Removing Jefferson and Washington

On July 1, 2020, the Berkeley School Board voted unanimously, 5-0, to remove the names Jefferson and Washington from two of the District’s elementary schools, and to embark on a robust community process next year to recommend new names to the Board.  I am grateful for the leadership of our Board President, Judy Appel; to my colleague, Director Ka’Dijah Brown, for authoring the resolution that initiated this process; and to Natasha Beery, our Director of BSEP and Community Engagement, for leading this effort on the part of our staff.

Screen Shot 2020-07-03 at 1.06.20 PM

2004 commentary by BUSD teacher Marguerite Talley-Hughes, who has been advocating for BUSD to remove the name Jefferson for more than 17 years

In particular, I want to recognize, appreciate, celebrate, and congratulate the Jefferson Elementary community members who, more than 15 years ago, began the push to rename the school, and whose public education and advocacy laid the groundwork for, and is largely responsible for, the Board’s action. BUSD teacher Marguerite Talley-Hughes has been leading this effort for more than 17 years, and deserves gratitude and recognition from all of us for her tireless advocacy.

Here are my own thoughts on the renaming of these schools:

It is true, and I appreciate, that, as Superintendent Stephens wrote in his report to the Board, “We know that renaming is insufficient to address the structural inequities in our educational system. This name change must be only one small step toward making good on the promise of equity.”  That is true and we all know it.  Nobody on the Berkeley School Board thinks that changing the name of the either Jefferson Elementary or Washington Elementary will allow us to pretend that inequity does not still exist in our schools, that students of color in this country and in Berkeley, especially Black students, do not face challenges that white students have privileged immunity from as a result of both institutional and overt racism, and white supremacy.

But removing the names of Washington and Jefferson from our schools is a step towards normalizing the acknowledgement both of how foundational white supremacy was to the founding of our nation, and of the reality of its continued existence even in our own progressive community.

Far from erasing history, this move will force us to tell the truth about our shared history, and about the leaders we have for too long unthinkingly venerated.

I saw a recent argument that we should distinguish historical figures like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, who were honored because of their racist views, whose names grace buildings and schools precisely because they fought to preserve slavery and destroy the Union.  The argument goes that we should distinguish them from people like Washington and Jefferson who, maybe even by the standards of their time, engaged in abhorrent practices, but are not honored for the terrible things they did — they are being honored in spite of their abhorrent practices and beliefs.

I don’t buy it.  What Jefferson accomplished he accomplished on the backs of the people he enslaved, and with the benefit of their wealth, which he stole.  It is impossible to honor Jefferson for his accomplishments in spite of the fact that he bought and sold human beings, when it was the slave trade that formed the foundation of who he was, who his family was, and what we venerate him for.

George Washington also profited enormously from the more than 100 human beings he enslaved, he pursued the people he had enslaved who tried to escape, and he signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which allowed local governments to seize and return enslaved people who had escaped, and imposed penalties on anyone who helped them escape.

Jefferson’s and Washington’s white supremacist views and actions are every bit a part of our history as are the racist police killings that continue to plague our country.

We choose what to name our schools.  And those choices are an expression of our values as a community.  Those choices are an expression of whom we choose to honor.

It’s just one step, but I am proud that tonight we made a choice to remove the names Jefferson and Washington from our schools.  Removing their names is a move towards honestly reckoning with our history, and towards demonstrating to our Black students that their lives, and the lives of their ancestors, matter.

Yes, we are focused on equity. No, we are not leaving every child behind.

My Berkeley Law faculty colleague and fellow BUSD parent Steven Davidoff Solomon has written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claiming that our public school district has botched the response to the coronavirus by “leaving every child behind” in the name of equity. Noting that his own family sends one twin daughter to a private religious school and the other twin daughter, who has special needs, to a Berkeley public school, Solomon expresses dismay that the private school was better equipped to make an overnight switch to online education than the large public school district. Attributing the phased (as opposed to instantaneous) transition to entirely remote learning to a refusal to educate any students unless everyone can be educated equally, Solomon attacks BUSD for letting “everyone drown to satisfy abstract notions of equality.”

With respect for my colleague, I nevertheless have to respond by calling bullshit.

Let’s put equity aside for a minute, and just consider what it means for a cash-strapped public school district with 10,000 students and 800 classrooms to switch to an entirely online, remote instructional program with no notice. There is no existing online curriculum, let alone one teachers have been trained to use. At least 40% of teachers have suddenly assumed primary caregiving responsibilities of their own children. Many families don’t have enough computers for each child to use at the same time, and of course some don’t have any at all. Our wonderful teaching force is, thankfully, unionized and cannot be directed to dramatically change their working conditions without negotiation. We also need to consult with the hundreds of teachers who will be doing the work as we create an entirely new mode of education from scratch. Our IT staff is excellent and experienced but under-resourced, and suddenly tasked with a brand new job of supporting hundreds of teachers’ transition to online instruction. We have legal (not to mention moral) obligations to our students with disabilities to provide them equal access to the remote learning we are developing, or face costly litigation. Our district office has been decimated by years of budget cuts because of inadequate state funding for public education. And, the shelter-in-place has made even day-to-day operations fraught with challenge. For example: we still have not figured out where the mail is being delivered. (This is a real problem, on the UC campus too. The law school, where Solomon and I both teach, has not been getting any mail at all.)

