Shayla Avery reflects on a year of change after organizing Black Lives Matter protests last year
A year after organizing a series of Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley, Shayla Avery, 17, (right) and Ultraviolet Schneider-Dwyer, 18, reflected on a year of change. File photo: Pete Rosos

One year ago today, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. His death sparked calls for racial justice across the country, including in Berkeley, where young people led a movement for change.

Last June, teenagers from Berkeley High organized a series of protests raising awareness about the local history of redlining and calling on the school district to better support Black students. They demanded the district hire more Black teachers, provide more funding to the African American Studies Department and better educate students and staff about Black history and racism.  

On June 10, Berkeley Unified responded by passing the Black Lives Matter resolution, an effort to “disrupt a ‘business as usual’ approach to African American students and their families” through removing barriers to achievement, devoting more funding toward Black student achievement, and better engaging Black families. 

The resolution also included a plan to rename Washington and Jefferson elementary schools. (Jefferson has been renamed after Ruth Acty, the first Black teacher at Berkeley Unified.) Finally, the school board resolved to re-imagine school safety and convened a series of conversations between principals and Black parents about improving academic outcomes. 

Berkeleyside spoke with two students, the teacher advisor of Berkeley High’s Black Student Union, and school board director Laura Babitt to hear their reflections on the year, what’s changed, what hasn’t and what work still needs to be done.

Demands aren’t new: no police, more Black teachers

In 1968, Berkeley High’s Black Student Union made a series of demands, including asking the district — famously — to establish an African American Studies Department, rid the school of law enforcement and racists and hire more Black teachers and administrators. 

And while there’s been some progress — the Berkeley High library is now well-stocked with books representing a variety of cultures, for instance — other, similar demands are reflected in today’s conversation. “History does repeat itself, but we are in a different era as well,” said Spencer Pritchard, co-lead of the African American Studies Department. 

Akin to the Black Student Union’s demands in 1968, Pritchard would like to see the Security Resource Officer role removed from the school. “Healthy communities won’t need police,” Pritchard said. “I don’t see a need for a full-time officer stationed at Berkeley High.” 

In 2020, the district convened a committee to reconsider the role of the Security Resource Officer (SRO). Instead, after the results of a survey showed community members supported the SRO, the committee recommended the district expand the position to give the officer more time to develop relationships with students. The next steps for the role have not been determined. 

The other demand that still stands 40 years later is a desire for more Black teachers in the district. Although Black teachers are linked to better outcomes for Black students, there is a high turnover rate for Black educators, a trend that could be exacerbated by a pandemic that’s taken a disproportionate toll on Black Americans. 

“I would like to see more Black teachers at schools, not just the security guards, or the janitors, but actual educators, so that little kids can see that that teachers look like them and feel better about themselves or feel like there is a place for them,” said Ny’Aja Roberson, 17, a junior at Berkeley High and one of the leaders of the Black Student Union. 

There are structural issues that prevent Black educators from being hired in Berkeley schools, according to Pritchard. Berkeley hires teachers later than other districts, and some teachers just aren’t willing to wait. And, Pritchard said, nearby districts pay better than Berkeley, making the district unaffordable for educators with families. 

Last week, the district took a step toward improving its workforce diversity, approving funding for a position focused on hiring and retaining Black teachers. 

Students march in support of Black Lives Matter from San Pablo Park to Berkeley High School on June 9, 2020. Photo: Jerome Paulos Credit: Jerome Paulos

Addressing academic outcomes ‘all these years later’

Another long-standing problem at Berkeley Unified is the difference in academic outcomes between Black students and children of other races. 

After a year of added challenges from the pandemic and distance learning, Black students at Berkeley High earned five times as many Fs as white students. That’s despite attempts to provide support programs like Bridge and RISE. There are too few Black students meeting A-G requirements, the minimum coursework a student needs to attend a University of California school, or earning above a 3.0, Pritchard said. 

The disparities in academic outcomes for Black students are why Laura Babitt became a parent advocate and now a school board member. “[The district] told me it didn’t matter the socioeconomic background of Black students, the results were proving the same. That alluded to a core, root issue of racism. All these years later, we’re continuing to work on it.” 

The district is taking steps toward progress, albeit incrementally. Many teachers are working to make the curriculum more inclusive, and others in the African American Studies Department have drafted a proposal for an after-school Black Scholar Center. 

This year during Black History Month, Pritchard saw more teachers than usual educating students about Black history. And as part of the Black Lives Matter at School week of action, held during the first week in February, students from the Black Student Union spoke about Black leaders and culture at district elementary schools. 

“We went outside of the box and taught beyond slavery, civil rights, and MLK,” said Roberson, adding that her own grade-school education about Black history had been limited to just a few, well-worn narratives.

Together with his colleagues in the African American Studies Department, Pritchard put together a proposal for a Black Scholar Center, an after-school program devoted to Black student success that provides mentorship and activities. The high school principal is considering their proposal. 

“We’re constantly pushing the district to fund the African American Studies Department,” said Pritchard, who would love for the district to hire more teachers to the department. There are currently three teachers, but only one of them teaches African-American Studies courses full-time.

What matters is that we keep talking about it

“There’s so much work that needs to be done, but we’ve come a long way since the passing of George Floyd,” said Shayla Avery, 17, a senior who co-organized the protests in Berkeley last June. 

In the past year, Avery said she has seen more openness to conversation about racial injustice. She has remained involved in the Black Lives Matter movement through her organization, Youth Protect the Bay, and spoke with Berkeley middle school students about racial injustice.

One year later, “the fact that people are still reaching out to wanting to hear my voice” gives Avery hope that more change is on the horizon. 

For Roberson, the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder provides an opportunity for people to “think about how they felt last year when it first happened and implement that energy every day.” That way, Roberson said, the momentum to improve our communities is not lost.

Avatar photo

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,...