Race Matters at Berkeley High

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Child of color starting BHS

May 2004

Hi - I have a ninth-grader starting at BHS in the fall. I'm looking for insight about the best teachers for an inquisitive, sensitive boy who is smart, vocal, engaged and eager to please, has good study habits but is not super-academic, and is very sociable. He is good at math, OK in English and social studies, loves sports. He needs creativity and adults who are not punitive, but who motivate and encourage and are not afraid of dialogue. He has spent the last 6 years in small independent schools. He applied for CAS and did not get in (like Anonymous, I have no clear idea why). He also is a child of color, so I'm afraid he'll be shuttled into the low-achieving classes because of his race and the fact we don't live in the hills. Any advice about good, challenging teachers/classes for my child? Any insight about the BHS system is welcome. Thanks! nervous mom

I work at Berkeley High as an Instructional Assistant and I have a son who attends Berkeley High. It has been my experience that, as a scool policy, you are not allowed any choice over what teachers your son will have. I've had the opportunity to work in quite a few different classrooms and the majority of the teachers I've observed have been very dedicated and good at relating to students. I wouldn't worry about your son being tracked into lower- acheiving classes due to race. If he was doing OK, acedemically, in middle school he should start out on the same level as the majority of incoming freshmen.As long as he does his work, puts in an adequate effort, passes his classes and does not have serious behavioral or attendance problems, he should do well at Berkeley High. Eleanor

I don't know how to say this to you, NERVOUS MOTHER, but at BHS one does not get to pick teachers for one's children. My daughter started BHS a couple of years ago, was admitted to CAS, but declined the acceptance because she knew she would be interested in Academic Choice as a sophomore, (A.C. is not available to freshmen), and thought it would not be fair to take advantage of CAS and its teachers during the 9th grade only to switch in the 10th. She is not of color and lives in the hills and suffered thru an incompetent 9th grade math teacher. So, you see, neither race nor address played a part...so hopefully, if your child does not luck out with wonderful teachers...please do not attribute it to anything else but the luck of the draw.

Most importantly, if you pass on to your child the feeling that if he does not always have extraordinary experiences, at BHS or elsewhere, that it is solely due to his race or status, you will be doing him a great disservice.

There was a time when older students selected teachers at Berkeley High, but no longer. So it doesn't really matter what teachers are good. He will get who they assign. If he likes sports, I recommend that he sign up for a team. It is a good way to make friends, and it also allows more freedom in the schedule for electives. If he signs up for Latin, he will get Ms. Herdon and Ms. Morrison, both great teachers, and great kids take the class, so that approach is works well. In addition, you might try signing up for Academic Choice, which is not a small school. I think anyone gets in, but they have few students of color according to a school newspaper article I just read, so they would be happy to be more diverse. Maybe you could get another student of color to join with your son, so he has a buddy. It is a program for kids who care about their education. The expectations are supposed to be just a little bit higher. I don't know if this is true, but it is worth a try. I don't think the school will ''shuttle him into low achieving classes'' because of his color. I think it is the students who segregate themselves.

BHS doesn't really work the way you think. Hills or flatlands makes no special difference. The ninth grade core classes tend to have a broad range of kids, advanced and lagging in all of them. This is particularly true of the English and IES classes. Other classes split the kids more because of subject matter - Honors Geometry for example has only kids who like or are pretty good at math. Doing Latin or German as languages will guarantee your child a great teacher, where with other languages it's more of a lottery. Ceramics, photo, orchestra, and drama are electives where they have a good chance of a terrific teacher. In tenth grade kids can join Academic Choice where they have more teachers that will encourage them to stretch themselves, for example in world history. A lot depends on kids having a good group of supportive friends - either from middle school or through a particular club or interest or sport. Fiona

It is my understanding that you can not request teachers at Berkeley HIgh, and that the new Freshan curriculum is designed to orient all incoming students to high school life. There are many excellent teachers but if you want extra additional academics you should take an advanced foreign language or Honors Geometry with require prerequisites or placement tests. It is useful if you want to take AP science as a Sophmore to take the 9th grade science elective. I truly feel that the BHS staff is committed to academic excellence for all students, particularly minorities students who often come to high school will poor skills. The bigger problem for them is finding an academically inclined peer group which will support and encourage each other to achieve academically.

