At Berkeley High, Conversation About Race Turns to Consistency

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Berkeley High Principal Sam Pasarow says he feels a lot of healthy pressure to address the demands that the Berkeley High Black Student Union delivered to the Berkeley school board in December. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

Berkeley High parent Robin Claire Barnes says when it comes to talking about race in Berkeley, there’s one thing that is problematic: the myth of colorblindness.

"There’s this desire for everyone to say that they are colorblind. You can’t look at a black child and white child and say, 'I’m colorblind, so to me they’re equal,' and then walk away."

A white child might have a good friend who is black, or of other races and ethnicities, "but they don’t really understand how the world treats their friend because they grew up in Berkeley,” she says.

Tackling Segregation

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In 1968, the Berkeley Unified School District was one of the first school districts in the country to voluntarily desegregate. It was 14 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that decreed segregation illegal in public schools.

Today, the Berkeley Unified School District takes pride in the diversity of Berkeley schools. However, school administrators, teachers, students and parents all acknowledge that the Berkeley High campus is segregated.

One Berkeley parent, who wanted to remain anonymous, says that when she attended the high school in the mid-'70s, the school was divided along racial lines.

"As a white teenager at Berkeley High, I really wanted to be friends with the black kids. I wanted to."

Claire Barnes, who is also a Berkeley High alum, remembers a racial climate that was a little bit different when she attended Berkeley High in the late '70s.

"Some kids hung out in one area, some kids hung out in another area. There were certain spots that were turfs, but people intermingled."

Claire Barnes, who sometimes volunteers at the school, says she doesn’t see that as much in the halls these days.

"I’m not seeing different races intermingling at the junior or senior level. That’s usually when it happens."

In November, the race issue came to a head after racist threats were found on a library computer.

A Wake-Up Call

"What we learned was that, in some ways, we're not any better than anyone else,” says Mark Coplan, spokesman for the Berkeley Unified School District.

"We've always thought and would like to believe that our community is different, but the fact is institutional racism and individual racism surfaces and has to be addressed," Coplan says.

On Dec. 9, 2015, the school dedicated an entire day to talking about racism and racial bias in all classes. But even by the next day, students like Sean Hoffman wanted more.

Hoffman, who spoke to KQED after an orchestra concert, says his teachers didn’t keep the conversation about racism and racial bias going on the day after Dec. 9.

"I was disappointed, I feel like it was something we should continue talking about and continue pressing as an issue,” says Hoffman, who is a sophomore.

Over two months later, students say these issues still aren't being fully addressed.

L to R: Paige Jones, Jordan Corbino and Zamaria Odom are seniors at Berkeley High. "Its our job to come back and make a difference in the community," says Odom.
L to R: Paige Jones, Jordan Corbino and Zamaria Odom are seniors at Berkeley High. 'It's our job to come back and make a difference in the community,' says Odom. (Adizah Eghan/KQED)

"We kind of stayed on it for a couple of days. We talked about it and then we watched movies about it. But it was blown out of proportion because a couple weeks later we [went] on to the next thing," says Jordan Corbino one day recently after school. Corbino, who is a senior, sits next to his friend Zamaria Odom.

"I think the teachers did a pretty good job of focusing on the issue but after a week or so, the issue was dead, and it didn’t really get handled again. It didn’t really get talked about. It just went back to normal," Odom says.

Friends Sebastien Briddoneau and Elijah Liedeker also really want these conversations to continue in class.

"People seemed to have already forgotten about it. Not everyone, but a lot of people, the majority of the Berkeley High population," Liedeker says.

Why Aren’t These Conversations About Race Happening?

Berkeley High parent and PTA member Christine Staples says teachers are under a huge amount of pressure.

"Teachers don’t feel equipped to facilitate those kind of conversations. Those are big, far-reaching, long conversations,” she says. "They need help. They need training. I mean, should some random English teacher just start trying to facilitate this conversation?"

Some of the teachers who spoke to KQED agreed, but they didn’t want to go on the record for fear of being critical of the administration.

“There is support for teachers who might not feel like they have the background, or they have the information themselves. It’s a touchy situation,” says a Berkeley High teacher who would like to remain anonymous. "I’m not sure it’s a class that’s taught. It’s a life experience, so it's a little fake sometimes to try and teach something without experiencing it."

There are teachers at Berkeley High who are incredibly equipped to talk about race. But that number is small, Coplan says. The district's goal is to get all teachers on a similar level.

"There are individuals who have their own beliefs, their own feelings, and in some cases it’s as simple as they are uncomfortable with the subject because they don’t understand it,” Coplan says.

Teacher and professional development coordinator Tamara Friedman says the high school wants to expand on a training session it did last fall on "culturally responsive teaching,” which embeds instruction around racism and anti-racism throughout a teacher's content and curriculum.

Black Student Union Still Working on Its List of Demands

The Black Student Union (BSU) is continuing to push its list of demands before the Berkeley school board and Berkeley High administration.

At a school board meeting on Jan. 13, BSU co-president Alecia Harger told the board that things have to move more quickly.

The BSU wants to get these demands done soon, "so that the people who are freshman now don’t have to go through their entire four years as black students unsupported and feeling unloved and unwanted at Berkeley High," Harger says.

Superintendent Donald Evans says this is a serious priority.

"I faced what those kids were talking about when I was in high school and when I was in college. This is personal for me," he says.

Evans and Pasarow are working together to implement immediate to long-term steps to address the demands.

"I feel a lot of healthy pressure as a leader of this school to have this not be a one-off response. We need to have a sustained response,” Pasarow says.

But Zamaria Odom says he’s not expecting much before he graduates this year.

"Honestly, I don’t think anything is going to change, even when we leave and the next class leaves, because people don’t like to be put out there to make a difference," Odom says.

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Instead, Odom believes change will also take former students like him coming back to school to hold the administration accountable.