Natalia Quezada, a junior in Academic Choice (AC) who identifies as Latina, is often one of the only students of color in her classes. According to Quezada, her teachers don’t do an adequate job of acknowledging the lack of diversity in classrooms or making a safe space for Black and Brown students. Though she’s voiced criticisms to her teachers, Quezada has seen no change. Put frankly: “there’s just a ton of white kids.”
Quezada’s experience is not uncommon for many Black and Brown students in largely white classrooms. According to the last available Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) self study, Black and Brown students were reported as making up around 35 percent of the population of both Berkeley International High School (BIHS) and AC. Black and Brown students are the minority in white classrooms and can have a vastly different experiences than their peers as a result.
In BIHS, “the majority of students in the program are white,” said Amanda Moreno, a BIHS English and Latinx Literature teacher.
Despite BIHS’s lack of diversity, according to BIHS Vice Principal Harrison Blatt, the program has had the most diverse teaching staff out of all of the Small Learning Communities (SLCs). BIHS has worked hard to retain teachers of color, according to Moreno. Still, attracting Black and brown students to BIHS proves difficult.
Moreno explained that when many white students choose BIHS over other SLCs, it creates a perpetual cycle of whiteness that discourages students of color from opting in. Moreno said, “It’s hard to erase that history. … It’s hard to convince students of color to take that risk, to be in a predominantly white space.”
One student of color who chose to be in BIHS is junior Neruda Diaz, who identifies as Mexican and Middle Eastern. Diaz feels that BIHS is burdened by a lack of diversity. In one class, he is one of only two students of color. Diaz said that his teachers do an acceptable job of acknowledging the unbalanced racial demographics. However, on a few occasions, Diaz noticed that “kids of color seem to be excluded from groups, or some kids may not seem happy to work with them.”
Although it may be hard to get students of color to take a chance on BIHS, some have made peace with the lack of diversity. BIHS senior Hanim Nuru, identifying as Black, admits that while she knows some students of color who aren’t comfortable in BIHS’s predominantly white classes, she has found a way to live with the situation.
“I personally just try to find comfort where I am,” Nuru said. “I know this is the real world situation because there’s not a lot of BIPOC people in America in general.”
However, according to certain AC students, their experiences are somewhat different from BIHS students’. Myah Polzin, an African American and Pacific Islander junior in AC, feels that her race is represented well in her SLC because she has teachers who look like her and classes that cater to her race.
Polzin said that teachers address diversity issues adequately but that “the topic usually never comes up until something makes it have to be talked about.”
Moreno shares Polzin’s experiences: discussions related to race are more productive and organic in her Latinx Literature class, where there are more students of color. Moreno explained that she has had BIHS classes with only one Black person, which makes having conversations about race difficult. While Moreno notices this imbalance, she doesn’t always want to draw attention to that person.
“While it is important for white people to talk about race, how does it feel to be the only Black student in a class where all the white students are talking about race?” Moreno said.
Diaz has seen this in conversations dominated by white students, with BIPOC students unable to share their experiences with racism. This is usually accepted because “no one has ever done anything different,” Diaz said.
“It’s weird to go to a school which is so diverse and integrated but then be in classrooms and small schools which aren’t,” Moreno said. “I think it’s a disservice to students to be segregated.”
Moreno proposed eliminating the SLC model and instead adopting an approach similar to Universal Ninth Grade, consisting of heterogeneous classes and more Ethnic Studies courses like Latinx Literature and African American History.
“It is something that needs to be acknowledged and … talked about more broadly,” Moreno said. “What does diversity mean on our campus?”