Berkeley school board discusses updates to distance learning, approves funding

Screenshot from a Zoom meeting
Annika Kim Constantino/Staff
The Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education met virtually Wednesday. During the meeting, members discussed aspects of online learning and approved funding to establish a middle school community engagement plan.

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During Wednesday night’s Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, Board of Education meeting, members discussed updates to distance learning and unanimously approved funding for a plan to engage the Berkeley community on middle school student enrollment.

Several BUSD staff presented a report that compared data from the fall 2020 semester with the previous academic year to demonstrate distance learning’s impact on student attendance and academic performance. Four guest BUSD teachers also shared their experiences with distance learning and the challenges the school district should address while schools remain physically closed.

“After the decision to close schools last March, we rolled out a distance learning program and have continued to work tirelessly with staff to improve it,” said BUSD Associate Superintendent Bajé Thiara. “While it has been a challenge as a community, we have embraced it wholeheartedly.”

Overall BUSD student attendance rates dropped significantly in March when distance learning was first implemented but recovered to pre-shelter-in-place rates during the fall 2020 semester, according to the presentation. Notable exceptions to this included Black students, English learners and special education students, among other groups, with attendance rates 3% or more below their pre-shelter-in-place rates.

The presentation also reported that academic performance suffered across third to eighth grade levels during distance learning. Data compared Star Assessment scores from winter 2019 to fall 2020 to measure academic growth, with scores in math indicating the least amount of growth from the previous year.

“Students who benefit the most from the personalized peer-to-peer and teacher-to-student relationships are the ones who are suffering the most in distance learning,” said Hasmig Minassian, Berkeley High School teacher and parent. “This very big dark spot of lacking personal relationships helps explain some of the math numbers we’re looking at.”

The meeting ended with the board unanimously approving up to $25,000 in funding to facilitate a middle school community engagement plan presented by BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens.

Funding would support a nine-month process of holding districtwide meetings and creating a middle school enrollment advisory group to gather community input on how to adjust the BUSD middle school enrollment policy, according to Stephens.

Stephens added that the current options for an adjusted policy include implementing a “feeder system” in elementary schools that sends students to designated middle schools or “attendance zones” that would assign middle schools based on a student’s neighborhood. The district and school board is expected to come to a final decision on adjusting the policy in November.

“It’s clear that the status quo is that we don’t have equitable middle schools right now, and that’s a problem,” said Ty Alper, BUSD Board of Education president. “I’m excited to have a really meaningful engagement with the community to figure out the best way to find a solution.”

Annika Kim Constantino is a schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaKimC.