The Berkeley Unified School District has the largest racial achievement gaps of any school district in the State of California. While Berkeley schools have worked exceptionally well for a segment of the population, catapulting many students on to top tier colleges where they excel as leaders throughout their lives, many others don’t make it past the tenth grade. With the best of our collective efforts, our results are still tragically below acceptable standards. In a school of 3,300, there is only one African-American male taking an AP class. One. Our research, using data from the CA Department of Education, has shown us that less than 30 percent of black and Latino students who enter as ninth graders graduate from the Berkeley schools eligible to apply to attend the UC/CSU colleges.
To tackle this challenge, prominent members of the Berkeley community recently came together to express a formal commitment to ending the decades-long history of inequality still plaguing our schools. The 2020 Vision was formally endorsed in a joint resolution passed by the City Council and School Board in June 2008. During a rare joint assembly of the School Board and City Council, on Nov.r 3, 2009, the consensus demonstrated by our local officials and many members of the community who support the Vision was encouraging.
This means that the 2020 Vision must quickly move from vision to action with practical and effective solutions. These solutions will not be popular with everyone—some will find that they conflict with personal “sacred cows” that they have long held dear, and others will resist the reallocation of resources necessary to refocus our attention upon those most in need. However, new alternatives and opportunities must be provided now for students who are being left behind in the current system.
We believe that one of these opportunities is the establishment of the REALM public charter school in Berkeley. While we need to continue—and accelerate—our city-wide efforts to improve the quality of our existing schools, we believe that African-American and Latino families, as well as other families in Berkeley, need to have additional secondary schooling options for their children and REALM could be an excellent option for them.
Historically, middle and upper-class families have often enrolled their children in private schools or moved out of their neighborhoods altogether when they were dissatisfied with their local public schools. Lower-income families, however, typically lacked these options and were left to the mercy of their local schools, no matter how poorly these schools served their children.
Despite the popularity of public charter schools in many low-income communities of color throughout the country, some misinformed local critics have tried to lump these public schools into a single category, labeling them as part of a right-wing conspiracy to privatize education or, using outlandish rhetoric even by Berkeley standards. The fact is that the thousands of public charter schools that exist throughout the country are extremely diverse in their goals, populations, and performance. The REALM public charter school, as with all public schools, must be evaluated on its individual merits and vision. Its mission to serve the least advantaged children in Berkeley is fully in accord with the noblest aims and historic legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.
REALM will focus on critical thinking, the use of advanced technology, and high academic standards to provide opportunities for students to prepare themselves for college as well as 21st century careers. REALM will ultimately include grades 6-12 and thus provide an alternative for families who do not feel that their children will be successful in our larger middle schools or within the walls of the 3,300-student Berkeley High School.
REALM’s primary organizers and supporters include BOCA, parents of color and faith leaders, all of whom are people who have been working on issues of equity in Berkeley for many years and most of whom have children who currently attend—or have attended—Berkeley’s public schools. Pedro Noguera’s book Unfinished Business, provides a good summary of the history of these struggles. Many of the people connected with this—parents and guardians, educators and activists—are still here, have not given up, and are now organizing for this public charter school as well as the larger 2020 Vision that encompasses it. In countless listening sessions with hundreds of parents, we continue to hear their frustration with inaction, rhetoric without results, and their deep concern that folks with no real stake in their children’s lives are the ones making decisions for them.
We enthusiastically support REALM and the 2020 Vision because our intention is not to abandon the Berkeley schools, but rather keep our community focused on achieving better results for our kids, thereby providing opportunities and options for families who would otherwise have none.
In sum, we believe that the employment of public charter schools like REALM will add to the educational momentum of high achievement and pioneering reform Berkeley is known for. Given the depth of the achievement gap in Berkeley though, we believe it is critical and necessary to explore all academic options for our families who feel the full deleterious effects of that gap daily. We believe this to be a state of emergency for our parents; our parents believe this to be a state of emergency for their children; our children believe this to be a state of emergency for their futures. We can no longer wait.
This letter was signed by Rabbi Menachem; Creditor Pastor Kelly Woods; Rabbi Yoel Kahn; Congregation Netivot Shalom Covenant Worship Center; Congregation Beth-El; Pastor Sarah Isakson; Rev. Odette Lockwood-Stewart; Pastor Leslie White; Lutheran Church of the Cross; Epworth United Methodist Church; St. Paul AME Church; Rev. Michael Smith; Pastor Matt Crocker; Pastor Michael McBride; McGee Ave Baptist Church; Church Without Walls; The Way Christian Center; Pastor Kim Smith; Father Bernie Campbell; Trinity United Methodist Church; Holy Spirit/Newman Hall Catholic Parish. Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA) represents 18 faith congregations in Berkeley and over 10,000 diverse families.