Supervisor Aims for Classroom Equity

Photo: Pamela Harrison-Small, who has worked for the Berkeley Unified School District for 10 years, hopes to close the racial achievement gap.
Karen Ling/Staff
Pamela Harrison-Small, who has worked for the Berkeley Unified School District for 10 years, hopes to close the racial achievement gap.

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Pamela Harrison-Small calls herself a "family person." Not only is this quality befitting of the Berkeley wife and mother of two sons - it also happens to be a suitable two-word snapshot of her job description.

Harrison-Small works for the Berkeley Unified School District as supervisor of Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Systems. Her responsibilities as supervisor - a new position approved by the district's school board last August - include evaluating all systems or environments within the district to determine whether or not they accommodate the needs of a culturally diverse community of students and their families.

"We are looking at classroom systems, districtwide systems, what is denying kids access to a good educational experience and what is actually helping them," Harrison-Small said. "Looking at how culture influences the way children receive education and how receptive that cultural lens makes them towards education is important."

Though she has an office in a district building on Oregon Street, Harrison-Small said a typical workday for her involves spending more time visiting school sites and meeting with teachers and parents than sitting at her desk.

"It has already had an impact on my teaching," said Joemy Ito-Gates, a third-grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary School. "Ideas about equity and race and ethnicity in the classroom can be very scary and daunting for a lot of people, but (Harrison-Small) makes it very approachable."

Ito-Gates, an exemplar of the district's scope of diversity, describes herself as a transracial adoptee of Japanese and Irish heritage. Last Friday, she and other district workers attended the first session of a three-part series on building cultural competency organized by Harrison-Small. She said the session allowed her to reflect on her own prejudices and refine her sensitivity toward her students.

Berkeley is not alone in its search for creative ways to enhance responsiveness to the cultural identity of its district community. About a month after Harrison-Small's position was created in August, the Oakland Unified School District selected Chris Chatmon to fill the new role of executive director of African American male achievement.

"This is becoming extremely popular, actually having someone who's looking at equity," said Harrison-Small. "His job is to look at systems and structures that will help African-American males, whereas mine is broader for all students' part of the achievement gap."

Harrison-Small's relatively new position functions as one of the many components of the district's ambitious 2020 Vision Plan, a combination of strategies that collectively aim to close the district's achievement gap along racial lines by the year 2020.

Last month, district director of evaluation and assessment Rebecca Cheung presented K-12 test score data at a district board meeting, noting the differences in Academic Performance Index scores among different races.

In 2010, the average score for black students was 141 points lower than the district average and 268 points lower than the average score for white students. While Hispanic and black students' scores have improved over the past seven years, the gap remains consistent because white students' scores have also improved.

"It's a slow process," Harrison-Small said. "We are going to have to work a bit faster."

Harrison-Small's evaluation of the district's relationships with hundreds of different families is made somewhat easier by the fact that her own family is a part of that population. Her oldest son, James, a former drummer for the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble, has moved on to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. Her youngest son, Brandon, is currently a junior at Berkeley International High School.

"I have the parent perspective of having raised African American boys in this district, actually being able to experience firsthand not so much the achievement gap but definitely the gap in understanding between cultures," Harrison-Small said. "I approach the task with my own passion from having sent my children through this system where they were successful."


Jeffrey Butterfield is the lead local schools reporter. Contact him at [email protected]

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