By Doug Oakley
The Berkeley school district plans to hire a supervisor charged with closing what officials call the district's widening chasm between its white teachers and administrators and its ethnically and racially diverse students and parents.
The school board approved the move Wednesday night without comment. It had been recommended by a panel of city and school leaders citing "systems changes" needed to close the academic achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts.
The manager of culture and linguistics, who has not yet been hired, will be paid $63,000 to $80,000 a year.
"This will be someone who can look at us critically and help us become more culturally and linguistically sensitive to students and parents," said Christina Faulkner, the district's director of curriculum and instruction. "It's the whole climate of the schools that needs to change. For example, you may have a school secretary who has been there 35 years, and times have changed, but she has not. She may not be in tune."
As a result, parents and students may be speaking a different language, literally or culturally, than those who run the schools. This divergence makes it more difficult to get information or advocate for oneself in that kind of environment, officials said. And that is partly responsible for the low rates of achievement by the city's students of color compared with white students.
Last year, for example, 40 percent of black and 30 percent of Latino students at Berkeley High School were getting D's and F's in English and math, while 5 percent of white students were getting the failing grades.
In the last Berkeley school year, 26 percent of black 11th graders tested as proficient in English, while 79 percent of white students were proficient.
In math, 5 percent of black and 19 percent of Latino 11th graders tested proficient in math, while 48 percent of white students were proficient in math, according to state test results.
"In lots of corners of our community, people are saying they don't feel welcome, they feel they don't belong, they don't feel like this is their institution, their community," said Nicole Sanchez, executive director of the Berkeley Alliance, which was formed to advise the city and school district on how to close the achievement gap by the year 2020. "So, part of what this new person will do is diagnose what's happening."
As an institution, the Berkeley school district is mostly white and middle-class teachers and administrators, but its student body is only 30 percent white, Sanchez said. The remainder is a mix: 26 percent black, 20 percent multi-ethnic, 17 percent Latino and 7 percent Asian, she said.
At the classroom level, that difference between the white power structure and the diverse student body leaves students of color and their parents wanting more, Sanchez said.
"It's not as simple as saying, 'We need to translate everything into Spanish or Mandarin,' " Sanchez said. "We keep hearing that African-American families don't feel welcome, or Latino families don't feel welcome. We have to get to the bottom of it to remedy our achievement gap. If you have a situation where parents don't feel like the school is theirs, then you're already in a deficit."
A contributing factor in the achievement gap is parents who do not know how to advocate for their children in a culture dominated by the white middle class, Sanchez said.
"They walk in and they don't know how to find someone who speaks their language or who is from their same neighborhood," Sanchez said. "Nobody can relate to them. And this is an adult issue, so much of the achievement gap is adult issues. It's about adults being able to build systems they can live in.
"We have to acknowledge to ourselves that our schools are a middle class institution. We have to talk about that and how that is relevant to our students. It's about institutions and institutions have cultures."
Two years ago, black parents at Oxford Elementary School in Berkeley were pulling their children out of school because they said they did not feel welcome, blaming institutional racism for their children getting lower grades and being disciplined more often and more harshly than white children.
At the time, Principal Janet Levenson said she was hurt by the charges of the group because she tried to make it a priority to break down barriers between different races at the school. She was criticized for starting a black parent group because critics thought the move was further separating people.
Faulkner agrees that Berkeley schools have a problem.
"When we look at the data," Faulkner said, "students of color are disproportionately placed in special education and are disproportionately suspended and expelled."
BERKELEY high school'S
ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT GAP
The school board plans to hire a supervisor with a goal of ending the achievement gap. Here are last year's district disparities:
Students getting D's and F's
in English and math
Blacks -- 40%
Latinos -- 30%
Whites -- 5%
11th graders proficient in English
Blacks -- 26% (115 tested)
Latinos -- 39% (124 tested)
Whites -- 79% (237 tested)
11th graders proficient in math
Blacks -- 5% (21 tested)
Latinos -- 19% (52 tested)
Whites -- 48% (174 tested)
11th graders proficient in U.S. history
Blacks -- 20% (80 tested)
Latinos -- 33% (99 tested)
Whites -- 79% (215 tested)
Sources: Berkeley Unified School District, California Department of Education