BERKELEY — It's been 40 years since Berkeley racially integrated its schools to foster "positive relationships across racial lines," but a group of black parents here argues they and their children are getting just the opposite.
Two of the parents at Oxford Elementary have transferred their children to other schools since January, claiming racist treatment of their children.
It's a charge other black parents at the school support, but one the principal and some black staff say is untrue.
"I recently pulled my kid out of Oxford right before spring break," said Kim Oliver. "There has been so much blatant inequity on campus and in the classroom that I just couldn't take it anymore."
The school is in an upscale area of north Berkeley that is predominately white, but many of the black students are bused there from other areas of Berkeley as part of the district's integration policy.
Oliver, who moved her son to a school in El Cerrito, complains that black kids at Oxford are disciplined more harshly at the school than white children, parents of black children are called for behavior problems more often than parents of white children, and black students are automatically assumed guilty when conflict arises with teachers or other students.
In interviews with eight parents of black students at the school, complaints range from an unwelcome environment at the school to overt racism. And they say the school refuses to alter its teaching to take into account cultural learning differences that contribute to the achievement gap nationwide.
Oliver's husband, Albert Rayford, said he thinks the school was glad to get rid of his family because they spoke out.
"It's like, when I tried to get a hold of the teacher to talk about some issues, they couldn't seem to find the time," Rayford said. "But when we asked for the paperwork to transfer him to El Cerrito, it was all there ready to go."
Oxford Elementary Principal Janet Levenson said she is hurt by the charges, because she has made it a priority during her three years at the school to break down barriers between white and black.
"I think there's a problem with racism in society, and it isn't any different at this school," Levenson said. "What discourages me is I started a group for African-American parents and parents of color, and I took a lot of heat for it. Parents didn't like that I was separating people, but I was trying to give them a voice." Levenson said participation in the group, called Families of Color United for Success, has dwindled to just four parents.
That's in a school with about 80 black students out of 280 students overall.
Oliver said she and other black parents were initially excited to take part in the Oxford meetings and similar meetings held by the school district starting two years ago.
But parents say it's been all talk and no results, and the underlying anger that they sought to work out at the meetings festered and grew.
Parent Corey Johnson said he and others are considering filing formal complaints with the school district or the state Department of Education for what he sees as inequities in treatment of black children on the playground and in the classroom.
"What I hear over and over again is that we're working on this for the future, but I want to know what is going on now," Johnson said. "I have issues with the fact that last year only three kids were suspended, but it was singled out (in a public report) that they were all African American. What does that have to do with anything? It's a slap in the face."
Levenson said that all data in the school district is broken down in many different ways, including race. That's how school districts were able to identify and start addressing the achievement gap, she said.
"The district doesn't know of any kind of problem at Oxford nor any reason to believe there is one," district spokesman Mark Coplan said. "There is institutional racism in our nation, and it affects Berkeley as much as it does anywhere else."
A report on the subject by the California Department of Education said good schools flourish when there is cultural understanding, but "students of color often feel alienated from the norms and behaviors of the school culture or put off by educational practices that do not 'reflect my background and where I come from.'"
That's exactly how Kanika Shelly feels.
Shelly, who has an 8-year-old daughter at the school, said she thinks teachers automatically assume black students are a step behind white students in their ability to learn.
"I think some of the teachers think we are inferior, so expectations play into it as well," Shelly said. "They have very low expectations for our kids at this school in particular. When you have your daughter in a school system that considers her different and they consider her heritage to be inferior, they pass that on to your child."
Shelly said the fact that the school doesn't offer different types of teaching for different races and cultures is racism.
"They don't even entertain an interest in having different curriculum," Shelly said. "I went to all those meetings but they just let us vent about how the school system is racist. But we never hear any strategies to change the curriculum."
Levenson said she can understand where parent anger comes from, but she intends to keep working on breaking down the barriers.
"Raising an African-American child, particularly a male, is a scary prospect given the statistics," Levenson. "I think it's hard to trust a school that says 'we're working on it.' But it is trust-building we are working on. And we have a lot of people focused to make it a more welcoming place."
Aaron Grayson, a black man who is head of the Oxford after-school program, said there have been "isolated incidents" of racism at the school, but parents have used them to "circle the wagons."
"Several parents have used the race card, and that's unjust," Grayson said. "I grew up in inner-city Los Angeles and was bused to school in a higher socioeconomic area. I know how it feels to leave your community and travel outside. But I can say with our principal more strides have been made by her in the last three years to bridge that gap than I have ever seen."
But Lee Glover-Owens, whose child went to Oxford from kindergarten through 2007 and is now in middle school, said being black at Oxford was just plain difficult.
"The atmosphere at Oxford was not welcoming to black families," Glover-Owens said. "There's a lack of understanding, compassion. There are people who would beg to differ, but if I'm the one being affected, I know what I'm saying."
Levenson said her work with the group formed for families of color will continue.
"I'm not giving up," Levenson said. "We're meeting tonight. The conversation needs to continue."
E-mail Doug Oakley at firstname.lastname@example.org