Does your child play an instrument? Try band or orchestra. Karen Wells is amazing. What about art? The Art Department provides a supportive environment for kids who are creative. The key is to find a place where your student feels surrounded by like-minded kids with suportive teachers. Soph mom

TO the mom of the ''child of color''. Good for you for recognizing that there are clear racialized differences at BHS. As a mom of a child of color, I have read the studies, was a student there myself, have many friends (of all colors) with a variety of fightening experiences about BHS. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of work to do around social distribution and, as the responses to your posting demonstrated, around people's understanding about how social systems work. As a mother of a child of color, I decided that BHS would not be the best choice for her. We have so many obstacles to struggle against as it is, and if your child is not an A student and is struggling with behavior at all (due to many normal teenage factors) then he can easily be labeled, put on the wrong track, etc... Check out Pedro Noguera's study of a few years back. Race does matter because educational systems have become racialized. This does not mean that your child of color will automatically fail, but it does mean that he has to prove himself more than others. It also doesn't mean that all white children automatically do well, but look at the stats - to ignore them is to ignore reality. My advice to you if you do send your son to BHS is to be very aware of what is happening and speak up as soon as you see wrong doing. I chose not to send my child to public and put her in a private school that ensures a diverse student population and teaching staff that actively works for EQUITY for all students. You can not blame students for social systems that are already in place all around you. Good luck to you. anon


Daughter feels BHS is too segregated

September 2002


How do you deal with issues of reverse discrimination at Berkeley High after you have explained the benefits of Affirmative action and the need to reach out? I hear concerns about the fact that only the "white kids" get egged on Fridays. I hear concerns about "why are only the african american kids invited to the PACD dinner." My child now wants out of Berkeley High as she feels it is too segregated. I have often had concerns about the fact that so many of the clubs and associations are exclusionary - you have to belong to a "special" group to be considered. Wouldn't it make more sense for there to be "activity" related clubs rather than race/ethnicity/religious/sexual preference related clubs? I am looking for answers for my child and myself. Any thoughts? Anonymous.

I have felt very similarly to you. I am also waiting for the day when the club can be about common interests rather than what separates us. The situation seems to be a kind of 'backlash'. My daughter (who is white) has fortunately found the courage to challenge the kids who put her down because she is white. Unfortunately, these problems are taught and perpetuated by the parents. My advice would be to teach your child YOUR values. Sometimes this means speaking up for yourself and demanding equal treatment.

In a perfect world.... Well, dream on. You deal with reverse discrimination at BHS in the same way you would if you were black in an all-white school without the option of going to another school. You also have to become a bit street-smart and know to stay away from the area where "egging" occurs on Fridays, or wear your grungiest clothes, disguise yourself as a junior or senior. Your daughter should know more about PACD and then she'll understand why only african-american kids get invited to PACD dinner. She could start her own club, just about anything goes at BHS--there was a club about teen girls and self-esteem at one time, and she couldn't possibly be excluded from the "Ice Cream Club." Get a list of all the clubs at BHS and you'll find the silly to the serious. Being an observer is fine for awhile, but your daughter needs to focus on her intrinsic values and interests and then follow them, finding friends to share her interests with and not be so concerned about exclusion, but about including herself in what interests her. "Diverse" as BHS is, it doesn't mean everyone mixes and gets along. You've already explained the benefits of affirmative action, now you explain the benefits of being white. Race and socio-economic factors determine segregation at BHS--white kids and black, alike, who've lived in the same neighborhoods all their lives and gone to the same schools have more in common and will want to hang together (also, many caucasian families leave their kids in private schools until middle or high school); african-american children most likely have gone to public schools from K-12 with each other, and so it's quite natural that they would want to hang with each other. The divide is simply there -- you can cross it sometimes, sometimes not. What would make sense at BHS is far different from the reality and emotions of 2,000 plus teens of every make and color mixing it up. It's a joy and a pain at the same time. Your daughter can leave BHS for a safer haven, for a school that's not segregated, except for cliques which exist in every school and in some ways are far more demoralizing to a fragile teen ego than realizing you won't get an invitation to a PACD dinner because you're not black. --jahlee

