Candidates for School Board Address Achievement Gap

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Facing what district officials have called the largest achievement gap along racial lines in the state, six candidates vying to fill three seats on the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education have laid out short- and long-term goals to close the gap among students in the district.

While significant increases in the district's schools' Academic Performance Indexes - including a jump at the Berkeley Arts Magnet elementary school from 803 to 854 over the past two years, on a scale from 200 to 1,000 - appear encouraging to district officials, candidates for the board maintain that the achievement gap is still apparent and discussion of ways to combat it were prominent at a forum held for candidates at Berkeley High School Monday night.

"Improvement has been made and the district is moving in the right direction," said Josh Daniels, a current school finance attorney and a candidate for the board. "But we still need to double our efforts and focus on making sure that all Berkeley students receive the best that Berkeley has to offer."

The district's current plans to bridge the gap include its 2020 Vision For Berkeley's Children and Youth plan, which officials and community members hope will prepare all high school graduates in the city for college by 2020 through eight points of improvement, such as developing strong academics, encouraging good health and family partnerships and applying kindergarten readiness strategies, among others.

Current board president Karen Hemphill, who is running for re-election this November, said the plan is "a call to action," and Daniels said it is a starting point for the district in addressing the achievement disparity.

Julie Holcomb, a Berkeley business owner who is also a candidate for the board, said that continuing effective programs - possibly such as the 2020 Vision plan - is more feasible than starting new ones, especially since state funding for the district has been drastically cut.

"One of our biggest challenges is that resources are scarce and the district cannot handle it alone," Hemphill said, adding that she hopes to continue the district's partnerships with UC Berkeley, the city of Berkeley, Berkeley City College and non-profit organizations.

Hemphill also said she wants to promote the idea of pursuing higher education to high school students - a component of the 2020 Vision plan - as well as publicize careers through events such as college fairs and internship programs.

Also aligning herself with the goals of the 2020 Vision plan, school board candidate Priscilla Myrick, currently a Berkeley community volunteer, said focusing on the primary stages of education and recognizing signs of struggling students early on would help close the gap.

"Often times, statements are made like why AP Calc is not diverse in Berkeley High, (but) only half of our incoming ninth graders have passed algebra, and algebra is a gatekeeper course to higher math and science," Myrick said. "We need a systematic approach to identify the kids who are struggling."

However, candidate Norma Harrison said at the forum that "it's alright for people in the schools - some of them are not going to succeed." In response to further requests for comment, Harrison said that "school is the opposite of education."

Still, while the district continues to consider new ways to address the achievement disparity and in light of the board's potential membership change come Nov. 2, candidate Leah Wilson emphasized the need for better assessment procedures of current and new programs to make sure the district continues moving towards bridging the gap.

"Our tests have improved, but we don't know why," she said. "We need to understand what's effective and what's not. It's easy to come up on the board and write a new pet project, but we need to do something else."

Soumya Karlamangla of The Daily Californian contributed to this report.


Contact Karinina Cruz at [email protected]

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