As one of the few Black students in her classes as a freshman at Berkeley High School, Kyla Stewart would often hesitate to ask or answer questions, fearing classmates had already formed judgments about her.
“I definitely felt intimidated, like I don’t want them to think that I’m stupid or something just because I answer a question wrong and I’m Black,” Stewart said. “You don’t want them to think badly about you.”
Stewart began her first year at Berkeley High in the Academic Choice program, one of the school’s five learning communities — programs within Berkeley High that provide their own focus and curriculum.
Stewart left the predominantly white Academic Choice program at the conclusion of her freshman year for the Academy of Medicine and Public Service, or AMPS, one of the smaller learning communities within Berkeley High, with a majority population consisting of students of color.
Stewart is one of a number of students who have become isolated in programs within Berkeley High as the school has become more noticeably segregated, with white students and students of color becoming concentrated in separate learning communities.
Today, Berkeley High is split into five learning communities, with two larger schools — Berkeley International High School, or BIHS, and Academic Choice, or AC — and three smaller schools — the Academy of Medicine and Public Service, Arts and Humanities Academy, or AHA, and Communication Arts and Sciences, or CAS.
Data from a 2016-17 Diversity Balance Report in Berkeley Unified School District schools revealed that white students accounted for about half of the population in BIHS and AC whereas the African American population in these programs was about 11 and 15 percent, respectively.
In contrast, the data showed that African American students are predominantly concentrated in AMPS, making up 37.79 percent of its student population. African American students make up 17.65 percent of Berkeley High’s overall population.
Though the movement toward a small program structure was meant in part to address racial achievement gaps and improve outcomes for students of color, many students feel it has created a segregated school and fueled racist attitudes.
To begin to interrupt this pattern of segregation, a team of teachers, administrators, parents and students has proposed a redesign of Berkeley High that will eliminate the small program structure for incoming freshmen. But some, such as Stewart, fear that this change will take away from the community built between students and teachers in the individual programs.
“I definitely felt intimidated, like I don’t want them to think that I’m stupid or something just because I answer a question wrong and I’m Black.”
— Kyla Stewart, freshman at Berkeley High School
A shift toward a small school structure
In the 1990s, a team of teachers, parents and students at Berkeley High in collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education began documenting a racial achievement gap at the school. The exposure of the gap in part pushed the district to begin creating smaller learning communities within Berkeley High where teachers could work more closely with students in smaller programs and better serve high-risk students.
Dana Moran, a teacher in CAS, said the small schools movement at Berkeley High sought to bring about more personalized education for students, where teachers and students would become more familiar with one another and students could feel “seen.”
In June 2003, the school board unanimously passed a motion that established an overarching small schools model at Berkeley High, though some smaller programs already existed. As a result, students are now placed into one of the five learning communities prior to the start of their ninth-grade year and typically spend the remainder of their four years within that program.
The three smaller communities, which each have a cap of 60 students per grade, are intended to foster a more supportive and community-based learning environment that brings students closer to their teachers and peers. AHA has an arts focus, while CAS centers around social justice and media literacy and AMPS focuses on health science and public service.
BIHS focuses on international studies, contains the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme in 11th and 12th grade and intends to prepare students to attend a four-year university. AC affords students more flexibility in their course schedules, allowing students access to classes offered throughout Berkeley High. Students in AC are encouraged to enroll in AP classes.
Although for a number of students, the smaller programs offer the opportunity to explore different educational routes, for other students the structure has had harmful consequences. Jannya Solwazi, a senior in AMPS, said the growing racial disparities between the larger and smaller programs have in part fueled divisive attitudes and the formation of stereotypes about the various learning communities.
A school divided
Hasmig Minassian, a teacher in CAS and co-lead of the redesign, said misconceptions exist for students in all five learning communities and many students, regardless of their programs, feel unfairly labeled.
CAS, AHA and AMPS — which contain the majority of Berkeley High’s students of color — are often labeled the “easy” schools, said Jaya Nagarajan, a junior in BIHS. In contrast, BIHS and AC are more often characterized as being academically rigorous.
“There’s kind of this stereotype that AMPS has easier work, which to me is not necessarily true at all,” Solwazi said. “I’m very well spoken, I’m a great student, so when I say that I’m from AMPS it’s kind of like a shocker because they assume that all AMPS kids are gonna be ghetto, illiterate, like animals almost. And then with AC and IB you have this assumption that they’re all smart, they’re all going to have 4.0s.”
With the implementation of the small program structure, many students have grown more intertwined with their own learning community, according to Minassian, with students often developing a pride and love for their individual program.
This attachment to one’s own learning community, however, can sometimes evolve beyond pride into attitudes of superiority that contribute to an increasingly divisive school climate, Solwazi said.
For many students, the perceptions and attitudes directed at the small schools can often take on racial undertones.
“I think having mostly people of color in the smaller schools can also create a kind of superiority of big school over small school,” Nagarajan said. “There’s a lot of things that people say about AMPS that even if it doesn’t explicitly have to do with racism, you know that thought is based there.”
In June 2015, Berkeley High made headlines after its yearbook was recalled because of language found on the AMPS yearbook page that referred to the program as “making our future doctors, dentists, nurses, physicians, fire chiefs and trash collators of tomorrow.” Berkeley High’s then-principal Kristin Glenchur called the language “offensive and racist.”
When AMPS had formerly been known as the Community Partnerships Academy, some students referred to it as the “Colored People Academy,” according to Stewart.
“As you get more intertwined with what your small school is, you kind of take on those stereotypes,” Solwazi said. “So if you hear all the time that because you’re in AC or IB, you must be a better student, you’re going to kind of establish that thought about yourself. … We all get wrapped in this culture and we all participate in it, whether we want to admit it or not.”
