Op-ed: A Berkeley elementary school shows how it’s done

Kids on the Malcolm X playground
Kids on the Malcolm X playground. Photo: David Wilson

When we first sent our two sons to Berkeley public schools in the mid-1970s, the debate about education was a little heated. Neighborhood schools were out, busing was in.  Tracking of any kind was a no-no. It seemed to some that in the name of equality, folks wanted to drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator. One by one, friends and neighbors were pulling their kids out and going private.

We stuck with Berkeley. Our experiences were mixed: some excellent, others abysmal.

Now we are grandparents, with another generation to worry about. This time around, we have two grandsons at Malcolm X (the same K-5 school our sons had gone to three decades ago). And, unlike before, there is spare time. Why not spend some of it at Malcolm X?

I have now spent four-plus years as a volunteer there, doing whatever the teachers have wanted in each grade from kindergarten through fourth grade. Lots of people ask how I would grade Malcolm X, having seen it close-up. I would give it an A-.

The school has the usual challenges. More than a third of the student body is classified as “socio-economically disadvantaged.” The racial/ethnic mix is your typical urban potpourri: about 35% white, and the rest African American, Asian, Hispanic, and “mixed race” (an expression which covers a lot of territory).

The building dates from the 1930s. Resources are “constrained”, to put it mildly. There are no big, multi-colored wall maps to teach daydreamers about the geography of their country and the world.  If there are 21 children in a class, you may have to copy and count out 21 math worksheets, not one more. If you are teaching first graders about cups and quarts, you may have to wash out used yogurt and juice containers to make your point.

The teachers somehow work around the physical limits, with a lot of help from the PTA. Personnel are a different matter. The student body (now at 520) has grown by 20% over the past few years, but there’s been no increase in the staff available to teach the basics to kids, some of whom arrive with no English, or no knowledge of the alphabet, and no concept of how squiggly letters can turn into sounds, and sounds into words. Others can’t sit still, can’t keep quiet, and don’t know how to listen.   At the same time there are those who come to kindergarten with backpacks full of third grade books that they pull out whenever there’s a free minute.

How can a teacher save the woefully unprepared from drowning, without ignoring the needs of the rest?

Many hear things like this and conclude that Malcolm X is just like thousands of other besieged California schools. If they able to do so, they pull their kids out, and write the first of many checks to Head Royce or other private schools.

Before sending that check, they could do worse than go down to the schoolyard at King and Ashby at about 8 in the morning. They’d find a village in the true sense: kids running, shouting, laughing. No bullying. No apparent self-segregation by race or class. Everyone seems to know everyone else:  if you are running after your child who left her lunch in the car, there’s always someone who will know who you are looking for and where to find her.

At 8:10 the bell rings.  Suddenly you notice that the teachers are already in the yard with the kids, who quickly leave their games and go off to their classes. The few stragglers are rounded up by teachers and the many parents who seem always to stick around to make sure all goes well.

Once in the classroom, it’s all order:  juice, fruit, muffins and yogurt are there for anyone who wants (it’s clear that many haven’t eaten at home), and the teacher announces the day’s schedule. Work begins: numbers and letters are taught from the first day of kindergarten, the trick being to devise lesson plans that acquaint the under-prepared with the basics, while including a lot of subtleties for those who are ready for them. There is not the slightest sense of a lowest common denominator. It is simply assumed that every child can perform at or above grade level.

And they do! California publishes an “Academic Performance Index” for all California public schools. The statewide average API for K-6 schools was 790 in 2013. Malcolm X scored 889 (and, with Jefferson, was at the top of Berkeley schools). And, while there are some achievement gaps among racial/ethnic/economic groups, my own experience is that nearly every child knows the importance of learning and appreciates all the individual help you can give.

I don’t want to romanticize anything: those California test scores also show that things change as kids get older, and outside influences begin to weigh more than teachers and parents. Berkeley’s middle and high schools score at barely the state average, and the gaps between groups widen, as do drop-out rates.

But, for now, this is one school that knows how. From the beginning, each child’s needs are measured and dealt with.  All are taught the basic rules of getting along:  respect for difference, how to work things out, how to value the feelings of others, how to deal with anger. Whatever may be going on outside the gates, the schoolyard and classrooms are safe places. Because the children feel emotionally and physically safe, they are open to listening and learning. And do!

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David Wilson and his wife Miriam Wilson have lived in Berkeley since the 1960s. As a lawyer, David specialized in mobile communications issues. He has served as an officer and director of multiple community non-profit groups. Among these are the Oakland Youth Orchestra, the Inverness Ridge Association, and the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.