Racial Conflicts Surface at Berkeley School

Doug Oakley, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, California), May 25, 2008

It has been 40 years since Berkeley integrated its schools to foster “positive relationships across racial lines,” but a group of black parents claims they and their children are getting the opposite.

Two of the parents at Oxford Elementary have transferred their children to other schools since January, claiming racist treatment.

It’s a charge other black parents at the school support, but one the principal and some black staff members say is untrue.

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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.

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In interviews with eight parents of black students at the school, complaints include an unwelcome environment at the school and 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 paper work to transfer him to El Cerrito, it was all there ready to go.”

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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 has 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 the treatment of black children on the playground and in the classroom.

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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.

Berkeley Unified School District spokesman Mark Coplan said there is nothing wrong at Oxford.

“The district doesn’t know of any kind of problem at Oxford nor any reason to believe there is one,” Coplan said. “There are many elements that affect the achievement gap, and institutional racism is one of those. There is institutional racism in our nation, and it affects Berkeley as much as it does anywhere else.”

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Aaron Grayson, a black man who is the 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.”

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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 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.”

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