To attempt to address this divisive climate, Berkeley High’s Design Team has proposed the creation of a ninth grade that places incoming students into intentionally diverse communities. Under a universal ninth grade, students would begin their time at Berkeley High in one of various houses, rather than in one of the five learning communities.
Students would be around the same 120 students throughout their day, eliminating the ability to choose a preference for their learning community through the current ninth grade lottery process.
“It’s going to have a mix of students with all different backgrounds in each house, and so the kids will get to know each other as people first and foremost,” said Matt Meyer, co-lead of the redesign and a teacher in BIHS.
Under this framework, the design team hopes ninth graders will begin their time at Berkeley High in a unified setting, Minassian said, and carry that sense of community with them throughout their four years.
A cycle of division
As eighth graders and their parents begin the process of transitioning to Berkeley High, many adopt the same stereotypes perpetuated by current students as they attempt to rank their preference for the learning communities at Berkeley High.
Incoming freshmen learn about the five learning communities through an information night leading up to their application date, but most rely on information passed on from current students, said Kaili Meier, a senior in AC.
When Stewart was applying as an incoming ninth grader, she said she avoided AMPS because she had heard that the school had a bad reputation.
“As an eighth grader you’re scared, you’re going to high school, you’re going to be impressionable,” Solwazi said. “You want to pick a thing that’s more comfortable to you.”
Parents have become subsumed in this cycle of misinformation as well, according to Minassian.
“Parents and students have perceptions, some real and some not real, of the academic conditions that are going to foster the best learning environment for their child,” Minassian said. “And for some, that’s having their child in an overwhelming number of AP classes or IB classes. For others, it’s saying they really want their kid in a program that’s going to foster relationships between the students and from student to teacher.”
As the schools have become more racially divided, Minassian said, parents and students often choose those schools where they see other students of their race more clearly represented.
AMPS is more like a family, Stewart said, where most students know one another, in contrast to AC, which has a much larger population and an absence of Black students.
White families who choose BIHS, Minassian believes, often participate in this matching process as well.
“I think in Berkeley we’re really uncomfortable with thinking that so it’s probably subconscious,” Minassian said. “I think we couch it a little bit in ‘Oh, I just want my kid in an academically rigorous environment’ or ‘I just want my kid in a college prep environment.’ ”
But those beliefs, Minassian added, do not reflect the actual student experiences and outcomes from all five programs.
Students paths after graduation are not determined by their learning communities, Minassian said, and there are students from all five programs that attend Ivy League schools, community colleges or move straight into their careers.
Isolated and unsupported
For Meier, with students locked in a cycle of forming and adopting distorted perceptions about each other, the stereotypes imposed on small school students can often lead them to feel confined to certain expectations and erode their confidence when it comes time to apply for college.
“The kind of expectations set up for kids in eighth grade and reinforced by the stereotypes of the schools … (students) don’t get to reach their full potential,” Meier said.
The divisive climate has also come to weigh heavily on students of color, draining students’ confidence levels and learning abilities, Solwazi said.
Over the course of her time in Berkeley schools, Solwazi said she’s learned to grow a shell for incidences of racism on campus and racist ideas perpetuated by students, though those occurrences still leave a lasting impact on many students of color at Berkeley High.
“Each time we endure something that may be considered a microaggression or racism it takes away from our class time,” Solwazi said. “There’s a lot of students in AMPS, that they’re concerned about starting colleges because they don’t want to endure what they had to endure here.”
“Unless you specifically fix the whole entire system, nothing is really going to change. … It’s not just a Berkeley High issue, it’s a worldwide issue. You have to change the whole entire culture and mindset of people.”
— Jannya Solwazi, senior in Academy of Medicine and Public Service
In November 2015, an image was found on a school computer with the words “KKK Forever Public Lynching December 9th 2015,” along with other hostile language, prompting more than 2,000 Berkeley High students to march through the city in protest of the image. A noose was also found hanging from a tree on campus in October 2014.
In an already divided school, it has become increasingly difficult to build a unified culture, Minassian said. Berkeley High remains the site of segregation and fragmentation, with many students beginning to fall through the cracks, according to Robin Claire Barnes, a parent and Berkeley High alum.
Building a more unified school
Berkeley High’s team to redesign the ninth grade, established in spring 2015, intends to reform a school structure it feels is not adequately responding to the needs of all students.
By having students start out in a universal ninth grade, Meyer said, students would be able to learn about each of the learning communities on-site and gain a more realistic picture of what the different programs provide.
Some, however, see a universal ninth grade as potentially taking away from the sense of community built in the individual small programs, which students currently enter during their freshman year. Students would have to restart the process of building relationships with their teachers in 10th grade, Moran said, after moving into a learning community later in their high school careers.
Others, such as Solwazi, feel the redesign will be a positive move forward, but that the school will inevitably revert back to its current state.
“Unless you specifically fix the whole entire system, nothing is really going to change,” Solwazi said. “It’s not just a Berkeley High issue, it’s a worldwide issue. You have to change the whole entire culture and mindset of people.”
The members of the redesign team don’t pretend to believe a universal ninth grade will solve all of Berkeley High’s problems, Meyer said, but see the change as an important step in the right direction.
The redesign proposal was first presented to the school board in May 2016. The Design Team is set to present the board with its final proposal at its May 17 meeting.
Barnes, who attended Berkeley High in the late 1970s and remembers the school as being far more integrated than it is today, hopes with the implementation of a universal ninth grade, Berkeley High can salvage the sense of community that defined her time as a student. Barnes remembers how the diversity of her freshman class fostered interaction and connection across the entire student body.
“We can build a sense of class,” Barnes said. “And it’s not just class of 2018 Academic Choice. You want it to be class of 2018 Berkeley High School.”