Can Berkeley High rebound?

An ambitious program to rescue black students before they fail starts a debate over how much help is too much.

Published March 30, 2001 8:05PM (EST)

Although the New York Times labeled Berkeley High "the most integrated high school in America," with a student body that's 37 percent African-American, 37 percent white, 11 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian and 5 percent multiracial, what's true in most urban public high schools is true here too: The "low track" classes composed predominantly of kids of color are overcrowded and underendowed, with 30 or more students vying for (or ducking) the attention of a single overwhelmed teacher.

Meanwhile, at the same school, classes of 10 or 15 mostly white, mostly affluent students do college-level work in well-equipped advanced-placement classes to which they are admitted on the basis of a test that rules out all but the elite few.

It is a standard brand of academic segregation, one that can be found in most public high schools. But at Berkeley High, for the past three months, there has been yet another kind of class, this one designed to close the gap between students who succeed academically and students at academic risk: In borrowed classrooms, hastily recruited, energetic teachers convene small, no-nonsense gatherings of mostly African-American ninth-graders, each accompanied by a volunteer tutor, all of them focused on raising the academic achievement of kids who have long been left behind.

Where did this extraordinary concentration of energy and resources come from? The answer is PCAD: Parents of Children of African Descent. Near the end of this year's first semester, these parents discovered that fully half of Berkeley High's black ninth-graders (one-third of the 875-student freshman class) were already failing English, math and/or history. While acknowledging the history and prevalence, locally and nationally, of the "achievement gap" between white students and students of color, PCAD refused to accept that fate for one more generation of Berkeley High children.

Armed with research that reflects a history of high dropout and flunk-out rates among Berkeley High's African-American students, and African-American male students in particular -- statistics mirrored in schools across the nation -- PCAD appealed to the school's new principal, Frank Lynch, for his help in breaking that pattern. Lynch asked the parents to come up with a plan, and they spent their Christmas break doing exactly that.

Although most of the PCAD organizers did not themselves have children who were failing, their first step was to recruit into their group parents and grandparents who did, so that their input could be incorporated into the PCAD plan.

"On January 30, 2001 a new semester will start at Berkeley High School. At that time, without our intervention, approximately 250 freshmen students will go off track for graduation," begins the 20-page "intervention plan" that PCAD issued on Jan. 14. "The fact that large numbers of students have been failing at Berkeley High School for years does not change the fact that we are facing a crisis that demands urgent and appropriate action ...

"The effects of our failure to aggressively bridge the achievement gap are long-term, deep, and harmful to all of us, whether we are the affected student, parent, classmate, or neighbor ... We cannot wait another semester."

PCAD's sense of urgency is inspired by a disheartening national trend as well as local disappointment. Calling the racial achievement gap "the most important educational challenge for the United States," a 1999 national study by the College Board found only 17 percent of black and 24 percent of Latino high school seniors to be proficient in reading, 4 percent of black students to be proficient in both math and science and no black students and 1 percent of Latinos to be advanced in those subjects.

Closer to home, a recently completed four-year study of Berkeley High by the UC-Berkeley-sponsored Diversity Project found student achievement to be lowest among low-income African-American and Latino students and highest among affluent whites. In 1998, white Berkeley High students scored in the top 15th percentile nationally; black students scored in the bottom 40th. And while many white seniors went off to Ivy League colleges, six out of 10 black male students had dropped out, flunked out or otherwise disappeared before their senior year.

The nationwide College Board study named five factors that most affect a student's educational outcome: economic circumstances; the level of parents' education; racial discrimination; cultural attributes of the home, community and school; and the quality and quantity of school resources. Remedies recommended by the board read much like PCAD's (and every parent's) wish list: making schools smaller, lowering student-teacher ratios, spending staff development money to provide students with better-educated teachers and offering students an academically challenging curriculum.

Many of these remedies have been adopted by the one American school system in which the achievement gap has been addressed with some success: the U.S. military's. In the 71 schools operated on domestic military bases, 26 percent of black children and 32 percent of Hispanics scored at or above passing level, compared with 7 percent and 10 percent, respectively, nationally.

How does the military succeed where civilian schools fail? One factor is money. Base schools spend 23 percent more per pupil than public schools, fund music and art programs and are well-endowed with computers. Another is parent involvement -- a key element of the PCAD approach. The military gives parents an hour off a week to volunteer in the schools.

