Berkeley’s new school board president, Ka’Dijah Brown, is the first board leader to simultaneously work as a K-12 teacher. She teaches fifth grade at a Richmond charter school. Credit: Ka’Dijah Brown.

At 30 years old, Ka’Dijah Brown is the youngest ever president of the Berkeley school board, and the only president to simultaneously work as a teacher. 

Brown grew up in Berkeley, attended Washington Elementary and Longfellow Middle School, and graduated from Berkeley High in 2009. Now, she’s a fifth-grade teacher at a charter school in Richmond. She was elected to the board in 2018.

“My vision for BUSD is rooted in a commitment to academic excellence and the holistic success of all of our students in Berkeley Unified School District,” Brown said in a speech at the Dec. 8 school board meeting where she was chosen to take over leadership of the board from Ty Alper. Last year, Brown served as the board’s vice president. “Equity can’t just be a buzzword that is paired with diversity and inclusion.”

“[Brown’s] hands-on experience as an educator continues to provide valuable insight as we make decisions which impact our students, the future of our global society,” Laura Babitt, who now serves as the board’s vice president, said in a statement.

The school board president and vice president are elected by the board directors every year. Alper had served two yearlong terms as president over the eight years that he has sat on the board. The president works closely with the superintendent, sets the agenda for and runs meetings, and is responsible for speaking to the press.

Brown’s father, Rodney, praised his daughter’s achievements at the December school board meeting. “I’ve met a lot of famous people in my life. I’ve met Warren Buffett, I’ve met Elaine Brown, I’ve met Bobby Seale. But the most famous person I’ve ever met, it’s Ka’Dijah Brown,” he said during the meeting, held over Zoom.

Last month, Berkeleyside caught Brown on the phone during a Friday morning planning period. In the middle of the interview, two students knocked on her door, hoping to eat lunch with “Ms. Brown” in her classroom. “These kids,” Brown joked when she sent the children away. “They don’t like to take no for an answer.”  

Brown talked about her experiences in Berkeley schools, her time on the board, and how she will approach the presidency differently than previous leaders. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did going to school in Berkeley shape you? 

I had, in my opinion, one of the best educational experiences that I could have had access to. At Longfellow, that was my first experience having Black African American educators and teachers. They introduced me to Black history, Black poetry, Black literature. They introduced me to poems that I can still recite to this day. Crystal Stair by Langston Hughes is one. Hello Black Child by Countee Cullen goes: 

Hey black child
Do you know who you are
Who you really are…
Do you know you are strong
I mean really strong

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

My teachers and my school support staff, all of the educators that I came in contact with while I was in school, really made the difference for me. Some of them are why I decided to be a teacher.

After I graduated from Bennett College in 2013, I came back home and I knew that I wanted to work with young people. I was passionate about working with young people. So I started working for an NPS, a non-public school, using my psychology degree to support students who are on the spectrum. I did that while simultaneously being an after-school teacher.  From there. I started working as a para[professional] in San Francisco. In 2015, I became a teacher in Richmond.

When you started being involved with the policy and politics of education, were there aspects of your own experience that you wanted to be different for kids now attending Berkeley schools?

Although I had some really, really great experiences, my first experiences of racism were also in the Berkeley Unified School District. Those experiences of racism did impact me. For me joining this board, I wanted to ensure that no other student would experience that. And so I think that’s why the Black Lives Matter resolution was so important, including the Black Joy campaign and renaming schools. Knowing that we have the opportunity to change and curate safer spaces for children, to minimize racial experience through professional development that helps teachers to be culturally competent and responsive, for me, is really, really important. 

You were on the school board during a particularly contentious time for our community. Looking back on the process of reopening, would you have done anything differently?

Definitely. Well, a couple things first. I’m proud of our ability to be leaders in providing some of the first opportunities to have students back on campus. I remain proud of how our teachers were able to transition our students. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve still been able to keep our schools open [through the omicron surge]. I’m proud of our testing program.

However, I wish that we had put together a task force comprised of health experts and science experts who are right here in our Berkeley community. I also wish that we put together more opportunities for parents to gain insight about why decisions are being made outside of just a formal school board or town hall setting. There is a group of people who may not agree with the decisions that we’re making, and who want to find a way to be a part of that decision making. In the future, I hope we won’t be in the place where parents are feeling that they were unheard.

I am also concerned about our outreach efforts to communities of color. Time and time again, participation from those groups was often low. I wish we would have had more of an equitable approach to engaging communities of color. 

Now that you’re the school board president, what can people expect from you this year? 

We used to have a strategic plan, and I think that is something that is missing for the district. I am excited about the opportunity to collaborate on a plan that is reflective of the communities that we serve, a plan that helps us to move in the right direction with milestones and metrics and opportunities for full transparency for the community. 

Also, my intention is to shine a light on what is working well in our schools. I think oftentimes, we talk about what we’re not doing right and what we could be doing better. All of those things are important, but there are some really amazing things that are happening throughout Berkeley Unified School District. We will open up our school board meetings with equity showcases. It will be a point of celebration for what’s working well.

Are you frustrated by anything on the school board? Or, is anything moving too slowly? 

I just want to be completely honest. COVID has taken over so much that everyone is just being stretched incredibly thin. I think about that extra strain that we’re putting on teachers and staff members, because we still want to do things: We still want all of the aspects of the Black Lives resolution, we still want all of the elements of the Latinx resolution to happen, while simultaneously responding to the pandemic. It’s a hard place to be in. We’re providing our students with a sense of normalcy in a completely abnormal situation. And I honestly have not seen it done better in any other district.

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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,...