Berkeley school district attempts to support Black students as pandemic continues

Photo of Malcolm X BUSD Elementary School
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Virtual learning has resulted in challenges for Berkeley Unified School District. The district is aiming to provide support to Black students and families amid the pandemic.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Black students in Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, continue to be among the most impacted members of the school community.

A Jan. 20 presentation given by BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens noted several “concerning” trends among students. The data, which showed lowered class attendance and enrollment, signaled “fundamental access problems,” Stephens said.

There was also slowed growth in terms of student performance on Star Assessments, which are tests that evaluate how students perform according to Common Core educational standards. On average, data indicated that Black students’ progress slowed compared to their peers, particularly in math, Stephens added.

Stephens said the school district has been working with Black families on issues such as food loss, housing and homelessness.

The district is currently providing services to Black students and families through family liaisons and teacher outreach, according to Stephens.

“The data still indicates that the distance learning over the course of the pandemic is having a real effect on the learning of African American students,” Stephens said.

To provide additional support, the district is partnering with R.T. Fisher Educational Enterprises, an educational and public outreach consulting firm.

The group plans to use a program called “STEM STEPS,” which provides Black students with “culturally relevant” math and science related enrichment activities, according to Stephens.

“The single most important element of supporting our families, including our Black families, is getting our schools back open. This is not working well and in a supportive manner for Black students,” Stephens said. “Reopening, even in a moderate way, is the district priority.”

Spencer Pritchard, co-chair of the African American Studies Department at Berkeley High School, said many students are “cramped” in apartments with others or suffer the effects of isolation.

Pritchard added faculty, who rely on relationship building with students, have a much more difficult time getting to know their students virtually. Being engaged with students is also very difficult, Pritchard said, as teachers who previously engaged with more than 100 students a day are now forced to email or otherwise virtually interact with students, which takes a “remarkable” amount of effort.

“With crisis spawns opportunity, and if we don’t learn from this and adapt, we will continue to fail Black students the way the school system did before the pandemic,” Pritchard said in an email. 

BUSD supported the department with professional development at the start of the semester, as well as helped students access technology, but districts can only do so much when spread thin, Pritchard said.

Dawn Williams Ferreira, co-chair of the African American Studies Department and lead instructor of African diaspora dance at Berkeley High, said she updated her curriculum during the pandemic to teach students about self-care and wellness.

Pritchard added that there is a group of students who are doing very well under the circumstances and noted the district has kept some priorities constant by continuing the African American Success Project and restorative justice programs.

Moving forward, Pritchard said he hopes to see the district continue to prioritize students, staff and families’ well-being and proactively partner with their staff to carry out resolutions made in support of the Black Lives Matter at School campaign and their commitments to support Black families, students and staff.

Ferreira added that she and Pritchard discussed the need for increased mental health resources and healing. Additionally, the department plans to continue their partnership with Healthy Black Families Inc., an organization that advocates for holistic development for Black individuals and families.

“The challenge the district and us as staff have is how do we learn from this and urgently work to improve the way we educate our children?” Pritchard said in the email. “We must move to a new normal where Black student needs are prioritized.”

Contact Sebastian Cahill at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SebastianCahil1.