"If we don't choose to support educational intervention," the PCAD report warned, "we can expect an ever-increasing need for expanded social services, police presence, and prisons." Indeed, the consequences of the achievement gap extend beyond high school. In America today, one in three young African-American men is currently in jail, on probation or on parole. The Justice Department projects that one in four African-American males born in the 1990s will end up in prison at some time in his life.

With these chilling statistics looming, PCAD convened its first community meeting in a Berkeley fire emergency station on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The PCAD invite drew an animated crowd of 75 African-American, Asian, Latino and white parents, grandparents, students and teachers, as well as heavy hitters such as the mayor's chief of staff, the county's superintendent of schools and representatives of the League of Women Voters, NAACP, school board and City Council.

While a stew simmered in the kitchen next door, the crowd crammed into a small conference room and listened to the PCAD plan, which addressed many of the factors named in the College Board study, and other studies, as critical to academic success.

Freshmen failing two or more core subjects would be invited to apply to the PCAD program, an "alternative learning community" within Berkeley High. Those students would reenter ninth grade, this time in small classes taught by teachers handpicked for their commitment to improving the achievement of at-risk students.

The freshmen in the program also would be supported by student mentors and consistent tutoring. Their school year would be extended through the summer so they'd have a chance to catch up with their peers and be ready for 10th grade by September. Each student would be assigned an adult "learning partner" recruited from his or her family, school or community. Parents and guardians would sign contracts requiring them to respond promptly to teachers' calls home.

And all of this, PCAD announced unblinkingly at the Jan. 15 meeting, needed to happen by the start of the new semester on Jan. 30: student candidates and their families identified, assessed and admitted; teachers, mentors and learning partners recruited and trained; classrooms located; curricula developed. Oh, and $500,000 raised, somehow, to pay for it all.

"The time frame within which we are seeking to implement this intervention has been described as impossible," a PCAD mother acknowledged as soup was served. "But our plan is to change what people believe is possible -- from students who traditionally fail at Berkeley High School; from parents of students who traditionally fail at Berkeley High School; from a school district that traditionally fails students of color; from a community that traditionally allows its schools to fail students of color. We're asking for your support in making it possible."

The PCAD spirit proved infectious. Demonstrating rare unity of purpose among townspeople as infamous for their factionalism as for their liberalism, parents, politicians and neighbors raised their hands and volunteered -- to tutor, to look for classroom space, to hold a fundraiser, to write a check. A few days later the school board allocated $100,000 to fund the program; the city of Berkeley kicked in $40,000 more. It was far less than PCAD needed to serve all the students who were failing, but enough to make a start.

On the first day of school, 46 ninth-graders showed up for their new classes at 8 a.m. -- many of them at school on time for the first time, many of them accompanied there, for the first time, by their parents.

During their orientation sessions that week the students named their program Rebound, likening themselves to "the basketball player who goes after the missed shot and gets off a new one."

"It's like a new start for ninth-graders who messed up," said 13-year-old Kandis Session, Rebound student representative to the PCAD Steering Committee. "Since I got in this program I get up in the morning and I want to go to school.

"We're the Class of '04. We're the starting of the high school exit exam. We can't even get out of here if we don't pass it! There's a lot of kids up in here who want to go to a four-year college" Session beamed. "I want to go to Spelman in Atlanta, Ga." Her dark eyes grew serious. "If you come in here and take it seriously, you have everything you need. You're guaranteed to get good grades. If they changed the whole Berkeley High to Rebound, the whole school would pass."

Session may well be right. But Rebound isn't even able to serve the many students on its waiting list, let alone the whole school, with the limited resources allocated to the program so far. And there are powerful people in the "People's Republic of Berkeley" who want PCAD to shut up and Rebound to be shut down.

Citing remedial programs already in place, and accusing PCAD of holding the school board and the city hostage to its demands, school board vice president Shirley Issel has become the spokeswoman for the opposition to PCAD, arguing -- and voting -- against Rebound's existence.

