Berkeley school district votes to rename 2 schools, move to police-free schools

rename washington jefferson elementary school busd
Catherine Wallin/Staff

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Discussion of equity in education dominated Wednesday’s Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board meeting, at which the board voted to discontinue the names of two Berkeley elementary schools.

In June, the board passed a Black Lives Matter resolution that included a commitment to starting the renaming process for the Jefferson and Washington elementary schools, which were named after founding fathers who were slaveholders. At Wednesday’s meeting, the board unanimously voted to rename both schools, following a community engagement process.

“Place names convey a sense of location, identity and aspiration, but those names also exist in the context of our history — a history that we reaffirm when we maintain those names,” said Natasha Beery, director of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, at the meeting.

During the public comment session, many expressed concern about the potential health risks of reopening schools in light of the recent surge of coronavirus cases in Alameda County, while others spoke in support of police-free schools in Berkeley.

According to BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens, who gave a presentation during the meeting on plans for the upcoming fall semester, in-person instruction in the fall, if allowed by state guidelines, will rely on the principles of stable groups and social distancing.

Stable bubble groups will be most important for younger students, who will be less able to follow social distancing principles, Stephens said, while social distancing will be emphasized for older students. He added that BUSD aims to send out an enrollment form for a distance learning-only option by July 13.

Although Stephens acknowledged the health risks involved in returning to classroom instruction, he also emphasized that online learning creates serious equity issues, particularly for disabled and economically disadvantaged students.

“There’s a fair amount of skepticism among many of us about our ability to reach the students who have so far not checked into distance learning with distance learning,” Stephens said at the meeting. “That mode of instruction is itself part of the problem because it’s divorced from those personal connections which can be so important to students.”

The board also unanimously passed a resolution to move toward police-free schools.

According to BUSD board member Julie Sinai, only Berkeley High School and Berkeley Technology Academy have a police presence, which consists of one police officer paid for by the city of Berkeley. The resolution passed by the board will begin a process to gather community input to move toward ending said police presence.

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.