In this liberal enclave 13 miles from San Francisco, famous for its protest politics and a world-class university, it’s not uncommon to hear people say how fortunate they feel to live in a city that has overcome so much of the racial tension still endemic in the rest of the nation.
But for Black students in Berkeley’s public schools, publicly available information indicates a dire situation, and one that is getting worse.
Today, a group of parents in Berkeley, California organized as Parents of Children of African Descent, or PCAD, called on the Berkeley Unified School District to revamp its disciplinary actions and devote more resources to address racial disparities in its public schools.
“Many parents of African American students in the Berkeley Public Schools feel that their children are not being treated fairly or being offered a quality education,” said Laura Babitt, a member of PCAD’s Executive Board.
This month, the US Department of Education issued a report finding overly punitive policies throughout the nation’s public schools. The government found that across the country, Black students are being suspended at three times the rate of White students. Minority children with disabilities are experiencing the heaviest discipline. The findings are based on a 2011 survey of 97,000 schools.
Data for Berkeley parallels national trends. According to the US Department of Education’s website, in 2011, Black students made up 21% percent of total enrollment within Berkeley Unified School District yet experienced 72% of all in-school suspensions, 49% of all out-of school suspensions, and 44% of all expulsions. By contrast, White students made up 32% of enrollment but experienced only 5.6% of all in-school suspensions, 16% of all out-of-school suspensions, and 11% of all expulsions.
“No one questions the good intentions of Berkeley’s school administrators and staff,” said Babitt, “but we’re in bad shape now and the evidence shows that things are only getting worse.”
According to the district’s data, the total number of suspensions in Berkeley elementary schools decreased sharply between 2010 and 2013, from 196 to 86. However, the total number of suspensions that were of African American students -- who represent between 17 and 20 percent of primary school enrollment -- increased from 53% in 2010-11 to 55% in 2011-12 to 70% in 2012-13.
Over the same three-year period, total middle school suspensions in the district decreased from 419 to 225, yet the percentages of those suspensions that were for African American students held relatively steady, increasing from 67% to 69% and then declining to 61%. African American students make up a quarter of Berkeley middle school enrollment.
Total suspensions in Berkeley high schools did not change appreciably during the period, with African American students accounting for about 56% of all suspensions despite representing less than a quarter of students enrolled.
According to a report of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, nearly one in five African American high school students in Berkeley was suspended at least once during the 2010-11 school year.
The data also reflects that disproportionate numbers of Berkeley’s African American students are being classified as emotionally disturbed or requiring special education.
“Last year,” said Babitt, “46% of Berkeley special ed students were African American and 23% of all African American students had been placed in special education.” 7% of non-African American students receive special education services.
55% of all students enrolled in the Berkeley public schools who have been classified as emotionally disturbed are also African American.
“These statistics are deeply troubling,” said Meleah Hall, a PCAD member. “People expect better of Berkeley.”
In 2009, Berkeley launched its “2020 Vision,” which aims to eliminate racial disparities in education for students graduating from high school that year. Berkeley voters have also approved supplementary parcel taxes to keep class sizes small and pay for music and other enrichment programs that have been cut elsewhere.
“Even though Berkeley voters have demonstrated their commitment to providing a quality education for all, the numbers show that Black kids are not getting a good education,” said Hall.
According to PCAD, in 2012, only 31 of the 193 African Americans graduating from Berkeley Unified Schools were eligible to apply to a California State University or University of California campus, which requires a C grade or better in a set of prerequisite classes.
In addition, Black students at almost every Berkeley public school score significantly below their peers on the standardized tests used in California. For example, according to GreatSchools.org, at Cragmont Elementary, located in an expensive neighborhood in the Berkeley hills, White students scored 957 on average versus 725 by African American students, who score lower than students in every other category, including the socioeconomically disadvantaged, English language learners, and students with disabilities. After White students, the next highest scores were for Asian students, at 893, and Hispanic students, at 791.
According to the federal study, White children represent nearly 49% of middle school algebra Gifted and Talented Enrollment; Black children are 9%. Berkeley’s African American students are 2% of enrollment in Physics; 57% of the Physics students are White.
“The current educational system is failing our African American children,” said Babitt. “Words are not enough. We need resources dedicated to address their needs.”
The school district is currently considering how to spend $2.4 million that has become available from the state to serve children with high needs. PCAD was asked to supply a list of its priorities.
“We are grateful to have had the opportunity to partner with the District to outline the needs of African American students,” said Babitt. On March 1, approximately 100 people turned out for a Saturday morning PCAD meeting to communicate their concerns to the District’s new Superintendent, Dr. Donald Evans.
According to the PCAD proposal, a top priority is for mandatory cultural competency training for all staff that directly confronts deeply ingrained inequality and unconscious bias.
According to a long-time PCAD parent: “Until we address race issues effectively between all BUSD constituents: parents, teachers, administrators, classified staff, and students, we will not achieve the positive outcomes we all desire.”
“This is a core issue,” said Hall. “All parents should be able to send their kids to school and know that they are in a safe and nurturing environment.”
Hall added: “Even though the District has adopted a positive behavioral support framework, disparities still exist. Many situations that could have been dealt with effectively through conflict resolution in the classrooms are escalating into disciplinary action.”
Babitt concluded: “We need the Berkeley Unified School District to dedicate more resources to address the needs of African American students and families. We also need the District to remove barriers to learning, including harmful and ineffective policies and a hostile environment.”
“Our students are being disenfranchised. It’s time for everyone who cares about Berkeley’s students to step up so that all of our children can have the opportunity to reach their potential.”