Berkeley High Students Get Real About Race on Campus

Kaylah Grisby (left) and Alaina Lee are both juniors at Berkeley High, but their classroom experiences are very different. (Adizah Eghan/KQED)

At a time when black students across the country are calling for racial equity and justice on campus, students at Berkeley High are dealing with their own issues of race at school.

Last month, a student posted racist threats to a library computer. The threats were discovered the afternoon of Wednesday Nov. 4. They included racial slurs, statements of support for the Ku Klux Klan, and the specific threat of a public lynching on Dec. 9.

This type of trolling at Berkeley High is nothing new. In June, the school had to recall its yearbook after someone slipped in an offensive message about black and Latino students. The school never found out who did it.

Berkeley High Senior D’Yale Adams compared these threats to when a noose was found on campus last year.

“Last year it was really ambiguous and they weren’t really quite sure what the meaning of the noose was. But this year it’s more like an actual threat against African-American students. It’s an actual threat against my life,” says Adams.

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The threats posted on Nov. 5 prompted a student walkout  on Nov. 5.

After school that day,  students gathered outside the Berkeley High Community Theater to sign large pieces of butcher paper — a reaction to the threats discovered the night before. Junior LaShawnda McCullough wrote “I matter” and then signed her name.

“I want to be able to come to school and know that I get my education and go home to my family," says McCollough.

She says a lot of people are not aware of what black students go through -- in terms of prejudice, micro-aggression and acts of hate -- on campus.

“For the people who aren’t aware, they don’t know how to step up and help,” she said.

LaShawnda McCullough, a junior at Berkeley High, wrote "I matter" on butcher paper in reaction to threats made at the school on Nov. 4.
LaShawnda McCullough, a junior at Berkeley High, wrote "I matter" on butcher paper in reaction to threats made at the school on Nov. 4. (Adizah Eghan/KQED)

By "they" she means white students and faculty. Even though Black Lives Matter posters are all over the campus, many of the black students say their white counterparts are oblivious to their struggle.

But after the library incident, many white students, like Ryland Takaro, say they are eager to learn and to do what they can to help.

“Obviously, we can’t feel what they’re going through because we don’t go through that ... although we can’t completely feel, we can definitely feel sympathy and empathy toward the black community,” he said.

Freshman Rachael MacMillan had a different view.

"I also feel like I don’t have a place to be in the discussion about race because I am white, and that is a sort of vibe that comes from the Black Lives Matter things," she said.

She says this tone is the reason there's not as much white support for issues of race as there should be.

Students Create Curriculum on Race

Recently, the Black Student Union came up with a curriculum to educate non-black students on issues of race, racism and white privilege -- including how to support the movement for black lives.

"I'm so tired and I'm so burned out from trying to learn and be an activist, and just be black -- in daily life -- in a city that has not dealt with these racial issues since the Free Speech Movement," says Alecia Harger, who is co-president of the Black Student Union. “We use this Berkeley bubble as an excuse or a mask or something to hide from these issues so we don’t have to address them."

Harger says some of the school's administrators and faculty do a poor job addressing issues of race.

Alecia Harger is co-president of the Berkeley High Black Student Union.
Alecia Harger is co-president of the Berkeley High Black Student Union. (Adizah Eghan/KQED)

“Last year I had a teacher who called black boys thugs when they tried to speak on issues of race and told me that I should stop talking because I was starting to sound like those thugs that are walking around on street corners,” she says.

Others  point to a more subtle example of the racial tension on campus.

"I take 5/6 Spanish, and I walk in class, and there’s not really many people that look like me," says Junior Jannya Solwazi.

She says most of the students are white.

“And you know, walking to class, there’s looks, if I raise my hand there’s looks. Nothing is specifically said but you know, like as a person of color, you know.”

There are few places or institutions in the Bay Area as diverse as Berkeley High. It’s 38 percent white, 20.8 percent black, 22 percent Latino and 8 percent Asian. Fully 11 percent of students are of more than one race.

Schools Within the School

The 3,232 students at Berkeley High are divided into five learning communities,  Academic Choice (AC) and  Berkeley International High School (BIHS) are the two larger programs with over 1,000 students each. The smaller schools,  Arts and Humanities (AHA), Communications Arts and Sciences (CAS) and Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS), have 512 students in total.

A lottery determines where incoming freshmen end up. But instead of reflecting the diverse demographics of the school, these learning communities are racially segregated.

There are more  black and Latino students in the three small schools. There are more white and Asian students in the two larger programs.

"There are not as many opportunities for students to create relationships across ZIP code, ethnicity and gender lines, " says Principal Sam Pasarow.

Back in the ’90s, Berkeley High was facing a major challenge, the achievement gap between black and Latino students and white students.  Like a lot of big public high schools across the country, Berkeley High wanted to close that gap.

So the school started creating the learning communities in 2003. The small schools were designed to offer more personalized support and appeal to students who learn differently. The three remaining small schools, CAS, AHA, and AMPS, are California Partnership Academies.

These schools  are popular choices with students of color because they graduate and get into college at higher rates than in the rest of the county's schools. The small-school environment also appeals to parents who are worried about their students getting lost in a big school.

For students like junior Alaina Lee, this environment really works.

"My first-period class is a Spanish class. We have [many races] in there. My teacher, she’s mixed, half the students are mixed -- I’m an African-American women. [In the smaller schools], it is more diverse than just one big school and we have a community that’s just a family," she says.

A lot of white and Asian students migrated into AC in 2003 and BIHS after it was created in 2006.  AC offers the widest range of classes, and BIHS is an authorized International Baccalaureate school.

Harger, a sophomore in AC, says she can't help but notice the racial breakdown in her classes.

"Every day coming to school, blackness is tiring … I wish that just for a day I could come to school and … be able to just sit in a classroom without having to handle all of the prejudice that’s within our school and all of the discrimination and just be able to learn like the average student," she says.

Kaylah Grisby, a junior in BIHS, says she notices the breakdown as well.

“In many of my classes I’m the only black kid or maybe one of three, at most,” says Grisby. She wishes her program could have what the smaller schools have. “There’s 20 black kids in a class. You guys have a bond and a family and a community, while us three are struggling to get by."

New Approach to Achievement Gap?

Berkeley High is currently trying to find a better solution to addressing the achievement gap. It has a design team of teacher leaders looking into the current school structure.

This team is studying how to provide equitable outcomes for all students regardless of their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background, says Tamara Friedman, a co-leader of the team.

“We’re in the early stages of really looking at Berkeley High School and saying this is our goal. What does a really wide body of research and design tell us will work best to serve all students well?” Friedman says.

The design team is hoping that its proposals -- which are due in the spring of 2016  -- will help unify the Berkeley High student body.

In the meantime, the  Black Student Union has been working to make sure black students feel safe and comfortable on campus. The group organized  a communal day of self-affirmation on Dec. 9 that was called the Sankofa Assembly.

The assembly was for those who were targeted by the hate crime. The rest of the students were in their normal classes, where they took part in the special curriculum on race and racism.

The entire student body came together at the end of the day for an all-school assembly. A panel of students from the Black Student Union answered questions from their non-black peers such as, "Who can be racist?" and "When do you use black v. African-American?" and "How is touching a black person's hair racism?"

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As for the student who posted the threats, Berkeley High and the Berkeley Police Department have concluded that the student does not have the intention or the capability to harm anyone. Pasarow says the student will face serious punishment.

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