While calling the achievement gap "Berkeley's agony," and asserting that "Berkeley does not suffer lightly leaving some behind," Issel wrote in an open letter to the community: "That's a lot of money for 250 students, 40 percent of whom probably don't live here." It was a button-pushing, coded message aimed at parents who believe that ridding the school of kids who "don't live here" -- meaning the low-income black and Latino transfer students from neighboring Richmond and Oakland -- will rid the school of its problems.

Issel added, "It's also known that males, particularly African-American males, are especially at risk at Berkeley High School. This is often the reason why parents who can send their sons to private schools which offer more structure, discipline and a peer group that supports academic engagement."

Some African-American parents took Issel's last statement as a criticism of their parenting and a disinvitation to their children to attend Berkeley High. "Many of us believe that a private education may be a supportive environment for academic engagement," PCAD mother Valerie Yerger wrote in response to Issel's letter, "but many more of us believe in public education.

"A number of parents in PCAD are alumni of Berkeley High. We choose instead to keep our children in Berkeley High and help improve education for more than just our own."

It is true, as Issel suggested, that there are other remedial programs at Berkeley High, just as there are abundant remedial programs in high schools across the country. Unlike Rebound, though, most are after-school or lunchtime supplements, not full-time alternative learning communities. Unlike Rebound, most have been created by school administrators, not parents. If the existing programs were working, says PCAD, their children wouldn't be continuing to fail their classes. PCAD believes, and research has shown, that the combination of parental and community support, smaller classes and highly motivated teachers offers the best hope for rescuing failing students.

Despite its abundant problems -- borrowed classrooms that necessitate constantly roving classes, noncredentialed teachers who must be chaperoned in each classroom by credentialed substitutes and the ominous grumbling of its adversaries -- Rebound ended its first month with support for the program greatly outweighing the opposition.

Principal Lynch told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that "at first, Rebound was a blow to the ego, because what we'd been doing before obviously wasn't working." But, he added, "we all want the same success for the students and we should fund as many different initiatives as we can." The school's award-winning paper, the Berkeley High Jacket, quoted several enthusiastic Rebound students. "The teachers pay attention to you more," said one. "They explain the work to you. They don't make you rush," said another. Community leaders from the mayor to the local NAACP, as well as many parents of all races and economic backgrounds, continue to be active, vocal advocates of the program.

Neither PCAD nor Rebound is perfect; what happens in its meetings and classrooms isn't always pretty. Many of the parents are unaccustomed to dealing with school bureaucracy and school politics; the students are young teens accustomed to being seen, and seeing themselves, as failures. It's too soon to speculate as to how successful Rebound will be, but early signs are hopeful: Three weeks into the program, not one of the students -- most of whom had been truant at least 15 days during their first semester at Berkeley High -- had missed a day of school.

And this on-the-ground experiment is evoking the kind of parent involvement, teacher enthusiasm and student engagement that decades of research at Berkeley High, and across the nation, have repeatedly identified as key to student success, but have yet to engender. To be in the forefront of an effort to offer equal education to all is a fitting role for Berkeley, whose school district was the first in the nation to voluntarily desegregate its schools, in 1968.

As other districts did then, they are closely watching the Berkeley Unified School District now. Neighboring Oakland is considering the adoption of a similar plan. National school reform organizations have begun to take notice. To a community that claims a commitment to solving what many consider to be its deepest (and most embarrassing) problem -- and most important, to the students whose lives it hopes to save -- Rebound offers hope as well as controversy.

"I want you to write a group story," a Rebound teacher tells her sixth-period English class one afternoon before the tutors come in. "Each person write one sentence, then pass it to the person on your right. It can be about anything you want. I just ask that you stick to the Rebound guidelines of language."

The students giggle and hoot as they pass the paper around the room. When it's time to read the finished story out loud, each reads what he or she wrote.

"There once was a kid who never went to class," reads the first student. "And he stayed in the ninth all his life," says the second.

"And became a crackie head selling crack outside of Walgreens."

"But then he decided to get his crap together and he went to school."

"He became really rich and bought a Jaguar."

"And sold the Jaguar and went back to being a crackhead."

"He finally realized that crack kills and straightened himself out again."

"THE END!" yells the last student, triumphantly.

By Meredith Maran

Meredith Maran, a frequent Salon contributor, is the LA-based author of 14 books including "The New Old Me" and "Why We Write." A book critic and book editor, she’s on Twitter and Instagram at @meredithmaran

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