‘Not acceptable’: Virtual academy, equity concerns stew in BUSD meeting

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Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff
Wednesday's Berkeley Unified School District meeting discussed concerns surrounding both its virtual learning academy and equity.

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Facing potential closure, the virtual learning academy of Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, received support from students, parents and teachers at a BUSD board meeting Wednesday.

Due to funding restrictions and an enrollment decrease, the K-5 virtual academy could be shut down by next year. Among some 30 public commenters at the meeting were numerous voices in favor of keeping the academy, which opened in fall 2021.

“It’s been vital for my multigenerational household with medically fragile members,” said Ann Song during public comment. “Children learn as much, if not more, from their peers, and they have been thriving in these online communities.”

Commenters also framed the school’s potential closure as an equity issue, citing the heavy toll of COVID-19 on people of color and multi-generational families.

However, neither the board members nor the district staff responded to concerns over the virtual academy, though they had discussed it at a previous meeting. The only mention of it from the board’s side of the room was unspoken — a line item in the budget presentation noting that $500,000 could be saved by cutting the academy and its five teaching positions.

Superintendent Brent Stephens said the budget presentation was a draft and that the board would ultimately act on it in late May or June. The budget was uncertain due to union negotiations, Stephens added.

The main action items at the meeting instead looked forward to promoting equity within the district. The board voted to approve the creation of a director of equity, achievement and belonging, with four votes in favor, one abstention, and one vote against from Vice President Laura Babitt. Babitt doubted the value of a new position while existing management was unable to motivate staff to partake in equity work.

“It moves people outside of the level of accountability,” Babitt said at the meeting. “Equity, inclusion and belonging is everyone’s job.”

The board also unanimously approved the Comprehensive Coordinated Early Intervening Services Plan, which aims to address overrepresentation of Black BUSD students in special education.

The plan was due months ago in winter 2021, according to Board President Ka’Dijah Brown. Delays to its creation required the board to take action despite just having been introduced to the plan, Brown added.

Babitt questioned the “real will” of the team that developed the plan, contending, among other things, that the $22,500 for cultural competency training and $40,000 for tutoring it provided were not enough.

“We must work towards real systemic change and drop it with the window dressing. We have work to do,” Babitt said, citing data that showed poorer outcomes for BUSD students of color. “I’m completely in awe of this district’s complacency around such results. It is not acceptable.”

Gabe Classon is a schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @gabeclasson.