On Wednesday, May 5, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board met to discuss a variety of subjects, including the Berkeley High School (BHS) Bridge Program, teachers’ healthcare costs, climate change, graduation plans, and the departure of Associate Superintendent Bajé Thiara.
BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens presented on the school’s reopening plans. He explained that, although elementary schools’ open houses have been canceled, in-person graduation will occur at all levels, from elementary to high school. In addition, the high school graduation events will be stretched out over three days in order to meet public health guidelines, and will be held outdoors at 33 percent capacity. Moreover, all graduations will be recorded in order to accommodate students who are unable to attend.
During the public comment section of the meeting, Berkeley High School (BHS) senior Shayla Avery spoke about the Bridge Program, in which high school teachers offer help to students who struggled in middle school, relaying the integral role it played in her acceptance into the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and overall high school experience as a person of color. “I really do hope that the Bridge Program expands and continues to be this amazing program for students coming into high school, bridging that gap for Black and Brown students to get to this top college like I did,” said Avery.
Additionally, BHS sophomore Serena Thomas spoke about the emotional support she received from her teachers and classmates, and the academic impact of the program. “Without Bridge, honestly, I think I would be failing right now,” said Thomas. She suggested the funding be increased so there could be more teachers and the program could be expanded.
Also during public comment, Samya Van Valer, a fifth grader at Oxford Elementary, spoke about the dire need for Berkeley schools to make greater efforts to fight climate change. She proposed that schools start using reusable cutlery and containers, and that parents stop buying plastic. Van Valer said such efforts are necessary in order to create a better world where she could pursue her dream. “In the future, I would like to become a marine biologist, and I dream of an ocean with marine life I can study,” said Van Valer.
The school board meeting also featured a plea by several teachers to address the issue of healthcare expenses. BHS teacher and former Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) Vice President John Becker described the agreement between the BFT and the district to share healthcare cost increases, and the need for this to continue. As the exact increase in cost is unpredictable, teachers like him can’t plan ahead of time.
“Every single year, teachers’ anxiety would spike. Teachers would come to me in tears, truly unsure of their ability to make ends meet mid-year,” Becker said. “I know from personal experience that the unpredictability and inequity of health care has forced teachers to leave our district, and to leave the profession altogether,” he added.
Finally, expressions of appreciation and heartfelt goodbyes were given to Superintendent Bajé Thiara, who has been a board member for the past two years.
“It’s personally been a pleasure working with you,” said School Board President Ty Alper. “Your contributions to the district are going to be remembered long after you’ve moved on to your next adventure, and I just wanted to thank you and wish you every success in the future.”