Berkeley Unified Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel presented the results of her first year of work at an event for district families and staff on May 31. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Nearly a year into her tenure as superintendent of Berkeley schools, Enikia Ford Morthel says the district has made progress in using data to improve classroom instruction and intervention and in lifting the academic performance of students with marginalized backgrounds.

“I want there to be a day we can ask [‘How are the children?’] of each other in Berkeley and truly answer, ‘All the children are well,’” Ford Morthel said at a school board meeting last week, referencing a traditional Masai proverb she routinely uses at school board meetings. “They’re not all well yet. But they are a whole lot better because of our collaboration.”

After conducting a listening tour at the start of the year, Ford Morthel announced steps she would take to improve Berkeley schools, starting with operationalizing plans, not just making them. 

“Those plans had over 200-something actions, just across five plans alone,” Ford Morthel said during a year-in-review presentation to the school board on May 31, referring to multiple plans designed to improve student outcomes for targeted groups, including students learning English and Black students. 

By zeroing in on what’s common across all of those plans, the superintendent aims to streamline the district’s approach, focusing first on improving curriculum and instruction — what teachers teach in the classroom and how they do it.

“We have to get better at that first teach. We got to do it right the first time,” Ford Morthel said. “We also have to have a system to figure out why we’re not doing it right the first time and have a plan for what to do after that.”

Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel stands in front of a small crowd of people seated inside the BUSD board room. The photo captures Ford Morthel's back facing the audience. She is wearing in a bright blue suit with defined shoulders.
BUSD Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Berkeley Unified is under pressure from the state and courts to improve its instruction and intervention strategies for struggling students. Per a settlement from a class-action lawsuit, BUSD is tasked with improving the way it teaches reading and its progress is monitored by the court. It is also required by the state to address the disproportionate representation of Black students in special education by making changes to first-level instruction and intervention.

To meet these goals and the ones Ford Morthel outlined after her listening tour, the superintendent emphasized the need for school district staff to use data to assess the progress students are making and adjust instructional practices. “That data-driven culture is starting to permeate across our system,” she said during her year-in-review presentation.

Earlier this year, the school district launched eduCLIMBER, a database for district teachers and staff to access data around trends in student grades and test scores. Ford Morthel said the district is working on developing a publicly available dataset for caregivers.

Reading scores for Black and Latino elementary students improved substantially over the course of the last school year on a DIBELS reading diagnostic test that is given to all elementary students three times per year. At the end of the 2022-23 school year, 27% of Black and Latino students were identified as “at-risk” on the DIBELS test, down from 50% at the beginning of the year. That’s a significant improvement over the 2021-22 year, when the number of “at-risk” students fell just 7 percentage points.

Kindergarten and first-grade students of all races also improved throughout the year, but the superintendent did not share data about how their improvement compares with student progress last year. BUSD said it could not respond by deadline to Berkeleyside’s request for more data to compare student progress in reading across years.

Kindergarteners of multiple races (Asian and white is the most prevalent multiracial demographic in Berkeley, according to 2020 census data) performed best on end-of-year DIBELS reading tests, with 82% of multiracial kindergarteners meeting or exceeding grade level this spring. On the same test, 57% of Black kindergarteners met or exceeded grade level, an improvement over the course of the academic year, though the students still performed below all other racial groups.

The superintendent did not share data for high school, which Ford Morthel jokingly described as “a different beast,” but she did say the number of Ds and Fs is declining, as staff are getting training on equity-focused grading. 

Nine community members mingle inside the BUSD board room during a fair designed to showcase major efforts of the past year. The people are standing in front of big posterboards that hang on the wall, presenting topics like climate literacy.
Parents, staff, and community members mingle during a fair before the BUSD’s superintendent year-in-review presentation. The fair showcased major efforts of the past year, including after-school programs and sustainability work. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Laura Babitt, president of the Berkeley school board, said the superintendent has “laid the groundwork” for effective work to come by creating a position dedicated to overseeing curriculum and instruction, which will be filled next year. A curriculum director will “help us measure the effectiveness of our response to intervention,” she said.

Matt Meyer, president of Berkeley’s teachers union, said Ford Morthel has brought a renewed focus on aligning the district staff on academic goals. “Past superintendents were defined by the COVID crisis. When you’re worried about whether you keep the school open on a day-to-day basis, you don’t have time to do some of this other work,” Meyer said. “Superintendent Ford Morthel came in and she really seemed focused on clarity and transparency in our district.”

Outside of academic instruction, Ford Morthel emphasized a new student wellness center coming to the high school next year and BUSD’s balanced budget. Berkeley Unified is staring down budget cuts next year as one-time COVID-19 funds dry up, but Ford Morthel stressed that the district has a healthy reserve.

Ford Morthel also convened a task force on reparations earlier this year to explore how the district might make payments to students with enslaved ancestors. If implemented, BUSD could become the first school district in the country to issue cash payments, though some have pushed back against the private nature of the task force meetings and questioned whether cash payments are the best way for a school district to address inequity.

During the year-in-review event, school district staff and community members presented other highlights of the last year in a fair that featured everything from sustainability efforts, including a new free store at the high school designed to encourage reuse and the expansion of Miyawaki forests to multiple school yards, to the renovation of the A-Building and part of the historic Community Theater at Berkeley High.

Next school year, Ford Morthel said she will embark on a strategic planning process to further streamline the district’s efforts.

“That’s going to be a big lift that we do together next year — figure out, what is our strategic plan? What is our guiding light?” she said. “And then, how are we going to measure it?”

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,...