Long waitlists. Anxious parents. These are the results of a staffing shortage hitting Berkeley Unified’s after-school programs.

While school districts around the country have struggled under nationwide teacher shortages, BUSD managed to start the year nearly fully staffed with one major exception: the extended learning program. 

As of last week, the district was still looking to fill 25 staff vacancies for its after-school program in order to give spots to the more than 300 kids still stuck on the waitlist.

Hiring isn’t easy for a job offering part-time employment of just a few hours a day and paying about $20-$30 an hour for work that dries up in the summertime. The state sets limits on teacher-student ratios for after-school care, meaning the district has to hire more staff to bring more students into the programs.

Shoring up the program, which provides after-school care to 1,900 students, was the district’s top employment priority to start the school year, BUSD Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel said at a school board meeting Aug. 24, calling it a problem that needs “immediate attention” and BUSD has since streamlined its hiring process. 

Apply for a position with BUSD’s after-school programs

The staff shortages have left families scrambling in the first few weeks of school to find care for their children — shining a light on a confusing maze of programs that parents must navigate.

The school district runs two after-school programs — BEARS, for low-income families, and LEARNS, open to all students — offering activities like sports, gardening and homework help. The programs are run primarily by district employees, though BUSD also has a contract with an outside agency, Elevo Learning, to provide additional staffing for LEARNS. Some schools also offer after-school enrichment classes through their PTAs.

Parents can choose other options, including programs run by private companies or the city. Private offerings tend to be more expensive than the district’s; the city’s program is less expensive and harder to get into. BUSD offers busing to a few of these programs. 

The limited spots make finding a placement difficult, especially for first-time families. Families are notified that they are enrolled in a program close to the start of the school year. And programs at some schools are more popular than others: In past years, some schools have enrolled as many as 4 in 5 students in LEARNS; at other schools it’s been closer to 1 in 3.

Colin Curtin compared enrolling his son in an after-school program to his experience starting a small business: There are a lot of hoops to jump through and “no one resource that could tell me everything,” Curtin said. 

Two programs through the district — and more beyond

Berkeley Unified offers two programs: BEARS, which is for low-income families, and LEARNS, which is for all students and sliding scale fees.

The City of Berkeley offers programs for elementary and middle schoolers.
Private programs in Berkeley include the Jewish Community Center; Trackers; Sticky Lab; Hanwen, a Mandarin immersion school; and Forest School’s Coyote Club.

This summer, Charles Vogl learned there wasn’t space for his son, a transitional kindergartener, in LEARNS shortly before the start of school. He and other parents started rushing to nail down their plans. 

“We all at the last minute found out we couldn’t [enroll],” Vogl said. “We needed to find a program and then find out how to get our kids there.”

Vogl found a private after-school program called New School, but it took time for his son to get a spot on the BUSD bus, leaving Vogl to pick him up and drop him off in between work meetings. 

Rana Cho, the president of Emerson’s PTA, said the existing options don’t fit the needs of families like hers who only need after-school care a couple days a week — most programs expect students to show up three to five days per week.

“It’s an invisible need,” said Cho. Last spring, she helped launch a pilot after-school program offering yoga and art at Emerson that families could opt into some days of the week. 

“I feel like really the district should take an approach to the school day as an extended day and cover all the needs.”

The city of Berkeley subsidizes a series of after-school programs that tends to be more affordable than other options — roughly $200 for six weeks. 

The relatively low costs make the city’s programs popular with families. However, space is limited: Together, the four subsidized elementary programs have about 240 total available spots, and families tend to stick around.

I realized parents were still struggling with the same issues that we struggled with seven or eight years ago.” — Madan Kumar, Berkeley High parent

“It’s unusual that someone would drop out once they have their spot,” said Loren Rasmussen, the recreation coordinator at James Kenney Community Center in Northwest Berkeley.

At the start of the school year, each of the city’s four subsidized elementary programs had anywhere from 20 to 40 people on the waiting list, which is about typical. Only a few of those students are expected to get off the waitlist throughout the year 

The city’s free after-school middle school program still has space: It is only half-full. 

The city, which pays staff about the same as the district but offers year-round employment, hasn’t faced the same kind of staffing shortages in its after-school programs. (The district’s program is much larger, though, and has more positions to fill.) 

Berkeley hired about 200 new employees to run its summer programs, and many staff members stayed on to work after-school, according to Scott Ferris, who runs Berkeley’s Parks and Recreation Department. 

“We had a pretty good cadre of staff to choose from to work after school programming this year,” Ferris said. As a result, the city didn’t have to recruit new staff for the start of the school year. 

Behind the scenes, parents push for long-term improvements

Community members have been pushing for changes to Berkeley’s after-school program for years.

Madan Kumar started advocating for changes when his kids were enrolled at Washington Elementary. His son is now a senior at Berkeley High and Kumar is still hoping for some of the same changes.

Back in 2018, he was part of a group — the After School Subcommittee of the BUSD Extended Learning Taskforce — that studied the after-school program and came up with a list of recommendations. 

The recommendations included things like: working with outside groups like the city and UC Berkeley to increase and improve after-school, better integrating after-school into the school day, and providing meaningful growth opportunities for after-school workers to improve retention.

And while there have been some improvements, many of the same issues remain. 

“Those recommendations have languished,” Kumar said. “I realized parents were still struggling with the same issues that we struggled with seven or eight years ago.”

Over the last several months, parents have been meeting regularly with BUSD staff in charge of after-school programs to find solutions. Some want to expand and improve existing programs, while others want to focus on adding more enrichment options that families can pay for directly or attend through scholarships. 

Featured photo of John Hinkel Park: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

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,...