Many people at Berkeley High School (BHS) are aware of the Advanced Math program that is offered — but they might not know about the enormous lack of racial and ethnic diversity within the course. They might not understand how often it has been brought up amongst teachers as a program that needs improvement. Over the years, students, along with many individuals from within the math department, have expressed their discontent with the current Advanced Math program, for a variety of reasons.
Some students claim that the Advanced Math classes put unnecessary stress on students. Many students choose to return to grade-level math after a year or less of Advanced Math 1. Aris Carter is a sophomore at BHS who took Advanced Math 1 last year but decided not to take Advanced Math 2 this year. Carter said, “When I found out we were online, I just thought it would be too hard, and Advanced Math doesn’t really have enough support around it for me to be confident that I can get an A in that class.” Apart from the challenging course, there is another very prominent issue with Advanced Math — the lack of Black and Latinx students.
Before the fall of 2015, math at BHS looked very different from how it does today. According to Hasmig Minassian, a BHS teacher of 19 years, the Math Department at BHS was chaotic and unstructured. Each grade level had a variety of different math classes and honors math classes that a student could choose from. “It got to a point where it was super out of control. Where there were too many classes … and the math department just said ‘we don’t have this many specialists,’ ” explained Minassian.
Unlike any other department, math was an area of study where BHS parents really wanted classes that would push their kids. If a kid had the ability to excel in math, parents pushed the school to make sure their kid had the hardest, most rigorous classes possible. So, as a compromise, the Math Department changed the curriculum back to a level 1-4 system like every other department has, while still keeping a higher level ‘honors’ math course. And that was how the Math and Advanced Math system was born.
Within the large institution of BHS, some pockets of the school are more diverse and well-integrated than others. Advanced Math is one example of a learning environment that lacks diversity and has a strong white student majority. The underrepresentation of Black and brown students shows a larger issue with education at BHS that should not just be accepted. As Minassian said, “It’s very unusual to find a poor kid of color in an Advanced Math class, in Berkeley. It doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be there.”
BHS students and teachers point to many reasons for why Advanced Math lacks so much diversity. Some claim it goes as far back as the way that students are accepted into the program, which is through a test taken in eighth grade. Carter said, “I think it’s cool that they have Advanced Math, but the way that they go about creating it isn’t right.”
Tilden Skoble, a senior in Academic Choice (AC), has been through the Advanced Math course and is currently taking Calculus BC. “The root of the [lack of diversity] is in how the test and the program is advertised, starting in middle school. I remember the test was after school, on a random day,” she said. “People have things to do after school, so it’s just an accessibility issue. … Even just having it during class time instead of after school would make it more accessible.”
Many educators see tests as unreliable. There is a growing sentiment that they don’t accurately measure a student’s ability — instead, they measure the socioeconomic status (SES) of a student. SES refers to family income and accumulated wealth, which also provides a family with things such as health care and a house in a safe neighborhood. All of these are outside factors in a child’s life that impact their academic performance.
As Dan Plonsey, a longstanding math teacher at BHS, explained, “The lack of Black and Latinx students in Advanced Math … is largely due to Black and Latinx families having considerably lower socioeconomic status than white families in Berkeley. In fact, Berkeley has one of the worst socioeconomic gaps by race in the whole country.”
The lack of diversity in Advanced Math is an issue that clearly impacts students. Jasmine Moreira Cortes, a sophomore in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), enrolled in Advanced Math for the first time this school year. She said, “I wanted to inspire other BIPOC to take the class, to let them know … that it’s actually possible.”
Angelina Thomas, another sophomore in the Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS), said that when she started Advanced Math 2 this year, she “had no idea that there were that few people of color in Advanced Math. … Math has always been my strong suit … so that is why I decided to try out for Advanced Math.”
Both Moreira Cortes and Thomas are one of very few students of color in their classes. “I’m one of two BIPOC in the class,” Angelina Thomas said. “It’s definitely intimidating. … Whenever I have an answer to a question I always have to check and check again before I share it with the class. Just in case I’m wrong, I don’t want them to think ‘oh it’s just the Black girl, she’s not as smart as us.’ ”
Similarly, Moreira Cortes explained, “I feel scared to ask for help sometimes because I want to prove … that I can do the math.” Moreira Cortes also co-founded a club called “Gifted Girls of Color” designed to empower girls of color to reach their full potential and “be what society doesn’t want them to be.”
