Mention the Ethnic Studies class at Berkeley High School, and students tend to smirk or roll their eyes. Even many supporters of the perennially controversial ninth-grade requirement know it’s a hot topic that, despite good intentions, has turned into a debacle. Past student complaints have ranged from the class being a total waste of time to allegations that it’s racially offensive.
So, when ethnic studies made it onto the school board’s agenda last spring, many thought the class might finally bite the dust. Instead, it got a makeover. For the new school year, the board decided, the course would be reborn with a new, innocuous name — Freshman Seminar — and a revised curriculum.
Now, after one semester, the results are, well, ambiguously optimistic.
Berkeley High is among the most racially diverse public high schools in the nation, and one of few that offer an ethnic-studies course. In 2003, 42 percent of its students were white, 31 percent African American, 13 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 10 percent Asian, according to California Department of Education data. The requirement, however, has been controversial since its student-driven creation in the early 1990s. While school administrators and some students, parents, and faculty have been staunch ethnic-studies supporters, others have tried to do away with it over the years. In 2003, more than one thousand students, about one-third of the school, signed a petition to abolish the class.
Because the course lacked a set curriculum, many students griped that it varied wildly according to who taught it. At best, it was viewed as less than academic. “I didn’t find the class very helpful,” sophomore Julia Brady says. “There were a lot of things about making posters of your identity and writing poetry and things like that.”
At worst, current and former students say, teachers brought their personal biases into the classroom and created a divisive atmosphere. One instructor reportedly taught that the Holocaust didn’t happen; another, that the US government developed AIDS to kill Africans. “It was insensitive, not politically neutral, and lots of indoctrination,” says Bradley Johnson, the 2003-2004 student director who represented Berkeley High students on the school board. “It was not even a mainline liberal point of view.” Johnson, now a freshman at Claremont McKenna College, adds that he surveyed students last year and found the majority wanted ethnic studies eliminated.
Some teachers left whites feeling villainized and everyone else feeling victimized, according to Johnson, who is black. “You would think it would be more a study of black culture,” he recalls. “It was only referred to in the context of it being oppressed, never of it succeeding.”
White kids, meanwhile, reported that they were made to feel like the oppressors. “It was a recap of random events in history that were supposed to be linked, but they weren’t linked except that they were all about how bad white people were,” says Ellie Lammer, who took the class in 2000 and is now a freshman at Tufts University.
In 2001, Ethnic Studies was merged with Social Living, a class that covers sex education and substance abuse, to create a yearlong course called Identity Ethnic Studies. Some teachers thought the change brought the course more depth. Others countered that the problems with the ethnic-studies portion were never addressed.
Then, last March, the school board approved the latest name change and a new course outline. Administrators hired an outside consultant to help create curriculum guidelines, and Freshman Seminar teachers convened in planning workshops over the summer. Among other things, the resulting proposal called for a more standardized and rigorous curriculum. “I love the program,” says Freshman Seminar teacher James Dopman, who helped lead the redesign. “I have a solid curriculum, it’s very dynamic, and it’s very rich.”
While the course’s critics wonder whether the changes are anything but superficial, Dopman plays the optimist. His classroom is adorned with posters that read “No one is free when others are oppressed” and “Subjectivity leads to bias.” Lining its bookshelves are copies of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. On the back wall are student poems: I’m from Mexican and Chinese, cats and dogs, video games, I’m from picking cotton, from paper dolls and pressing combs, I’m from music, R&B to jazz.
Dopman’s enthusiasm for the course has a contagious quality, and at least some kids seem to have caught the bug, too. Freshman Angela Creer, who is black, was assigned to write a report this past semester about someone different from her. Her subject was a white boy. “I learned a lot, that sometimes even if they’re a different color than you, it doesn’t mean they’re not going through similar struggles, like dealing with peer pressure at school, and people not getting along at home,” she says.
