After talking about the problem for years, Berkeley school officials are on the verge of shifting millions of dollars to underperforming black and Latino students, adding to an old debate about how to reduce the disparities between the top and the bottom.
One proposal that will go before the school board in the next few months is a charter school that after three years would serve 700 students. If approved, about $3 million in state funds would shift from the district to the charter school, which would draw underperformers to a hands-on, technology-rich learning environment.
A second proposal would shift about $350,000 in local property tax money at Berkeley High School used for four science teacher positions to classes for struggling students.
That idea, which has sparked some parent outrage because it eliminates science lab time for college preparatory classes and gives it to other programs, will be heard at the school board's meeting Wednesday as an information item.
Science teachers reacted angrily to the proposal, with 18 signing a letter of protest.
Almost 40 percent of black students at Berkeley High received "D" or "F" grades in English and math last year, while 5 percent of white students received "D's" or "F's," according to a report from the high school released Jan. 20. Thirty percent of Latino students received "D's" or "F's" last year. That discrepancy is the largest in California.
The report also showed that white students at Berkeley High had a cumulative grade-point average of about 3.4 in 2009; Latino students' grades were at 2.5, black students at about 2.25.
"This is kind of a perfect storm," said Victor Diaz, principal of Berkeley Technology Academy, an alternative high school. Diaz is the main proponent behind the charter school. "You have a school district with the largest achievement gap in the state, a district out of compliance with English-language learners, and a district out of compliance with special education. Resources need to shift to address these deep-rooted, long-standing issues. It's also a shift in paradigm. We have to think about how we deliver services, not just what we deliver."
Peggy Scott, a parent on the Berkeley High School governance council, which made the original proposal to eliminate science labs and move the money to help struggling children of color, thinks bringing up the bottom should not be done by dumbing down academics.
"I think if the school wants to start (helping struggling students) it would be a perfectly good pilot program to dedicate one teacher to that and try it for a year," Scott said. "I think everyone will agree that Berkeley High can do better for its struggling students, but you don't do that by lowering the bar."
Superintendent Bill Huyett said some in the community see the changes as racist because the shift would take money from classes in which white children excel and give it to help struggling children of color, but that's not the whole story.
"I don't want to say that this is an issue of one race versus another," Huyett said. "The issue is that Berkeley High leadership is trying to meet the needs of struggling kids, and they want to intervene. (The science lab issue) made it look like we were lowering the standards of one group to raise the standards of another, and that is not the case."
After the school governance council voted to move resources from five science teachers, Huyett met with a group of science teachers and came up with a different proposal that would remove resources from four. The new proposal also keeps intact science labs for advance placement courses.
"In this debate I heard a lot of different voices," Huyett said. "Some people want more science for their kids. The other thing I hear is that we really want to help struggling kids with the resources we have."