Private schools face almost none of these challenges. Their teachers can be required to do whatever is asked of them. Many have one-to-one laptop programs, where each student has a computer at home. The schools are much, much smaller. The admissions offices can choose whether to admit students with disabilities. (For the record, and just to be clear, I don’t know if that is why Solomon’s daughter with special needs attends public school, while his other daughter attends private school.) Private schools are generally far better resourced than public schools. I assume these small schools are getting their mail.

Is anyone really shocked that private schools are more nimbly switching over to an all-remote learning environment than public schools?

Before I get to the equity point, I want to say: given all these challenges, I am so proud of what our BUSD staff has accomplished. Our heroic Nutrition Services staff has continued providing meal service to families in need; we have distributed hundreds of Chromebooks to families that don’t have them; and we have worked closely with our teacher leaders and the union to develop a remote learning plan that will start on Monday. Within five working days of the state issuing its guidance to school districts about distance learning, BUSD published its comprehensive plan to the community.  I can tell you that, other than health and safety, and keeping basic operations of the district going, district staff have been working on literally nothing else for the last three weeks. They have been working around the clock on this plan. If you want a sense of the complexities involved, I urge you to watch the Superintendent’s report at the emergency board meeting we held last week (skip ahead to minute 55).  (Dr. Stephens is also conducting a district-wide Town Hall on Thursday, April 9 from 6:30 to 8:00 pm, which can be accessed at this link:

So, I admit to being a little defensive about the whole “look at how much better the small private schools are doing than the big public schools” argument, which just seems absurd to me. We’ve been tracking what other public school districts are doing, and national reports on distance learning, like this recent piece from US News, point to how complex a task this is for all districts.  While it is true that a few districts (some in states that have properly invested in public education) have figured it out quicker than we have, some have had to walk back initial promises of a very robust online program (this is true of some private schools too, by the way), and most are in the same boat we are in. We are trying to learn as much as we can from any district that is doing anything better than we are.

Another thing to keep in mind: just as it is a false comparison to point to a private school, with its exclusive admissions practices, as a standard for a public district, it’s also a false comparison to use anecdotes about the stellar practices of individual teachers in other communities as a standard for a comprehensive district-wide plan. These just aren’t the same. Reports from other communities – and even from very affluent communities like Palo Alto – point out that the transition to online learning for entire school districts isn’t like a light switch. Even communities with high levels of family privilege are experiencing the difficulties of such a large reworking of classroom instruction.

I am not at all defensive, however, about our commitment to equity. It is our legal obligation – but also our mission, and the reason most of us work in public education – to serve every Berkeley child who wants to attend public school. This means providing equal access to education for children with disabilities. It means providing equal access to students who don’t have a computer at home, or whose parents do not speak English. Students who are now working themselves to make up for the lost income of a parent. Students who are, suddenly, full-time caregivers for their younger siblings. Students who can no longer escape abusive homes by leaving for school. Students who don’t have a private room in which to engage in online learning, or who don’t own headphones. Students who don’t sleep under a roof.

Look at our BUSD Distance Learning Plan. It doesn’t say nobody will be educated because income inequality exists in Berkeley. It thoughtfully attempts to provide instruction to all students in the district, taking into account the enormous challenges in doing so. The district hasn’t only been trying to mitigate the inherent unfairness of the COVID-19 pandemic by serving meals and distributing Chromebooks: staff is also designing weekly curriculum for all students, re-working grading policy, responding to the community’s need for ongoing communication, studying Special Education law, training teachers on interactive technology, and offering its facilities to potential first responders. This is hardly paralysis.

And let me be one of the first to say: it is not going to be a smooth transition for any large public district. The logistical and technological challenges alone make my head spin. (Just think for a minute about the Berkeley High master schedule and how difficult that would be to replicate online at all, let alone in a situation where many teachers are also now full-time caregivers.) I am co-homeschooling three kids right now, while trying to work full-time. I get it. I am hoping for a robust and engaging remote learning experience for all BUSD students. But we have to be patient, and realistic.

Most important, we need to learn the right lessons from this crisis.

What we need to truly see, and commit to even more urgently addressing when the crisis is over, is the deep economic divide that this pandemic has exposed, a divide that the inevitable recession will certainly exacerbate. Public educators are, of course, aware of this divide, and they choose to be public educators because of the urgency they feel to address it. That sense of urgency is what is driving our need to set up online learning in the most equitable way that we can.

If, instead, the lesson we learn from this crisis is that a commitment to equity is a drag on more privileged students, well, then, shame on us.

Teachers for Ty!

