Virtual Academy, equity concerns simmer at BUSD meeting
Facing a potential closure, the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, virtual learning academy received support from students, parents and teachers at a BUSD board meeting on Wednesday .
Due to funding restrictions and declining enrollment, the K-5 Virtual Academy may be closed by next year. Among the thirty public commentators present at the meeting, many voices spoke in favor of maintaining the academy, which opened in the fall of 2021.
“It’s been vital to my multi-generational household with medically fragile members,” Ann Song said in a public comment. “Children learn as much, if not more, from their peers, and they have thrived in these online communities.”
Commentators also called the potential school closure an equity issue, citing the heavy toll of COVID-19 on people of color and multigenerational families.
However, neither council members nor district staff responded to concerns about the virtual academy, although they had discussed it at a previous meeting. The only mention of it from the board side of the hall was unspoken – a line item in the budget presentation noting that $500,000 could be saved by scrapping the academy and its five teaching positions.
Superintendent Brent Stephens said the budget presentation was a draft and the council would ultimately act in late May or June. The budget was uncertain due to union negotiations, Stephens added.
Rather, the meeting’s main action points were aimed at 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 when existing management was unable to motivate staff to participate in equity work.
“It moves people outside the level of responsibility,” Babitt said at the meeting. “Equity, inclusion and belonging are everyone’s business.”
The board also unanimously approved the Comprehensive Coordinated Early Intervention Services Plan, which aims to address the overrepresentation of black BUSD students in special education.
The plan was supposed to arrive months ago in the winter of 2021, according to council chairman Ka’Dijah Brown. Delays in its creation forced the council to take action when it had only just been introduced to the plan, Brown added.
Babitt questioned the “genuine will” of the team that came up with the plan, saying, among other things, that the $22,500 for cultural competency training and $40,000 for tutoring she was offering were not sufficient.
“We need to work towards real systemic change and drop it with the facade. We have work to do,” Babitt said, citing data that showed poorer outcomes for BUSD students of color. “I am completely impressed by the complacency of this district in the face of such results. It’s not acceptable.”
Gabe Classon is a school and community journalist. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him on Twitter at @gabeclasson.