Sunday, January 24, 2010


Trying to address a major ethnic and racial achievement gap, the school could divert funds from before- and after-school science labs filled mostly with white students. The plan has sparked debate.

By Maria L. La Ganga | LA Times |

January 24, 2010 -- Reporting from Berkeley - Aaron Glimme's Advanced Placement chemistry students straggle in, sleepy. It is 7:30 a.m. at Berkeley High School. The day doesn't officially begin for another hour. They pull on safety goggles, measure out t-butyl alcohol and try to determine the molar mass of an unknown substance by measuring how much its freezing point decreases.

Lab work

<< Kelechi Okereke and Andrew Wilde-Price, right, conduct an experiment for an AP chemistry class at Berkeley High. A proposal would shift money from before- and after-school labs to fund "equity" programs for struggling students. (Robert Durell / For The Times / January 19, 2010)

In the last school year, 82% of Berkeley's AP chemistry students passed the rigorous exam, which gives college credit for high school work. The national passing rate is 55.2%. The school's AP biology and physics students are even more successful.

Most districts would not argue with such a record, but Berkeley High's science labs are embroiled in a debate over scarce resources with overtones of race, class and politics.

Campus leadership has proposed cutting before- and after-school labs -- decreasing science instruction by 20% to 40% -- and using that money to fund "equity" programs for struggling students in an effort to close one of the widest racial and ethnic achievement gaps in the state.

The racial and ethnic makeup of science classes was considered when crafting the proposal to shift money away from science instruction.

White students predominate in the science classes that require supplemental lab time, according to an analysis by a lead teacher in the Berkeley High math department. Her study also showed that three-fourths of the students who take less-rigorous science classes -- those that do not require extra lab time -- are African American or Latino.

"There's a big fear of taking away from high-end achievers," said Linda Gonzalez, co-chair of the school governance council, which crafted the controversial proposal. But "why are we having science classes with two or three labs when there are kids in science classes with no labs?" wondered Gonzalez, a parent who supports the shift.

Response to the proposal was swift. A group of science teachers sent a letter to Berkeley residents protesting the move and seeking support. More than 250 people have signed an online petition in support of the labs. The story ricocheted around the Internet with headlines like, "Berkeley High may drop 'white' science labs."

In this famously liberal college town, which prides itself on having one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in the country, the debate has revealed deep disagreement over how best to help underachievers, pitting haves against have-nots, whites and Asians against blacks and Latinos.

"This became a race issue, because just about everything that happens in Berkeley is fundamentally viewed through that lens," said Glimme, who acknowledged that "there's a very clear difference by race as to who shows up to the lab classes."

In Berkeley's 10 square miles, multimillion-dollar hillside homes with sweeping views rise above working-class bungalows and apartments in the flatlands. The percentage of adults with at least a bachelor's degree is more than twice as high as in the state as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while the percentage of residents living in poverty is nearly 1 1/2 times the statewide level.

Or as Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, an assistant professor in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, puts it: "Because of class differences, you can claim all of the benefits of being progressive without living the complex reality" of Berkeley. "You can live in the hills."

Such inequality translates into a stark achievement gap. Only 30.8% of African American students at Berkeley High are proficient in English and 31.3% in math, according to the state Department of Education. Just over 90% of white students are proficient in English, 87.1% in math.

At Claremont High School in Los Angeles County, which has a demographic profile similar to Berkeley High, the gap is much narrower: 52.5% of African American students are proficient in English and 46.7% in math. Just over 80% of white students meet English instruction standards, and 79.5% meet math standards.

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