Berkeley school district addresses achievement gap, support for Black students

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Black families from Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, and district administration discussed academic support and engagement for African American students Tuesday.

More than 130 families participated in the BUSD Black affinity town hall by providing feedback and asking questions on district initiatives. Focal points from the meeting included how the school district can best support African American students and their families, as well as close the achievement gap between Black students and their non-Black counterparts. The town hall was held in partnership with Parents of Children of African Descent, or PCAD.

“Historically, Black African American children have been impacted by racism and classroom inequalities in education,” said BUSD school board director Ka’Dijah Brown during the event. “Adding a pandemic to that has the potential to widen the achievement gap, but tonight I’m happy to be part of the conversation and be in a room with folks who say not on my watch and not in my district.”

BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens opened the town hall by presenting on the current plan for fall 2020, which includes a mixture of distance learning and on-campus learning, with distance learning as the core of education for all grades and students.

In response to a question about how to address engagement disparities, Stephens emphasized the importance of active outreach and connections between teachers and Black families. He added that the school district launched a technology wellness program that aims to offer technology support to the more than 2,500 families who borrowed a Chromebook.

Community members used the Thoughtexchange app, which allowed them to crowdsource ideas and proposals, suggest that teachers coordinate with parents and caregivers on whether students are “on or off target” and focus on equal access to the internet and working devices.

“The trust that is developed between students, teachers and families is the single most important assessment that our young people have,” Stephens said at the event. “We have looked to our teachers to be alert to these issues about participating.”

Stephens also addressed the $7 million budget shortfall, but emphasized that BUSD is looking for ways to balance the budget without impacting school programs. He added that district administrators currently do not anticipate laying off teachers or cuts to programs that specifically support African American students.

Town hall participants also discussed the possibility of a culturally relevant summer camp to increase engagement, the impact of intervention practices in decreasing the overidentification of Black students for special education programs and the involvement of families by training parents to assist teachers from home.

“Unfortunately, we all are inheriting a history in which, even with the best of intention, when Black voices are not at the table. When we are not in the room, our perspectives get lost,” said PCAD Councilmember Leslie Bowling-Dyer at the event. “As the decisions are made going forward, it’s really important we are at the table.”

The next Black affinity town hall is tentatively scheduled for June 16.

Maria Young is a deputy news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maria_myoung.