Berkeley school district to further develop the African American Success Project

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Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, administrators and parents discussed the further development of the African American Success Project for the 2020-21 school year during the district’s second Black town hall meeting Tuesday.

The African American Success Project was a 2018 response to parents’ concerns about educator diversity, teacher-student relationships and culturally relevant curricula suitable for distance learning. The plan would provide a framework for BUSD to make “a steady set of investments” toward Black student success over time, according to Superintendent Brent Stephens.

“A plan itself doesn’t produce change,” Stephens said at the meeting. “But, a plan can lead to more coherence across a system, and what we’re talking about is a system-level improvement.”

Drawing from similar initiatives underway at the Los Angeles and San Francisco school districts, a draft plan was presented with six performance indicators: basic needs access, cultural affirmation, shared identities with mentors, strong partnerships between families and the school district, culturally responsive school and district staff and culturally responsive systems of accountability.

Parents, however, are pushing for the school board to take greater accountability.

“The BUSD wheel keeps turning the same requests with constituents vocalizing the same needs,” said parent panelist Laura Babitt at the meeting. “Black students cannot be expected to feel safe in our classrooms or on our campus if staff is not equipped to discuss or handle issues of racism or bias.”

Four other parent panelists expressed desires to pull their children out of BUSD schools, citing claims of shared classroom experiences of discrimination, criminalization and disproportionate discipline.

Travis Bristol, parent panel facilitator and a UC Berkeley assistant professor, said he was “shocked” to see his daughter given reading assignments below her reading level. Parent panelist Kacy Robinson said her son had an experience similar to that of Bristol’s daughter, causing Robinson to reconsider her son’s involvement with BUSD.

Parent panelist Tiara Maldonado said she removed her son from a different BUSD school last year “for the safety and preservation of his well-being.”

School board member Ka’Dijah Brown said school “push-outs” of Black students are not limited to expulsion or suspension, but also include voluntary removal by parents.

“Bias training and these conversations about racism can’t be seen as an aside,” Stephens said at the meeting. “They need to be the work that we do, as opposed to being thought of as a separate workshop that is attended on a voluntary basis.”

Over the next few weeks, BUSD will rebuild its budget, Stephens said. Despite “catastrophic” cuts, the board is considering the creation of equity funds and expansions to the BUSD Office of Family Engagement and Equity to ensure Black students have the necessary technology to engage in distance learning.

Parents are also pushing for the creation of a Black parent advisory council to hold the district accountable.

“We are capable of creating the learning environments we deserve and expect those historically and currently in power to act in concert with our capacity,” Robinson said at the meeting.

According to Stephens, BUSD administrators will engage with community members over the summer in order for the African American Success Project to be ready by September.

Contact Victoria Stafford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @VictoriaStaffrd.

A previous version of this article may have implied that the African American Success Project began this year. In fact, the project began in 2018.