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Changing Demographics: The Battle for Ethnic Studies Persists

In the early ’90s, a lack of ethnic representation in Berkeley High School’s curriculum sparked a student-led movement that demanded an ethnic studies requirement for graduation.


In the early ’90s, a lack of ethnic representation in Berkeley High School’s (BHS) curriculum sparked a student-led movement that demanded an ethnic studies requirement for graduation. Subsequent years brought an extensive program of ethnic studies classes, making BHS a pioneer. However, teacher and student population shifts in the past 20 years have impacted the amount of ethnic studies classes offered. Thus persists the struggle of maintaining ethnic studies at BHS.

Over the course of the school’s history, BHS has served as a microcosm for the communities that inhabit the city, with the majority of Berkeley students funneling into it after middle school. In turn, BHS has offered numerous classes concerning the varying cultures that saturate its halls. 

Today, the ethnic studies requirement for BHS students is fulfilled with a semester-long ethnic studies class that is taught to ninth graders. However, when the school started the course as a pilot program in the early 1990s, there was little interest in getting it started. Universal Ninth Grade (U9) history teacher Dana Moran was hired with multiple other young teachers of color to develop a structure for the course. 

“It was housed in the African American Studies Department instead of the history department … because it meant it would have to come out of their budget, which they didn’t want,” Moran said. 

The school’s African American (AfAm) Studies Department has numerous classes ranging from History to Psychology. However, the course offerings today look much different than they have in previous years. According to Moran, the AfAm Department has offered courses such as Black Economics, Black Male/Female Relationships, and a writing course called Black Gold, Black Soul, Black Dynamite. 

Tatyana Fermin-Martinez, a Black and Asian American junior in Academic Choice (AC), is taking AfAm History and Literature this year. 

“I wanted … to know more about Black history and what they did in the arts, writing, and when it came music and also the struggles that they went through outside of just slavery and the Civil Rights movement which is the baseline of what we’re taught,” Martinez said.

The BHS population in the ’90s had a strong motivation to implement a robust ethnic studies program. Despite the challenges they faced, students organized protests, spoke to administrators, and collaborated with staff members to create a long list of classes.

“There was a huge, huge amount of activism around the Bay Area around ethnic studies,” said Pablo Gonzalez, a University of California, Berkeley ethnic studies professor. Gonzalez attended BHS in the early ’90s. “In the fall of 1993, we coordinated a massive walkout in response to the lack of resources for the [ethnic studies] classes.”

But slowly, over the years, instruction for many of these classes has stopped. At the same time, Berkeley’s population demographics have shifted along with BHS. As the cost of living has increased, the white student population has increased with it.

Gentrification has proved noticeable and prevalent at BHS, and therefore made an impact on the classes and environment at school. “Berkeley High has always been a location for this kind of struggle,” said Gonzalez.

In addition to demographic changes, a fluctuation in teacher retention has affected class sustainability. Currently, an overwhelming majority of BHS teaching staff is white. According to the 2018 Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Report, over 70 percent of BHS certified staff were white, whereas about 6 percent were Black or African American as well as Asian and Hispanic. On the other hand, white students at BHS composed 40 percent of the student body; Black or African American students 15 percent; Asian students 8 percent; and Hispanic students 24 percent.

“The district has been naming the lack of diversity of the teaching staff as a problem for a really really long time,” Moran said. “When I got hired, the principal was making an attempt to hire more teachers of color and … I’m the only person from that original group of ethnic studies teachers that is still here.”

Moran described how teachers of color are asked to do a number of tasks to serve students of color on top of their regular jobs, such as consulting with students, joining boards and panels, and sponsoring clubs. 

AfAm Literature teacher Alan Miller explained that teacher training programs are not attracting people of color because they have other job options with higher pay.

According to Miller, the Berkeley Unified School District conducted trips to the southern part of the United States in the ’60s and ’70s to recruit Black teachers with the promise of employment. These teachers later moved to California, and started retiring around the time when Miller was hired in the early ’90s. At the time, Miller had been part of a substantial black population. 

“The support for this campus was really poor,” Miller said. “The high school was being used as a cash cow to keep down class sizes in the elementary and to provide resources at the lower grades. So Berkeley High was really underserved and teachers were underpaid.”

When teachers began retiring, they were historically replaced by white teachers, according to Miller. To fill the leftover vacant teaching spots, a “last-minute” hire would account for these “lower-level” classes where students who had not already signed up for classes would be placed. Normally, these would be students of color.

Along with poor staff retention, changing student demographics are affecting ethnic studies at BHS. The population of students of color — the main advocates for ethnic studies — is shrinking, and being replaced with white students who have different educational priorities. 

“[Current students are] taking theoretical psych, anthropology, or psychology. … They’re not taking African American Studies,” said Moran. 

But what effect does this decline of ethnic studies courses have on students of color, who often benefit from the representation they see in these classes? With the lack of advocacy for these classes at BHS, will they die out, along with BHS’s reputation for its large ethnic studies department?

  “Ethnic Studies is a rigorous form of knowledge,” Gonzalez said, “and it also is different from other fields of knowledge, because it comes out of struggle, comes out of activism.”

The battle for ethnic studies has persisted over decades and will continue as we see changes in the demographics and educational priorities at BHS.