcomes by addressing a variety of issues that negatively impact the academic achievement of Berkeley’s youth. It is one of the most progressive and inclusive forms of cross-sector collaboration going on in our country right now. Very few other cities are attempting to integrate health services with educational services while attempting to service the whole child over a sustained period of time. People of goodwill have and will continue to disagree on the specifics of any program as ambitious as 2020 Vision. Certainly, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but we should be able to agree on some basic facts.  

The record, then, needs to be clarified. The Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) has by no means ceded its authority to the 2020 Vision Planning Team but is an integral member of this collaborative body that constitutes a broad range of voices from the Berkeley community. It has also been claimed that those on the 2020 Vision Planning Team are not accountable to the public. However, the 2020 Planning Team consists of parents, school board members, clergy members, teachers and city officials. By definition, these are all very public individuals working for the broader public good. 

  The 2020 Vision process is not silent on the needs of socioeconomically disadvantaged, English language learners nor students with disabilities but rather focuses its efforts on these groups by targeting black and brown students broadly. The overlap here is apparent as black and brown students make up a disproportionate number of English language learners and students with disabilities. The goals of 2020 Vision are necessarily aligned with current BUSD and City of Berkeley efforts as they were developed in partnership with the very people tasked with implementing current programs. 2020 Vision is by no means ignorant of the status quo, but hopes to move beyond it. Remaining at status quo means that vast swaths of our children are left behind, and that is simply unacceptable.  

The position offered by some is that the responsibility for closing the achievement gap rests solely upon the Berkeley Unified School District. Ironically, this is the very perspective that has gained Berkeley the dubious distinction of failing more than any other city in terms of educating its black and brown students relative to the achievement of their more White and Asian peers. As blame shifts and students are left behind, we have failed as a community to recognize the interdependent relationship between health and education and the larger need to serving our children across jurisdictions. In essence, the era of declaring, “It’s not my job,” has come and gone. Everyone is indicted if any of our kids do not achieve in our community. 

  Conventional wisdom tells us that it takes a village to raise a child and 2020 Vision recognizes this most fundamental principle in its efforts. Children’s futures are not solely determined within the confines of the schools they attend and therefore, if we care about their futures in any serious sense, we will concern ourselves with the realities they face outside those school walls.  

Ironically, some advocates call for equality in our schools “by any means necessary” while cutting out certain alternatives that could provide even greater integration for our brown and black students in favor of the inadequate status quo. 2020 Vision succeeds in considering any and all means to support students and families whose needs are simply not being met under the current system. 

  A city councilmember said it best during the recent joint session between the Berkeley City Council and the Berkeley School Board in referring to the various goals of the 2020 Vision plan when she said, “If you don’t like Goal No. 2, then work on Goal No. 7. Just as long as you are contributing to a process that will ultimately help our children.” 2020 Vision needs all hands on deck, not obfuscation and delay. Both the City Council and the School Board have already agreed, in principle, to allow the 2020 Vision goals to influence their decision-making on the policies they will consider between now and the final outcome of the process. We should celebrate their bold leadership by joining in the effort to improve life outcomes for the children in our community who need us most. 


Paul Perry is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.