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Top-Notch School Fails to Close 'Achievement Gap'

Learning: Berkeley High tried to lift urban black and Latino pupils to the level of high-performing Asians and whites. But a sizable divide persists.


BERKELEY — Here in one of the best-educated corners of America, this city's sole public high school suffers a split personality: One exhibits a steady stream of National Merit Scholars, the other an undercurrent of failure.

Viki Rasmussen is a product of one Berkeley High School. The confident 17-year-old took an array of college-level courses before graduating in the spring and leaving last week to attend Brown University. Viki is white.

LaShawna Candies is a product of the other Berkeley High. The 15-year-old, timid and self-doubting, returned last week to start her sophomore year. As a freshman she scored Fs in most subjects, and reads at a second-grade level. She may never be able to decipher a job application, let alone a college text. LaShawna is black.

Attending one of America's most reputable urban high schools is just about all Viki and LaShawna have in common. The two girls came through the schoolhouse gate, just blocks from California's flagship university, with vastly different backgrounds and skills. Rather than equalize their opportunities, though, Berkeley High may have succeeded only in maintaining--even widening--the academic chasm between them.

This despite the best of intentions.

Berkeley was one of the first high schools in the country to implement a plan to voluntarily desegregate, and its hallways teem with the children of liberal intellectuals. Yet the school has struggled, without much success, to close the so-called achievement gap separating white and Asian students from less well-prepared blacks and Latinos.

"In desegregating schools in 1968, we thought all we had to do was mix everybody up to assure equality," said school board President Shirley Issel. "We were so naive. To achieve the dream of public education as the great equalizer, we have to work a lot harder than we thought."

Thirty-four years later, Berkeley is a polarized campus where high-achieving children from the suburbs meet youths raised on urban streets. Officials say the four years they spend together is not enough to close a gulf caused not just by educational disparities, but also by economics and culture.

Viki and LaShawna are at opposite ends of that gap.

In her home at the foot of the affluent Berkeley Hills, the walls of Viki's bedroom are a colorful landscape of maps with exotic locales that she wants to visit. The walls of LaShawna's bedroom are empty; though her mother lives in Oakland, LaShawna stays with her mother's boyfriend in a blue-collar area known as "the flatlands" so her residence will be within Berkeley boundaries.

Most days, Viki rode her mountain bike to school or drove her mother's classic 1967 Cougar. Most days, LaShawna takes a city bus.

Though Viki had access to private tutors, LaShawna appeals to her 13-year-old stepsister for help with homework.

While Berkeley High has battled to narrow the gap between students such as Viki and LaShawna, experts say the problem is so intractable that even at this advantaged institution it has placed parents at odds, frustrated administrators and weakened the school's academic accreditation.

The gulf has also caused tension among students--not only between whites and blacks but among African Americans themselves, who sometimes single out black high achievers as cultural sellouts.

Still, teenagers throughout the region flock to gain admission. A policy allowing transfers from nearby districts--including predominantly black Richmond and Oakland--has helped establish Berkeley among the nation's most diverse high schools.

Many parents contend that the practice, while laudably egalitarian, has overloaded the school with minority students who can't compete because their previous schools were so weak. Berkeley's black student population is nearly triple the city's 12% rate of African American residents: The school is 32% black, 37% white, 11% Latino, 9% Asian and 11% multiethnic.

School officials say an additional unknown number of outside students attend Berkeley illegally by supplying the district with false addresses to claim city residence. The school has begun an investigation to determine how many unsanctioned students are enrolled.

Many of Berkeley's problems are shared by high schools nationwide.

Calling the achievement gap America's "most important educational challenge," a 1999 national study by the College Board, a student testing group, found just 17% of black and 24% of Latino high school seniors to be proficient in reading, and scoring even worse in math and science. Black and Latino seniors nationwide, on average, read at the same level as eighth-grade whites, other research shows.

Though experts say the problem is more socioeconomic than racial, they stress that educators can make a difference.

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