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Losing Ground

By Wayne Au

After a spirited protest to the school board, where students and community members rallied around the cause of keeping African-American studies alive due to its political, historical, and cultural importance to the high school and community, the district quickly made an exception to the new policy and spared the department. Berkeley School Board member Shirly Issel said the district had made the decision with a "lack of awareness of the consequences."

The African-American studies department survived this round, but the brief battle illustrated that the district wasn't considering the implications of its decisions in terms of multicultural education and racial equity. This was one of the first of several concrete expressions of institutionalized racism as a direct result of the budget cuts, where a seemingly neutral district policy of redefining departments clearly produced a racialized outcome.

Later, as the budget crisis began to escalate, other district decisions further eroded multicultural offerings. One way the school sought to save money was to shrink district graduation requirements, reducing the need for courses and, therefore, teachers. The only requirement the district dropped was the history elective, which housed many of Berkeley's most unique classes, including Asian-American history, African-American history, and Chicano/Latino studies. Many of us considered this elective the pride of the history department. It offered classes that were culturally relevant to the students, and it created the space for teachers to be actively engaged in subject areas that they were genuinely interested in teaching. The administration argued that these classes would be offered if enough students voluntarily signed up for them. But we teachers knew fewer students would take these specialized multicultural history classes because they no longer fulfilled a requirement.

Even though the history elective had been cut, we still had the "Identity and Ethnic Studies" (IES) class. It was still a ninth-grade requirement and a core component of multicultural education at our school. But the budget crisis severely changed the course's structure and hampered its effectiveness.

The beauty of the IES at Berkeley High was that it was an untracked, small class of 20 ninth graders that focused on issues of race, social justice, and identity development. We worked on creating community, discussing emotionally and politically difficult topics, and adjusting to the academic and social pressures of high school. The small size of the classes made such explorations possible.

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