Diane Dew, finance manager at Berkeley Public Schools Fund, leaves envelopes containing direct payments to families in the mailbox of her North Oakland home. Credit: Diane Dew Credit: Diane Dew

Since 1983, the Berkeley Public Schools Fund has doled out millions of dollars in grants to teachers for classroom projects, from science experiments to classroom libraries. Last year, for the first time, the philanthropic fund tried something different: handing out money directly to families.

Over 450 families have received lump-sum payments from the fund, most ranging from $300 to $500, through the new program, which launched at the start of the pandemic last March. Families in great need have gotten up to $2,000 at once, and over 300 families have received repeat payments, some more than five times.

The goal of the program is to help families juggling remote schooling with job loss and food and housing insecurity by offering help — no strings attached. Since March 2020, Berkeley Public Schools Fund has given out $5,000 to $10,000 per week to families, totaling $400,000. By the end of the school year, that number will be closer to $450,000.

“We realized that homes were becoming classrooms, and there were drastic differences in the learning environment for students,” said Erin Rhoades, executive director at Berkeley Public Schools Fund. “The best way for us to support students was to make sure that they had stability at home, whether that was providing money for groceries or to help pay a bill.”

One recipient is a single father and artist who drives for Uber part-time and whose paycheck doesn’t cover all of his expenses, forcing him to choose between paying for food, gas or utilities, according to materials shared by the fund. Another recipient is a single mother with a disability whose son has special needs and who needs help keeping up her Berkeley home and paying BART fare to her new job in San Francisco. A third family had to leave their children with an older sibling while they took care of family matters in another country.

“Especially now that I’m retired, every bit helps,” said Alphonsine Oates, who takes care of her four grandchildren attending Berkeley schools, which she’s found challenging during the pandemic.

Most of the funds go to help families pay for utilities, rent and basic needs like food and clothes. Some families who’ve gotten help didn’t qualify for federal assistance due to reasons such as immigration status.

The Berkeley Public Schools Fund is a nonprofit dedicated to raising money to support Berkeley’s public schools and their families. The organization was founded in 1983, after its founders saw that Proposition 13 had slashed funding for public schools. Unlike PTAs, which fundraise for individual schools, the fund can concentrate on districtwide initiatives and the students with the highest needs.

Many Berkeleyans have responded to the COVID-19 crisis with generosity. All of the money at the Berkeley Public Schools Fund comes from donations from community businesses and individuals, which have increased by 25% this year. The direct payments make up close to half of the fund’s spending this year.

At each school, a representative from BUSD’s Office of Family Engagement and Equity stays connected to families whose lives have been upended by the pandemic. After speaking with families, the representatives decide how much money can be allotted to each family. Once the list is approved, they write down the circumstances of the families receiving the funds and send a list over to Berkeley Public Schools Fund.

Diane Dew, finance manager at the fund, reads the stories, one by one. Then she writes the checks, leaving some in the mailbox of her North Oakland home to be sent out to families by mail. Other families come to her home to pick up their checks and chat with Dew.

“It’s really heart-wrenching how many people are struggling,” said Dew, who described the encounters as “a little window” into people’s lives.

For the Thanksgiving and winter holidays, the fund gave out an additional $55,000 in the form of gift cards to grocery stores and places like Target, so families could purchase holiday meals.

In addition to direct payments, the fund has provided technology, school supplies, office furniture, books, and even food to Berkeley families. Since March, the fund has distributed 5,500 computers and 600 hotspots to students. The whole operation is staffed by five people and run by a mass of volunteers who provide student support on Zoom, help run the Ed Hub and make deliveries to people’s homes.

The Berkeley cash assistance program has a parallel in Oakland. A coalition of Oakland schools has raised over $250,000 to provide direct payments to families, with help from the Oakland Public Education Fund and Community Check Cashing, a nonprofit in Oakland that allows families to cash their checks without hassle. An Oakland principal involved in the program told The Oaklandside he hopes the checks continue beyond the pandemic.

In Berkeley, the Public Schools Fund plans to end the direct payments and redirect spending back to its typical programs next year. As the spring draws to a close, Rhoades said there are fewer requests for direct payments coming in. In February and March, the fund issued about 20 payments each week. By April, that number had fallen to about 10 to 15.

However, Rhoades said, the experience this year has motivated the fund to make sure its spending is as equitable as possible, making it into the hands of students who need it most.

Learn more about the Berkeley Public Schools Fund on the group’s website, where you can make a donation, register for a virtual luncheon May 7 or sign up to volunteer.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...