I can't speak to the particular situation at BHS but I wanted to empathize with the difficult feelings your daughter is having and encourage you to encourage her to stick it out a bit longer. When schools had primarily activity-based clubs they were dominated by white kids and so kids of color felt and sometimes were excluded. All school club meetings must be open to everyone, though I don't know about the dinner. My understanding about BHS is that there are some kids who manage to cross racial lines in their friendships, perhaps your daughter can be one of these trail-blazers. Encourage her to reach out to people of color she knows through her classes, sports, other activities. Encourage her to take an African American studies course. Encourage her to start a Unity or Multicultural Club. Finally, even though it's painful for her, I think it's a valuable lesson to feel like an outsider and one that many European-American kids never get. Deborah dl

I am a black parent that agrees with you and your child. I have two children in the Berkeley School District (7grader and 9 grader). In the last year or so I have also notice segregation on the part of the district and groups like pcad. I do not agree with anyone that excludes people (parents/students) for any reason. I think the reason is that we have parents and people in the district that are breeding racism. Our district has gotten to the point where it is really turning people against each other. I don't think the Institution is racist, it is just individuals.

I think the answer is that we parents that believe that we are IN THIS TOGETHER need to let it be known. We need to let it be known that we will not tolerate groups or individuals that exclude people for any reason. People are too quite because powerful people in the district are telling them to keep their mouths shut or else. People are being quite for political reasons. The bottom line is that our children are being hurt by this racist attitude and we the good parents have got to put a stop to it.

I will give my name because I don't care who knows how I feel. We have a lot of closet racists in our district that are black, white, spanish and etc....... I want the best for all children and we will not get that until all good parents come out of the wood work and let it be known that we will not put up with racism. Lee

Thought about this one for awhile. While I can sympathize with how your daughter feels, quite frankly I think that your daughter needs to learn that as a white person she shouldn't expect to be automatically accepted in groups of color and that to the extent she isn't accepted she should be led into see the broader context of what's going on. What would be her reaction to a boy/man that insisted that woman-only groups were inherently wrong and unfair to him? Would she see him as being maybe well-intentioned but unconsciously a little paternalistic and ignorant of the history of women's subjective role in this nation? Certainly the self esteem, support, and just respite/haven that many women receive through Girl Scouts, "girl" sports teams or all-women colleges (given this essentially chauvinistic and patriarchial society), or even just a "girls night out" is important for women just dealing with this male centered society , not to mention for t! ho! se deciding to be "on the front lines". Same thing for many people of color in this country dealing with racism every day - being "with our own" is supportive, self-affirming, and also respite from living in a white dominated society.

Having said that I also believe that BHS or for that matter any educational institution should enourage students to mix based upon intererests and even to encourage "cross" interests (for example I've known whites in "African" dance groups and African Americans in Balkan singing groups). Cultural identity should be a secure springboard to the whole world not a self-limiting box. For example in our A-A family we mostly listen to r, jazz, reggae, and African diaspora music but we also appreciate folk music,Western classical music (even opera!) and most recently discovered Hawaian slack guitar. And in fact a tip: your daughter may find more "inclusion" in school art and music activities or sports as these interests are the most likely to cut across ethnic lines. Lastly, I just want to say that the "egging" is bullying, pure and simple and shouldn't be tolerated behavior by any group or even individual at any school. Karen

It's occurred to me that the segregation that my daughter has commented on at King and at Berkeley High is made worse by the size of the schools - kids aren't necessarily in class with any of their friends from previous years, so the result is a tendency to make new contacts based on superficial similarities. Where there are fewer kids they are forced to get to know one another better. Fiona

I, too, agree clubs should be interest-based versus race-based. By their very nature, race-based clubs are always exclusionary and the children being excluded feel it the most as schools will not consider allowing them to have their own club based on race. They consider that to be racist in and of itself unless it's for non-whites. I know this for a fact when my son tried to start a Scottish club at his school. He was told he could not because it was racist and would create an element of hate. I have to tell you there are an awful lot of black scots over here so I find that highly laughable. My son was not allowed to start a Scottish club for assumed hate reasons. This was very racially biased as the principal who denied the club was black and my son was white and very proud of his Scottish heritage. Her reason was for the alledged hate it would create, not that there was any hate beforehand, just that she felt it would create it.