The Math Department at BHS includes over 20 math teachers, two department co-chairs, and a Math Department vice-principal. When Emily Gilden, a math teacher at BHS, brought up Advanced Math at a department meeting, she heard from many teachers who said “that they don’t think it should exist.” Many teachers say they prefer to teach grade-level math classes. In fact, Gilden said she asked not to teach an Advanced Math class when she came to BHS — but ended up teaching one anyway.
So how can Advanced Math be better? This is a question that many people have answered differently. Some math teachers, like Ben Nathan, believe that eliminating Advanced Math courses in ninth grade would solve issues of burnout, and maybe the lack of diversity. He said, “[Among] the kids who go into Advanced Math 2 [from Math 1], we see a lot more diversity, and those are some of our strongest kids.”
On the other hand, Dan Plonsey and others think that eliminating the program completely might be the only way to get rid of the systemic white dominance in Advanced Math. “I brought [Advanced Math] up at a Math Department meeting and some teachers emailed me and said maybe we can make an effort to try and eliminate the program again, but nothing has really come about from that,” said Gilden.
However, eliminating the program might still have negative impacts for kids who are benefiting from Advanced Math. As Nathan explained, “We have to have some way to keep [these students] engaged and challenged.” Calculus BC is only offered to Advanced Math students, and some students benefit from the challenging class. According to Plonsey, Calculus BC is one of the main arguments for keeping Advanced Math. Skoble, who is currently taking that class, said, “I think some people do like the challenge … and for some people, [Calculus] is super appealing. … I do like challenging myself, so that’s why I’m taking the class. Also, I made this far, so why not?” According to her, there are only a small number of students taking the class.
Both Nathan and Plonsey mentioned the creation of a 4×4 block system as a potential solution. Instead of our normal six classes a day schedule, Nathan explained, “You take four classes a day for a semester, and then you take another four for the next semester. That could mean potentially getting rid of an advanced sequence altogether.”
Plonsey said, “[Among teachers], there is suddenly a lot of support for the block schedule. Many of your classes would now become semester-long classes instead of year-long classes. … What that does is that opens things up … to come up with some new classes.” This could include making another pathway to Calculus BC, not just the Advanced Math path. There could also be more support classes for students who struggle with math. However, a fundamental change to the BHS school day would require a lot of support from the community.
There have been attempts to eliminate the program before. In 2018, when the Universal Ninth Grade (U9) was implemented, the program was designed to diversify and create a more inclusive learning experience for incoming eighth graders. When it was implemented, the department wanted to get rid of Advanced Math altogether. It was parents who pushed to keep the program. Minassian explained, “Up until this stage, I think a lot of parents felt [that it wasn’t fair] to the kids to put them in a class with students who are at a lot different place with math.”
One parent at BHS told the Jacket, “[If Advanced Math was eliminated] I would be bummed. If a kid is interested and engaged in learning, then fueling that interest and engagement at the highest level that they can handle it is hugely beneficial for them in that moment, and then also setting themselves up for the future.”
Unfortunately, any attempt at changing the system is usually met with pushback from parents with students in Advanced Math, despite many teachers’ support. “The loudest parents are the ones who are the richest,” explained Nathan. “They’re the ones at the meetings because they’re the ones with the time.”
“I’ve been at meetings where parents have spoken up about … how their child is not getting x, y, or z. I’ve definitely just thought they were ignoring the larger social network of students and prioritizing the needs of their own child, which is definitely a parental instinct,” said one parent.
Plonsey also said, “In 2013, the education gap in Berkeley was the highest of all school districts, nationwide. Perhaps this is in part because white parents tend to have much higher levels of education in this college town, and perhaps also because these wealthier, better educated white parents (despite identifying as liberals) are so adept at manipulating the school district to suit their ends.”
In this way, it’s often hard for the school district to stand up against the pressure parents put on them when “advocating” for their child. One parent said, “I feel like the best solutions come from the community that the solutions are meant to help.” She continued, “Without the student’s voice, I think we’d been missing out on a lot.” Black and Latinx students and their parents need a say in this issue.
In February, the Math Department will be meeting to discuss the future of Advanced Math. The question remains — is it possible for the Advanced Math program to ever change? “I think that for it to [change], we have to be really honest about what the Advanced Math program is,” Gilden said. “If a policy isn’t anti-racist, then it’s racist. So, therefore Advanced Math is racist. It’s a racist policy … and it has racist outcomes. So maybe just being really explicit about that, and just saying it like it is … maybe [that] will make a difference.”