Here are some of the letters from current and former BUSD teachers in the recent Election Edition of the Berkeley Times.  Click on the letter to read a larger version of it.

Hasmig Minassian         Alison KellyDana BlanchardMary PattersonJulie SearleBernadetteMatt LipnerDonna DavisContreras

Board approves Vice Principal for Malcom X

The School Board just approved Dr. Evans’ proposal to add a Vice Principal at Malcom X, and the District will post the position tomorrow.  This is welcome news for the Malcom X community, and the new administrator will be in place, assuming the search goes well, in a month or so.  Stopgap measures make sense in a crisis situation, and the enrollment at Malcom X has reached that point.  But the need for stopgap measures indicates a corresponding need for better and more robust long-term planning around issues of enrollment and facilities than has occurred to this point.  That long-term planning needs to happen now.

Thoughts on our crowded elementary schools

The overcrowding at our elementary schools is an issue that is at the forefront of the minds of a number of Berkeley parents, particularly those (like me) with children in elementary school.  In short, the recent confusion over kindergarten enrollment numbers has not inspired confidence among elementary school communities who are frustrated by inconsistent explanations for the decisions that are being made.  The Board should direct District staff to research and present the options available to solve the problem (none of which are easy fixes) through an open and transparent process that results in a long-term facilities plan.

First, some principles that guide my thoughts on this issue generally:

  • Overcrowded schools negatively impact student learning.  This is common sense, but it is worth making explicit why it is a problem for “flex” classrooms that are used for teacher prep, art, science, or music to be re-purposed into regular classrooms.  When that happens, teachers lose the critical ability to prep in their classrooms and instructional time on task gets lost in transitions (as classrooms are transformed from one purpose to another).  And then, of course, the sheer numbers of students at a school that is not designed for that many people can impact yard safety, cafeteria scheduling, and the ability of the school to conduct all-school assemblies and community events.
  • A number of our elementary schools have recently lost “flex” classrooms.  Other elementary schools in the District long ago lost these rooms.  At my kids’ school, Rosa Parks, we have at times had makeshift classrooms on the stage of our auditorium and in a cramped computer lab separated from the other classrooms.  The fact that most of the elementary schools have now lost their flex space highlights that this is a District-wide problem that needs a long-term District-wide solution.
  • The impact of the state-funded Transitional Kindergarten (TK) program on our facilities cannot be denied.  TK is a wonderful program.  But the state funds allocated for it did not include funds for facilities, which means that, this year, the District had to accommodate, without additional facilities resources, seven TK classrooms (compared to four last year).  The TK population should hold steady over the next 5 or so years, so it now makes sense to think of, and plan for, the “TK-5” student population in the elementary schools.

Second, some preliminary thoughts going forward:

  • The problem is going to get worse.  The demographic study the District commissioned in January 2014 (available here) is projecting an increase in Kindergarten enrollment next year of more than 100 students.  We need to start planning for that increase immediately.
  • It doesn’t work for every elementary school to have the same amount of administrative and support staff, regardless of the number of students at the school.  A sensible approach would be to have a minimum level of staffing at every school, and then a long-term, transparent formula for additional staff based on the size of the school.  Such a formula exists at the middle school level for administrative staffing, and it is not hard to envision how one could be developed for the elementary schools.  While a long term solution is explored, there should be swift action to provide at least temporary relief to the schools that have significantly more students than other elementary schools.
  • The District must place a premium on clear, candid communication to affected communities.

Robert Reich endorses the campaign!

Robert Reich is a hero to many of us in Berkeley for his advocacy on behalf of working Americans.  He is also an educator who has written eloquently about the need for our public schools to prepare students for a changing world.  He believes that we will eliminate the achievement gap not only when we eliminate racial predictability in test scores, but when we also ensure that all students emerge from their schooling with a love of learning, and the ability to think creatively, collaborate, and apply what they have learned to new contexts.

I am very proud to announce that Professor Reich has endorsed my campaign for school board!

Robert Reich

“Ty will bring a fresh energy and perspective to the Berkeley School Board.”  — Robert Reich


If we want Common Core math to work in Berkeley …

… we need to make sure teachers have time to learn how to teach the new standards, collaborate with colleagues, and evaluate meaningful data that informs their instruction.  The New York Times Magazine recently ran a cover story that is worth reading for parents who are concerned about the new “new math” being taught in the Berkeley schools, now that we have adopted the Common Core standards.  The article makes a compelling case that new math standards are set up for failure if “teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it.”

There’s a lot to like in the Common Core math standards.  They are designed, as the article explains, to enable students to make sense of the mathematical concepts they are learning, not just get answers to problems.  If students understand why they are doing what they’re doing, they are much more likely to be able to apply what they’ve learned to a new context, which is the way to demonstrate true mastery of any subject.

As we move forward with the Common Core, we need to have patience with the new standards, which hold great promise.  But it is also critical that we ensure our teachers get the resources they need to teach the new standards effectively.