Berkeley Unified has set in motion the renaming of Washington Elementary School. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley Unified School District began a process of renaming Jefferson and Washington elementary schools this week as part of a larger effort to recognize Black students and address systemic racism in the school system.

The school board unanimously approved a “Resolution in Support of Black Lives Matter” during its Wednesday meeting, agreeing to a range of symbolic and concrete actions to “celebrate, uphold and affirm” its Black students, staff, faculty and parents. Along with the renaming of the two schools, this includes a new, year-round “Black Joy Campaign,” resources and training for teachers and school leaders, and a plan to identify additional measures of racial inequity and collect data in schools.

Berkeley community members tried and failed in 2005 to rename Jefferson Elementary School, but, 15 years later, and in the midst civil rights uprisings across the country, board members are largely supportive of changing the names of both schools, which commemorate the first and third U.S. presidents. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also owned slaves.

During the successful renaming of LeConte to Sylvia Mendez Elementary School two years ago, the board designed a new two-part process to separate discussion about removing the name from the choice of new one, and they hope the process can be expedited this time around.

Board member Ka’Dijah Brown, who co-wrote the resolution with Superintendent Brent Stephens, emphasized that the renaming of the schools is only a small step in the district’s work to address systemic racism and give Black students the tools they need to flourish.

“This is the first — but not the last — of our work around ensuring that we move from the thought of equity to excellence.” — Ka’Dijah Brown

“This is the first – but not the last – of our work around ensuring that we move from the thought of equity to excellence,” Brown said, describing the resolution as a pathway to identifying the many ways the district could better serve its students. Later on in the meeting, she doubled down on the importance of looking at the document as a whole – instead of focusing on the name change.

“I’m frustrated that the same level of passion and concern is not given to the other issues that plague our district and cause our district to perpetuate the school to prison pipeline and perpetuate school pushouts,” she said.

The board’s discussion and approval of the resolution comes during weeks of protest in Berkeley, Oakland, and the entire country, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and and calls to end police brutality and reckon with the country’s foundational history of systemic racism. The conversation was emotional at times and several board members asked for urgency in moving forward with the resolution’s recommendations.

“As a white person on this board who has two and a half years on this board to have an impact, I need to be uncomfortable, I need to be challenged,” board member Julie Sinai said of the discussion, asking that the board dismiss the idea of “business as usual” in pushing forward with reforms.

Jefferson Elementary school will, like Washington Elementary, be getting a new name. Photo: Google Street View

Though the district is facing nearly $8 million in budget cuts due to COVID-19, the resolution also calls on the Office of Family Engagement and Equity to create more resources for Black families and caregivers. The district said during a town hall for African American families in May that it would preserve existing programs, like the Umoja class at Longfellow Middle School, but the resolution goes one step further to work on expanding these programs.

Ongoing achievement disparities at Longfellow exemplify the board’s discussion around racial inequities, and board members said the school’s progress should be an important component of the resolution – particularly because it is one of the most racially diverse schools in the system. Community members had raised alarm over a “crisis” of low enrollment and test scores at the school, and blatant disparities with Martin Luther King Jr. and Willard Middle Schools. The school’s principal, Stacey Wyatt, who resigned in March, had also expressed concerns about Longfellow’s future.

Before the meeting Wednesday, Superintendent Stephens shared with the Longfellow community consultants’ findings from listening sessions over the last school semester. The report identifies failures in the school’s two-way Spanish and English immersion program and suggest steps to counter the layered impacts of distance learning during COVID-19.

At its meeting the board also reviewed potential budget cuts for the following school year and chose to revisit Longfellow’s facilities budget in a future meeting.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...