One of the school districts with over 75 percent of its African-American student body graduating is located on the West Coast. Out of 271 African-American students who attended Berkeley High School, 205 graduated last year. That’s one of the highest African-American graduation rates in the country. The Berkeley Unified School District made closing the education gap a top priority.
Just three years ago the school district, led by a grassroots coalition of community, civic and religious organizations, including the group Parents of Children of African Descent initiated a program called the 2020 Vision program. The program’s sole focus is to close the achievement gap in Berkeley public schools by the year 2020.
In June 2008, the Berkeley City Council and Berkeley Unified School District School Board adopted resolutions that sought to improve education along racial lines to eliminate disparities between white and Asian students and black and Latino kids.
“It’s not just the district. It’s the city of Berkeley, the university, the people and faith-based organizations,” said Debbi D’Angelo District Director of Research and Berkeley Evaluation and Assessment. “It’s just so powerful. Everybody is working together.”
The Berkeley school district has had the benefit of parcel taxes to apply towards meeting the equity goals for students of color. The funds are used to pay for data and teacher training, among other things.
“I think that the things we have done is to make the education more personal,” says Karen Hemphill, an African-American mother of a recent Berkeley High School graduate. Another son is in his junior year at the school.
Hemphill, who is also a member of the school board, says that about five years ago the city began looking at ways to close the education gap. Officials took notice that a problem was brewing, Hemphill said, because a health department study in 2006 referenced Berkeley’s racial education disparity as a growing problem for the community.
According to Hemphill, the school system began to look at how it was teaching children before high school. “We stressed elementary school and middle school. We were really focusing on Algebra I, Geometry and Biology,” she says about the core classes that most successful students take by the time they reach high school. One of the middle schools in the city, which is about 80 percent students of color, was cited by Education Secretary Arne Duncan for its scholastic achievement.
Berkeley’s latest schools data comes from the children who entered high school from 2006 to 2010. They were part of a more decentralized school, says Hemphill. The high school is broken up into smaller “mini-schools” that specialize in specific subject matter, such as a the Green Academy that focuses on ecology. There’s also a school for biotechnology. But it’s not just the academics that are the draw for students.
The school has no shortage of extracurricular activities, which former students and schools officials alike say make it a positive environment for young people. “There’s a lot to engage kids on campus, so that kind of keeps them there,” Hemphill says.