Fate of Berkeley High African-American Studies Program Unclear

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After 34 years of serving as the only program of its kind in the country, Berkeley High School's African American Studies department is left with just five sections and a single teacher, casting the department's future in doubt.

The Berkeley Unified School District laid off and transferred four of the African American Studies department's teachers at the end of the school year.

The department-which had only five teachers-is now left with just Chairperson Robert McKnight as its sole instructor.

Although Berkeley High will continue to offer African American Studies courses next fall, whether one teacher and five sections even make an autonomous department has some worried and outraged that the department may be dead.

"You really cannot have a department with one teacher," McKnight said.

Berkeley High's African American Studies has been in decline for the last decade. In the early 1990s, the department offered between 20 and 25 sections. That number dropped to 11 last year and will be at five the upcoming year, according to McKnight.

Even though African American Studies classes are in decline at Berkeley High, the cuts are only temporary and the department will remain intact, said district spokesperson Mark Coplan.

"What's really critical is that we all really continue to embrace the department," Coplan said.

The school district laid off and transferred the African American Studies teachers not because of choice, but because of regulations that govern who is laid off, Coplan said.

Aside from McKnight, the African American Studies instructors were all relatively new, and one had been teaching at Berkeley High without credentials for five years, Coplan said.

But McKnight said the layoffs unfairly and disproportionately affected his departments.

McKnight fears that the percentage of black students at Berkeley High-currently at about 35 percent-may dwindle without a sizeable, autonomous African American Studies department.

The department serves a social as well as an academic mission-giving black students a scholastic community that keeps them from dropping out of Berkeley High, McKnight said.

"The needs of African-American students are not being met, they're not being challenged," McKnight said. "Their rate of failure is astronomical compared to other students."

Coplan said the cuts are only temporary, and that the African American Studies department will grow after the coming school year.

But waiting a year may be too long for some Berkeley residents and students, who are expressing outrage at the cuts.

If the school district does not rehire any of the laid-off teachers, including popular dance instructor Naomi "Mama" Washington, the NAACP will file a claim with the California Department of Education and California Department of Civil Rights.

The NAACP will allege that the Berkeley Unified School District is not addressing the city's achievement gap and issues of diversity, said Sean Dugar, First Vice President of the Berkeley NAACP Youth and College Chapter.

School district officials first proposed to cut the department last September.

Claiming an error in clerical oversight, the school district's decision was reversed amid widespread backlash to the proposed elimination of the 35-year-old department.

Berkeley High's African American Studies department was established in 1968 and is the first and only high school department of its kind in the country.


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