Community theater at Berkeley High School
The district is working on a plan to renovate its performance spaces at Berkeley High, including the Community Theater, pictured here. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Berkeley students are showing gains in college preparedness and literacy, but math test scores are down, especially for black students, according to data presented Wednesday night to the Berkeley School Board at its first meeting of the school year.

Classes for Berkeley Unified students begin Tuesday, Aug. 30.

Wednesday night, School Board members got a report about the most recent assessment results, and reflected on the five Berkeley High graduates who died tragically this summer: four from fatal shootings in August, and one who drowned in June.

The board also voted to increase the budget, now officially at more than $3 million, for the John Muir Elementary modernization project, where the discovery of dry rot and structural issues with the foundation has required a $100,000 bump in the contract.

A major project to renovate Building A at Berkeley High — which includes the Berkeley Community Theater, the Florence Schwimley Little Theater, and the east classroom wing (primarily visual and performing arts classes) — can also begin now that the board has approved roughly $352,000 for design services that will serve to guide construction work down the line. 

The board’s sole discussion item focused on how Berkeley students are doing across a range of assessments related to literacy, math and college preparedness. That discussion is required as part of the Local Control and Accountability Plan, the state’s way of determining the money local school districts receive.

The focus Wednesday night related to classroom instruction and college and career preparedness; future discussions about how well the plan is working will look more closely at the achievement gap and school safety.

The percentage of Berkeley High graduates meeting the eligibility requirements for UC and CSU schools — formerly known as A-G requirements — increased from 52% to 66% between 2012-13 and 2014-15. The district saw increases across all student groups: for black students from 22% to 40%; for Hispanic students from 38% to 51%; and for white students from 75% to 85%. Scores for students in the socioeconomically-disadvantaged category increased from 32% to 42%.

There were also improvements in one measure of third grade reading literacy across all groups from 2015 to 2016, up from 71% to 78%. The biggest gains were seen with black students (from 42% to 57%), Hispanic students (from 54% to 63%), and students in special education (from 24% to 34%). White students increased from 88% to 91%.

Results from a different measure — the state’s Smarter Balanced Assessment, which seeks to gauge literacy and math skills — saw an overall increase in third grade literacy of 8%, to 62% at or above the standard from 2015 to 2016. (See page 6.) Black students saw a larger gain than other groups, from 14% to 25%, but are still well below the scores of most other groups listed.

On the math side, where the assessment takes place at eighth grade, the district fell 5 points overall, from 54% to 49% of students testing at or above the standard. In 2016, scores for black students fell from 21% in 2015 to 11% and those for Hispanic students fell from 39% to 34%, while white students increased from 78% to 85%.

Debbi D’Angelo, who oversees data analysis for the district, noted that the Smarter Balanced assessment is new and that, with only two years of data, the district may not want to put too much weight yet into the results. She said the district needs to look closer at the students who are dropping out, as well as the ones who participate in the testing one year but not the next.

D’Angelo said the district also wants to step up how often it looks at the available data related to student progress, from 1-2 times a year to every six weeks, particularly for the students who need the most help.

Assistant Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi said there is a group of perhaps 84 kids who need the most help, and that he believes the district can find a way to focus on those students, through better summer school offerings for example, “in a way that is increasingly deep and focused.”

Read the district’s more detailed analysis.

Even while they celebrated the increases that did occur, board members and district administrators said it’s clear there is still a wide gap between white students and other groups, and that more improvements need to be made.

“It can be true that we still have an achievement gap,” noted Board Member Ty Alper. “And it can also be true that we’re making real gains.… The data in this report I think supports both of those.”

Board Member Karen Hemphill said she was concerned about how black students who were receiving services to help them improve — through the “Response to Intervention” program, for example — were not seeing significant gains.

“Not only did African American students not seem to respond to Response to Intervention, other students of other ethnicities did,” she said. “That to me makes me wonder why that was.”

She and others noted that the district does have programs that are working, and that they want to continue using data to make sure students are getting the help they need. Officials said they want to take a much deeper look at the data to figure out exactly which students are struggling and why.

Five BHS alumni died over the summer. Clockwise from left, Craig Fletcher-Cooks, Marne’e Causey, Alex Goodwin Jr., Terrence McCrary Jr. and Efe Ustenci.
Five BHS alumni died over the summer. Clockwise from left, Craig Fletcher-Cooks, Marne’e Causey, Alex Goodwin Jr., Terrence McCrary Jr. and Efe Ustenci.

Board members also took some time at the beginning of the meeting to reflect on the five recent Berkeley High graduates who died this summer: Efe Ustenci, 17, in June, due to drowning; and, in August, in fatal shootings, 23-year-old Marne’e Causey, 20-year-old Craig Fletcher-Cooks and 22-year-old Terrence McCrary Jr., and 22-year-old Alex Goodwin Jr.

Board Member Appel said the easy access to guns in the community had contributed directly to the August fatalities.

“This causes such damage and such harm to our community,” she said. “It’s just so tragic, it’s hard to get past.”

She said she was also grappling with the recent arrests of Berkeley High students who have been tied by authorities to a murder case in Oakland: “It’s right here in our own backyard.”

And it wasn’t just students who died. Paula Phillips, the head of Berkeley’s union for classified employees, told the board the district had another loss over the summer: Paul “Hutch” Jones Jr., who worked in special education at Oxford Elementary. An accomplished musician and longtime Berkeley resident, he died of cancer in July.

The next School Board meeting is Sept. 7. See the schedule, along with meeting documents and location information, on the BUSD website. Watch the Aug. 24 meeting online. See Wednesday night’s agenda.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...