Berkeley school board candidates discuss racial achievement gap at League of Women Voters forum

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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The racial disparity achievement gap within the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, was the center of a League of Women Voters, or LWV, forum for BUSD candidates at Berkeley City College on Tuesday night.

Five candidates campaigning for the BUSD election in November — Ka’Dijah Brown, Julie Sinai, Ty Alper, Abdur Sikder and Norma Harrison took turns giving one-minute responses to audience questions. Topics raised from an audience of about 30 people ranged from school start dates to racial bias in BUSD schools. Candidate Dru Howard did not attend the forum after LWV was not able to reach Howard.

One recurring topic of discussion was the achievement gap between Latinx and Black students and their peers in BUSD schools. In response to a question about bias against Black students, candidate Brown referenced California School Dashboard data that indicated that increases in the suspension rate are outpacing improvements in the graduation rate.

Alper, the only candidate running for reelection out of the three open seats, brought up the school district’s efforts in addressing the achievement gap, citing BUSD’s revision of expulsion policy and investments made in restorative justice programs. Alper’s response was supported by Brown’s and Sinai’s, all three of whom endorsed each other. Sinai pointed to the underwhelming results of the district’s past efforts to close the achievement gap.

“When we set up the 2020 vision for Berkeley’s children 10 years ago, it was to eliminate racial predictability in academic success in our schools. We did not want to be able to walk into a kindergarten and be able to say our African American kids and our Latino kids aren’t going to succeed just by looking at them,” Sinai said during the forum.

Building on Alper’s suggestion for more focused efforts on restorative justice, Brown and Sinai also recommended cultural competency training for staff. In his response, Sikder, however, took a very different position on the underlying causes of the barriers many Black students face.

“I think as a parent we should take responsibility big time, because it’s very important. … And if I just blame teachers, OK, why don’t they teach my child as other (children)? That’s not (a) good enough excuse, so we need to take responsibility,” Sikder said.

Responding to the same question, Harrison pointed out that racial disparities within the district “(serve) the system very well.”

After the meeting, PTA member Robert Collier said he sees the candidates as “very engaged” but that he was left wanting to have more questions answered. Among them, the most pressing remains the question of the achievement gap.

“Because the achievement gap has been going on for decades and the Berkeley school district has been trying very sincerely, … why hasn’t everything the school district has done been more effective?”

Contact Brandon Yung at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.