Over the past five years, confidence in the district’s schools has never been higher, and Karen Hemphill, a current Berkeley Unified School District board member, has an idea why.
“It’s pretty clear if you look at the records of everyone running (for Berkeley Unified School District school board) who has (been) committed to the students in our district and our community,” she said.
Incumbents Judy Appel and Beatriz Leyva-Cutler are running against challenger Abdur Sikder this fall in bids for their re-election to the Berkeley Unified School District board. Appel and Leyva-Cutler have both been lauded for their commitment to public education in Berkeley, as well as their dedication to students’ success and help ushering in unprecedented intervention programs.
Though unavailable for comment, Sikder similarly seeks to ensure that the Berkeley school district is a place where all students receive a high-quality education, regardless of background.
“A good candidate can keep the pace going as it is now,” said Petra Silvey, the school district’s student director and a student at Berkeley High School. “But a great candidate has a vision for what they want the future to look like.”
Leyva-Cutler said she has been raising children for the past 36 years — both her own, and also those in BAHIA, Inc., a nonprofit day-care center that provides bilingual education for young children, where she now serves as executive director.
“I’ve seen a lot of children grow up in our programs, come back (to BAHIA) as teenagers, come back … and even work with us,” Leyva-Cutler said.
In 2002, intent on closing the racial achievement gap in the school district, Leyva-Cutler helped to form United in Action — a community-driven, multi-ethnic coalition that advocates to eliminate inequities specifically disaggregated by race and ethnicity in educational opportunities, achievements and outcomes in Berkeley public schools. But in order to close the achievement gap, Leyva-Cutler said she and others realized they needed to internally change the school board.
“A couple of us rose our hands and said, ‘We’ll run for (Berkeley Unified) school board,’ with this agenda in mind, closing the achievement gap,” Leyva-Cutler said.
She was elected to the board in 2008 as the first Latina bilingual woman to serve in more than 25 years. Over the past eight years, she has committed to fighting racial inequities in the district’s schools by implementing a master plan for serving English Language Learners, as well as working to include parents in the board’s conversations so families would be “part of the solution, rather than just watching things happen.”
“I know when parents are involved, students are more successful in their schools,” she said. “I think we can build the capacity of parents to take leadership roles in our district, particularly parents of color.”
Judy Appel was working as an active parent in her children’s classrooms when she first realized that, as a queer parent, nothing in her children’s classrooms reflected their family. None of the books, she said, nor any of the lessons promoted conversations about family diversity.
But it wasn’t until one of her children, at the time a first grade student at Oxford Elementary School, said, “Mom, sometimes when kids say ‘gay’ on the playground, they mean it in a bad way,” that she felt compelled to take direct action.
Appel served as a community representative on the Superintendent’s Budget Advisory Committee, as president of the PTA for two years and was on the School Governance Council for four years — serving as chair for the last two. A proponent for students’ equality and a workhorse of a social justice leader, Appel also helped start Our Family Coalition in order to advance policies that advocate for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the district’s schools.
“I came to appreciate the complexities of doing this type of work and the importance of serving all of our kids to help close the achievement gap,” she said.
In 2012, Appel successfully ran for school board director. Over the past four years, she has helped Berkeley Unified School District close the opportunity gap through a combination of preventional staff training and restorative justice programs for the classrooms. Her and other board members’ efforts have been successful, she said. Last year, for example, was the first year in which Berkeley High School had zero expulsions.
“It’s our responsibility to do what we can to make the world a more equitable and just place,” she said. “I really truly believe there are certain ways that are the right ways to deal with things, and we need to institutionalize them. I’m proud of my part.”
Zoë Kleinfeld is a senior staff member. Contact her at