I also noticed schools are not very diverse when it comes to diversity or multicultural week. They often exclude anyone of european heritage, again my son was not allowed to represent Scotland. Diversity means all, not just non-white origins. Teaching history is not the same thing as teaching culture. All cultures should be included and celebrated and an ethnic club that includes everyone is the place for this to happen. Schools would serve their students better if the only ethnic clubs allowed included all backgrounds and all members would have their turn to share their culture, whether it be caribbean, peruvian, scottish, vietnamese, any and all.

Also when I say share heritage, I don't mean the Americanized version of it. I mean the real version of it. For example, I refused to take part in a multicultural food event at work because all the food was stereotyped. For African Americans they had fried chicken wings (like that had anything to do with Africa). For the Irish, they had corned beef and cabbage (cattle were too expensive to kill for food - they used the pig instead, ham and cabbage). I could go on. The point is, the stereotypes need to be shown for what they are - not the real thing. By allowing groups to be exclusionary, there is no opportunity to dispel the misinformation and to share the realities. That's what the kids need. A place where they can show the similarities as well as the differences. That way they can see just how much they ALL have in common.

Lee is right when she says powerful people intimidate others and make them keep quiet. There is too much PC in the world. This can be corrected with shared information. When people have knowledge, lies can't hurt them. Most kids are good. They don't really want to hurt or exclude others. They are being taught to believe that is what they should do in order to be "equal". They are all "equal" now. They just need to understand that and stop hyphenating who they are. They are all Americans. It is their ethnic background and personal histories that make them individuals. We need to respect the individual. Marianne

These are complex issues that are being discussed. I am hoping that all that participate can speak from their truth rather than their fears. My truth is this. Race has been an issue for more than 400 years. Why are we discussing it now? Because someone felt excluded? Exclusion has been one symptom/by-product of racism. Please think seriously and deeply, from as many perspectives as possible, before making comments about race.

As individuals, we work all of our lives to find our center. The more we know about ourselves, the better we are able to deal in the world. The same holds true for families and communities. Every community should know itself. If our collective ego and integrity are intact, we can more fully participate in the world around us without being consumed by it or feeling insecure. We will all select the groupings of people we want to be with throughout our lives. It even changes as we change. I choose to be with PCAD - Parents of Children of African Descent. The reason is, I want to make sure that kids who look like me have every advantage possible in an environment that tried and continues to try to limit my potential, both intentionally and unintentionally, because I am African American and male. I didn't make that up, it is real. And it is real today that kids are being marginalized.

In PCAD, I work side by side with people who are African American, Latino, Asian, Native American, European, and African - a wide variety of folks. But we all have one thing in "COMMON." We love, nurture, support, encourage, parent, motivate and advocate for children of African descent. Yes, people will and do come together for what they have in common. Excluding people has never been our issue. We focus on including people who are willing to do this work. We specifically encourage people, who are intimately involved with our kids, to join with us. As a result, our target membership is African American.

One last thing: The big flap over African American Studies at BHS, the reality is that if you want to know about African and African American contributions to the history of this country, you cannot get it in an American history class. However, if you study African American history, you will also get American history. Every child, woman and man in this country should know our collective history.

So I ask the "good" people of Berkeley to work hard to recognize and then try and resolve racism in our community. It stands to be the most significant work that we can do for our children and our nation. Michael

Althought I am no expert on race relations, I did want to put in a plug for the Communication, Arts, and Science, CAS Small School program at BHS. (see CAS recommendations for the rest of this review.)