Rasheda Daniel has no illusions about how hard it will be to get
into the University of California at Berkeley. That's why the high
school senior has taken all the toughest courses at Inglewood High
here. That's why she spends hours each night on homework, keeping up
a straight-A average. That's why she got a job at a local comedy
club, to spice up her rsum.
Yet she worries this might not be enough. Over in zip code 90210,
students at the predominately white Beverly Hills High School can
take as many as 14 advanced placement classes - high-level courses
that the University of California weighs more heavily. Mostly
minority Inglewood offers only three.
Because of this discrepancy, Rasheda is suing the state of
California in the first legal action of its kind in the nation. For
her, the suit is an attempt to allow blacks the same opportunity to
compete as whites have. More broadly, though, it symbolizes a new
approach in the way minorities are fighting to enforce equity in US
schools. Instead of concentrating primarily on desegregation and
affirmative action - programs in retreat in the courts and many
cities across the country - minority groups are now focusing more on
curriculum to redress historic inequities.
Thus, the lawsuit filed here last week could resonate through
linoleum-tiled schools nationwide as parents and students try new
ways - such as vouchers and more AP classes - to change what goes on
in the classroom.
"People are finding one path blocked and trying to find others to
get some measure of equity," says Gary Orfield, a professor at
Harvard University's School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.
Decades ago, desegregation was seen as perhaps the key step toward
improving lagging public schools. Yet today, while polls show
achieving racial balance in the classroom remains an important goal
among minorities, curriculum and improved learning are the primary
"Integration is still highly regarded, but academic achievement is
clearly priority No. 1," says Steve Farkas, director of research for
Public Agenda and co-author of a 1998 study on African-American
attitudes about public schools. "Who you sit next to is less
important than what you learn in the classroom," he adds.
For students, access to AP classes is an integral part of this
mission. Because of the challenging nature of AP classes, many state
university systems, including California's, offer college credits to
students who score well on the AP exam. In addition, they give
students in AP classes 5 grade points for an A instead of the regular
Responding to this encouragement, students have flocked to the AP.
Since 1984, the number of AP exams taken has risen from 240,000 to
more than 1.1 million. Therefore, say participants in the lawsuit,
students who have limited access to AP classes are disadvantaged in
the admissions process at top universities.
"With the disparities in AP courses in California, the playing
field is at a 90 degree angle," says Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the
American Civil Liberties Union here, which is bringing the suit on
behalf of Rasheda and three other students in Inglewood, a suburban
Los Angeles community.
Indeed, studies show how crucial a strong curriculum is. A recent
report by the US Department of Education said that completing a solid
academic core was more strongly correlated with getting a bachelor's
degree than high school test scores, grade-point averages, or class