Berkeley school board approves renaming Jefferson Elementary School after Ruth Acty

Photo of Zoom call
Serena Chang/Staff
Ruth Acty, who was the first Black teacher in Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, taught kindergarten students at Longfellow School. During a BUSD meeting Wednesday, a motion to rename Jefferson Elementary School after Acty was approved.

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Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board members unanimously approved a motion to rename Jefferson Elementary School after Ruth Acty at a special meeting Wednesday.

As the district’s first Black teacher, Ruth Acty was chosen by BUSD’s name advisory committee from options that were proposed based on their popularity among students, parents and faculty. According to Natasha Beery, director of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, Acty always wanted to be a teacher but faced many obstacles, including the death of her parents.

“As a woman of color, she expands the type of BUSD school names, and she would be the only Ruth Acty Elementary School in the world,” said Grace Kong, former name advisory committee chair and BUSD parent, during the meeting. “As an incredible educator, she really exemplifies what we’re trying to lift up in public education.”

Beery also noted that Acty was unable to find a job because of the color of her skin, despite having multiple college degrees and teaching credentials. Due to pressure from community leaders, a decision in 1939 allowed for hiring to proceed “without regard to race or creed,” and Acty was assigned to teach kindergarten students at Longfellow School.

According to Beery, in addition to being a “phenomenal teacher,” Acty was also a community organizer who was involved in the NAACP and community groups centered around the health of children or the arts.

The board later discussed the resolution calling for the prioritization of educators during state vaccine distribution. BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens said during the meeting that it is “wise” for the board to deliberate school reopening plans without depending on the effect of a vaccine for the next six months.

A segment of the meeting was dedicated to board members Judy Appel and Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, during which guest speakers and board members spoke on the impact Appel and Leyva-Cutler have had on the school board and the Berkeley community. This was Appel’s and Leyva-Cutler’s last BUSD school board meeting.

“You have made such a tremendous, lasting impact on not just the district but also the city of Berkeley,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said to Leyva-Cutler during the meeting. “You came to the district with a commitment to kids, particularly bilingual education, and you really made that a focus of your work.”

Arreguín then emphasized Appel’s work supporting LGBTQ+ families, calling Appel an advocate for student equality.

Following the dedication, many BUSD parents expressed their grievances about distance learning, and a few stressed the dangers of reopening schools during public comment.

“The inequities are growing every single day,” said BUSD parent Fani Garagouni. “Students from affluent families have switched to private schools or they have tutors, and with all these supplemental experiences, these kids are thriving while the rest of the BUSD students are disengaged.”

Contact Serene Chang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_serenechang .