All involved agree that the individual teacher makes or breaks the ethnic studies course, and therein lies both blessing and curse. Unfortunately, says school-board member Shirley Issel, Ethnic Studies has often been left to the least-experienced teachers. Issel, who had two children attend Berkeley High, was the only board member, save student rep Johnson, to vote against the program last spring. “These are subjects that require a lot of maturity and experience to teach,” she says. “How do we know that they’ve worked through their own issues regarding these sensitive subjects?” Indeed, for many years, Ethnic Studies was simply assigned to teachers, regardless of expertise or experience, who were short of their quotas. “As a result, very poor teachers taught the course in a variety of ways, and it got a reputation,” Dopman acknowledges.
Last fall, according to the new guidelines, the class was to be taught by teachers who volunteered. It didn’t always work out that way. History instructor Alex Angell, for instance, says administrators “asked convincingly” that he give up his advanced history classes this year to teach Freshman Seminar: “I was never given training or a real choice.” And with just four years as a teacher, Angell feels he lacks the experience for such a course.
Administrators have begun asking more-experienced teachers to advise newer instructors, and teachers now meet monthly to discuss curriculum. As a result, the ethnic-studies unit is “much improved,” Dopman says. “It isn’t nearly enough, but it is a start.”
The old course “was a little loose in my opinion,” says Matt Huxley, an assistant principal responsible for the ninth-grade curriculum. “There were some excellent teachers who provided relevant, rigorous curriculum for their students, including the teaching of important skills. But there were a number of teachers who taught whatever they wanted.”
The problem remains, Angell says, that while the outline gives teachers goals to meet, it offers no advice on how to reach them. Instructors are expected to create the day-to-day curriculum, an independence some enjoy — but others, especially those new to the class, find difficult.
Even so, many parents welcome the guidelines as a step toward reform. Laura Menard, an outspoken course critic, was pleased to hear that her freshman son watched a PBS film in Freshman Seminar that taught that race is a social, not biological, construct — a positive change, she says, from when her older son took the class and she found it racially divisive. Freshman Emma Tarver, meanwhile, says she isn’t made to feel like the oppressor in her seminar, although “as a white girl, it’s kind of hard to feel like my culture is interesting.”
Ninth-grader Creer says her class has introduced students to different ethnic heritages without becoming divisive. “I used to think stereotypically about white people that they were smart and rich, but it’s not like that,” she says. And she likes that her seminar is racially diverse: “Sometimes I see classes full of Caucasian people or black people, and I don’t want to see the school divided up like that.”
A key component in Dopman’s curriculum is teaching students how they can become active on the social issues discussed in class. “Effecting change can range from actively working in your community with volunteer work to calling attention to a friend’s racist or homophobic comments,” one assignment reads.
As for academic rigor, the course outline requires that students master writing, research, and test-taking skills, among others. Beginning next semester, students can take the class for honors credit, which requires a research paper, 25 hours of community service, and class participation.
Perhaps the most important consequence of the recent changes is that teachers are thinking more carefully about how to engage students on such sensitive issues as race and sexuality at a critical point in their personal development. “As a white, tall, heterosexual male, I had to get my brain around issues of power and race,” Dopman says. “I have acknowledged the experiences of my students of color without alienating my white students. It takes ten to twelve weeks to do very carefully, so developing egos aren’t bruised. If you feel you’re being threatened, learning stops.”
Some parents would agree, yet come to the opposite conclusion. “I think it’s necessary, and I think they’re too young to get it,” one ninth-grade parent offers. “They’re fourteen years old, and we’re asking of them what we don’t of ourselves.”
Then again, some kids may be better equipped to handle these issues than most adults. “I live in Berkeley, so I’ve always been in school with people of really different backgrounds, so I’ve always known the hard-core facts,” says freshman Hannah Jacobs. In her seminar, she says, she can consider diversity more thoughtfully. “We’re having really deep discussions about things like race; it’s really amazing.”
One semester, though, is not enough to determine whether the recent changes can make the class worth salvaging. Boardmember Issel insists the problems are intractable. “We have given this an ample trial to improve it and that’s it,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, all the chances have been used up.”
Dopman, the optimist, begs to differ. “It takes time to change something in schools — often years, not months,” he says. “What is so powerful is because Berkeley High is Berkeley High, they end up learning about each other’s ethnic heritage. It becomes a living curriculum.”