Students gathered at Cragmont Elementary on May 25 to protest the departure of fifth grade teacher Kemal Stewart, who was relocated from Cragmont due to declining enrollment. Credit: Ximena Natera

Students and parents held a demonstration outside Cragmont Elementary Wednesday morning to protest the departure of Kemal Stewart, a beloved fifth grade teacher whose position was cut after the school’s enrollment dropped by 60 students in the last two years.

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Kemal Stewart works with Akil Clarance in his fifth grade class at Cragmont Elementary on March 17, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

While Stewart was offered a job at another school in the district, students said they don’t want to lose their favorite teacher, the only Black male teacher at the school, and parents criticized a policy that gives priority for staying in place to teachers with seniority.

In email to the Cragmont community, Superintendent Brent Stephens explained that the cuts were necessary to avoid a “fiscal emergency” due to enrollment declines and described the seniority policy as “a longstanding, neutral criteria for decisions about jobs.”

The rally was about one teacher, but underlying it were questions about how the district makes decisions in the face of declining enrollment. The conversation is charged because Black teachers are scarce in the profession and at Berkeley Unified.

In the last seven years, Black teachers made up 9% of new hires. In 2018-19, the most recent year data are available, there were 47 Black teachers at BUSD, comprising about 7% of the teachers in the district. That year, Black students made up 14% of the student body. There were 441 white teachers, 79 Latino teachers, 49 Asian and or Pacific Islander teachers, and 29 teachers who did not provide their race or ethnicity.

“I think it’s important to have diversity in our teachers,” said Ella Cody, a fifth grader in Stewart’s class, who attended the protest. Black teachers are known to improve academic outcomes for Black students and parents at the protest stressed the importance of having strong Black male role models.

About 50 students, parents, and a couple of teachers gathered on the steps outside of Cragmont before school Wednesday, waving signs advocating for Stewart and the need for more Black teachers as drivers on Spruce Street honked their car horns. School Board President Ka’Dijah Brown also made an appearance, and Councilmember Ben Bartlett voiced his support over the phone.

Akil Clarance, 10, led the crowd in a series of chants: “What do we want?” he asked. “Mr. Stewart!” the crowd responded. “When do we want him?” he asked again. “Next year!” the crowd shouted, erupting in cheers.

Akil said Mr. Stewart is his favorite teacher: He is patient, kind, funny and makes learning fun, designing creative projects with “real life lessons.” Plus, Stewart is Black, and Akil had never had a Black male teacher before. He wanted his little brother, a second-grader named Amir, to have the same experience. (Amir stood nearby with a handmade sign that read, “I want Mr. Stewart to be my teacher.”)

Akil’s mom, Dia, helped organize the demonstration with the help of other parents. She said Akil has become more confident this year under Stewart’s tutelage, excelling in math, a subject he already loved, and succeeding in reading and writing, too. “You can tell that he feels so much more confident and comfortable in his skin,” Dia said, a change she attributes partially to Stewart.

Stewart was absent from the protest and did not respond to multiple email requests for comment. This was his first year teaching at Cragmont, according to his LinkedIn. He’d worked as a program coordinator at BUSD since 2014.

The district has aimed to attract more teachers of color for years, a goal that is often discussed at school board meetings and referenced in plans the district submits to the state. School board meeting documents describe it as the “district’s commitment to increasing the number of teachers of color.” The district hired a consultant to help do this in 2015 and 2019, which later turned into a job for a teacher on special assignment.

When Berkeley voters passed Measure E, a parcel tax focused on recruiting and retaining teachers primarily by raising salaries, advocates hoped it would also have some effect on the district’s ability to hire more teachers of color.

In the last couple of years, the district has improved some of its hiring practices, created a program for classified staff to earn their credential and is retaining Black teachers at about the same rate as white teachers, but advocates say that hiring more Black teachers remains a priority.

Declining enrollment at BUSD brings course cuts

Behind the decision to move Stewart is a falling student enrollment count.

In the last two years, BUSD lost 667 students total, including 458 elementary students, according to an October 2021 attendance report. This is in line with a trend of declining student enrollment across the state, which was hastened by the pandemic and tied to other factors like California’s declining birth rate.

The district has responded by cutting seven elementary school classes. The decision is tentatively projected to save the district $348,809, according to a draft budget reductions document shared with the school board at a May 18 school board meeting.

There are five teachers whose positions are being cut next year.

The district found a place for all those teachers in other schools, which Stephens described as a win.

Next year, classes in schools affected by the cuts will be combined. At Cragmont, that means there will be two fifth grade classes instead of three. The district predicts each fifth grade class at the school will have 22 students.

On average, class sizes will remain under 23 students per class at the elementary level, per an agreement with the teachers union, though some classes at other schools may be above average.

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers is currently negotiating its next contract with the Berkeley Unified School District. One of its proposals is to cap classes at 26 students at the elementary level and, if class sizes do exceed that number, to pay teachers extra. The district has not responded to the proposal yet, according to BFT President Matt Meyer.

District administrators said they appreciate Stewart and those who have advocated for him, but said the issue was out of their hands.

“I deeply appreciate knowing how highly you regard Mr. Stewart, and that the community has voiced its concerns about his transfer to another BUSD school for next year,” Stephens wrote in his email.  

Cragmont Principal Candyce Cannon wrote in an email to some parents that the losing Stewart and one other teacher was “devastating to a small, close knit staff like ours,” but explained that she has “no control in this decision and that is frustrating for me.”

According the the district’s contract with the teachers union, teachers are transferred between schools on the basis on seniority — the longer they have worked there, the more right they have to their job — so long as teachers meet other requirements like holding the correct credential. The policy is colloquially referred to as “last one in, first one out.”

Some families argued that the transfer policy should be changed because it disproportionately affects teachers of color. Stephens countered that, of the five teachers who were transferred this year, four were white.

New hires are slightly more diverse than the existing teaching force, which skews white compared with the student body. In the last seven years, new hires were 53% white, 15% Asian, 9% Black and 16% Latino. In 2018-19, BUSD teachers overall were 66% white, 7% Asian, 7% Black and 12% Latino.

Councilmember Ben Bartlett called on the district to be responsive to concerns from the community.

“These policies should not be so inflexible that they can’t be responsive to the cries of students and parents,” he told Berkeleyside.

Some critics want an exception to be made for an exceptional teacher or want to change the policy for transferring teachers to other schools.

Others think the solution lies in increasing Cragmont’s enrollment, which has dropped more precipitously than at other schools. Though Cragmont has one of the smallest student bodies, it has seen the second-largest decline in enrollment among the district’s 11 elementary schools. Only Malcolm X, which has 177 more students, lost more students than Cragmont. Since the district makes decisions about where to place students, some parents wonder, why can’t more students be assigned to Cragmont?

As for the elementary schoolers, they just want Stewart, who is known for allowing kids to have extra recess, to stay at their school.

“The grownups get to choose all this stuff,” Akil said, referring to which teachers get to stay. “And it doesn’t really seem right.”

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately described Measure E. It is intended to recruit and retain qualified teachers, not teachers of color specifically.

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,...