Berkeley schools focus on black student discipline issue
BERKELEY -- Too many African-American students are being suspended from the city's schools here, prompting an accelerated effort to retrain teachers in recognizing cultural differences between mostly white teachers and their black students.
The problem is the same in Oakland schools, where administrators and teachers are frantically trying to reduce suspension numbers as part of a voluntary agreement in response to a complaint by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
"Looking at the data, my emotions border on anger," said Berkeley school board President Karen Hemphill, who is the only African-American on the board. "You don't have to be black to teach black kids. It goes back to having adults who can relate to you, maybe having been where you've been. We really need to accelerate what we are doing in our equity work."
Berkeley is in its third year of conducting "cultural competency academies" for teachers in order to close the achievement gap, which includes reducing suspensions, but that hasn't helped bring suspension numbers down much. The school district, in a partnership with the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley called the Berkeley Alliance, has completed training of about 250 teachers so far and will train another 100 to 150 this year. Other efforts to reduce suspensions include bringing restorative justice programs to all three middle schools, training in "positive behavior and intervention systems" and mentoring and case management of targeted students.
Last year in Berkeley, 60 percent of all the suspensions given were of black students, even though they make up just 20 percent of the student population. That number has stayed the same over the last three years. Seen through another lens, 10 percent of all the black students were suspended last year, down from 14 percent in 2010.
In Oakland, 11 percent of all black students were suspended last year, down from 17 percent in 2010.
Pamela Harrison-Small, executive director of the Berkeley Alliance, said part of the problem between Berkeley's white teachers and its black students is the issue of "talking back."
"That's one of the major things," Harrison-Small said. "Inside your culture, maybe you've been taught to have conversations about things, but when a student tries to have a conversation a teacher may see that as talking back and see it as a deviant behavior as opposed to a communication style."
She said Berkeley's school district is trying to move in the direction of "creating spaces where people can have conversations."
"I think people of color are more comfortable in having the conversation because we do it all the time in our community and it's our lived experience," she said.
Hemphill said that in addition to the academies, the district should review its suspension policy.
"There are districts that are not doing suspensions anymore for defiance," Hemphill said.
Hiring more teachers of color is important too, she said. Currently, 67 percent of Berkeley's teachers are white, 8 percent are Hispanic, 8 percent are Asian and 7 percent are African-American.
Hemphill said basic racial tensions can contribute to more black students being suspended.
"I was one of those students who was called the 'n' word every day," Hemphill said. "I acted out in class. I was reacting to the environment, and I think we have some of those situations in our schools where the child is being disturbed by the environment.
"When you hear students say 'the teacher isn't fair,' or 'the teacher doesn't like me,' or 'I don't respect the teacher because they don't respect me,' you can believe that class is going to have kids who are suspended. It's on the teacher to manage that situation."
This is a great example of the effort/time/funds being poured into this situation, only to see NO improvement for black students and in fact, a worsening degree of suspensions. WHY?