In early June of 2020, following the death of George Floyd, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) released a statement in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the statement, they acknowledged the legacy of systemic racism in education, stating, “Every institution, including BUSD, must engage in critical reflection about its own ongoing issues with racialized outcomes.”
On June 10, 2020, the BUSD School Board of Education passed a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter, listing several action items for the district to work towards in their anti-racist efforts. While the resolution touched on significant systemic issues in BUSD, one glaring issue was left out from their ‘critical reflection’: the lack of Black teaching representation in BUSD. If the district wants to maintain their promise of racial equity to students, they need to address racial inequity everywhere, particularly in the teaching force.
The discussion around recruiting and retaining more teachers of color in BUSD is not a new one – in the past, it has been mainly led by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) Teachers of Color Network. In 2017 and 2018 school board meetings, representatives from the Teachers of Color Network pushed for an earlier hiring date, as well as a more holistic interview process for applicants.
Despite timid changes by BUSD, the amount of Black teachers has only changed fractionally. According to the California Department of Education, Black teachers made up about 8 percent of the BUSD teaching population in 2019, which increased by less than 1 percent from previous years. The BUSD student body is 24 percent Black, according to the district, pointing to clear disproportionate representation in our teaching force.
As a bare minimum, the teaching staff should be a proportional reflection of the student population. If Berkeley High School (BHS) wants to ensure both academic and emotional success for students of color that are struggling, putting teachers in the classroom that they can relate to is the first step. Representation is far too underrated, and proves a lot for the success of Black students at BHS. Additionally, ethnic-based and humanities classes often involve discussions around current events and issues that would benefit from diverse facilitators.
Moreover, teaching staff representation should move beyond proportionality to a diverse base with no racial majority. Simply working towards a proportionality quota insinuates the idea that white students should only be taught by white teachers and Black students should only be taught by Black teachers. This is harmful, as it is just as dangerous for white children to grow up in an environment where they only see themselves in positions of authority. We must work toward an institution in which power and authority are divided equitably by race, gender, and sexuality.
According to the Teachers of Color Network, the main reason many teachers of color decided to leave BUSD was a feeling of isolation and lack of support from administrators and parents. As BHS’ teaching staff is 70 percent white, this is not surprising, and can be addressed by increasing the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) teaching population. The alienation felt by teachers that cannot relate to their peers is a huge factor in the well-being of our staff. This dilemma requires quick and aggressive action from the district to bring more BIPOC teachers into a welcoming and respectful environment.
This is not to say that the district has been oblivious to the issues of racial inequity in education. The African American Studies Department at BHS is truly one of a kind, and several of the school board’s action items point toward a hopeful future. However, the long-standing issue that students have faced daily has yet to be addressed in an impactful way. Students at BHS are waiting for the district to take the actions they committed to when everyone was calling for them to make change. Now that no one’s calling, when will that change happen?