Larry Nassar’s abuse of young female athletes and the actions of those who enabled him at Michigan State and USA Gymnastics filled me with horror and disgust. How could anyone discount the victims’ stories for decades? How could decent, responsible adults look the other way when terrible harm was being done to trusting children? If I were ever in that situation, I told myself, I certainly would act immediately and do the right thing. I would be an ally, not a bystander.
Then I realized this scenario is not hypothetical. I am in a position where I can choose to act on what I know to help kids in an adverse situation or take the easy route and say nothing.
As the secretary of the Academic Choice advisory council from 2014 to 2017, I heard many poignant stories from parents at Berkeley High during our public comment period. Every year, distraught parents would come to our monthly meetings because they weren’t sure where else to go.
We came to expect recurring themes. Every year, several classes at Berkeley High—Spanish, biology and history, in particular–are disrupted because a teacher quits or goes on extended family leave. In the majority of cases, no advance preparation is made and every student in these classes loses weeks, if not months, of learning.
Another common issue was confusion about the new math “Core” curriculum. Math 1, 2 and 3 have no textbooks, although thanks to a parent initiative, there are now online resources for students to consult. Parents told of students who cried every night while doing math homework. When parents approached teachers, the message they took away was that the new program worked in mysterious ways, and they should just trust in a good outcome.
Finally, we heard reports of problems in individual classroom environments, including bullying behavior from teacher to student. The majority of teachers at Berkeley High act with dedication and professionalism, but there are sad exceptions.
The parents on the Academic Choice advisory council tried to engage with the administration and Berkeley Unified School District to address these troubling issues. We met with administrators to suggest teachers in the most affected departments get grants from parent groups to develop ready-to-go materials for substitutes. After some initial interest, we were told this was not a school priority.
We established a student voice subcommittee with the goal of publicizing the steps of the informal and official complaint process for anyone with a problem. We also advocated for nationally vetted student surveys in every class, so that teachers could receive honest feedback, which is particularly critical for the revolutionary new math program. After years of meetings and discussions, both efforts remain stalled.
I’m not suggesting these problems come within a million miles of Larry Nassar’s crimes, but they do represent an ongoing decision to neglect basic student welfare at Berkeley High. If a student loses an entire semester of learning, or confidence in his/her math ability, or is singled out by a teacher for humiliation, this does real harm. We can do better for our kids.
In the recent issue of the Berkeley Public Schools Community Report, Superintendent Evans wrote, “That’s why we are listening closely to what our students tell us about their experience and are offering ways for them to have a greater voice in creating a positive school climate that is welcoming and engaging for all our students.”
Given the notable reluctance by the administration to encourage any student feedback while I was at Berkeley High, I wrote to the superintendent to ask, hopefully, which changes had been made since I left last June. He has yet to reply.
Although my children have both graduated, I decided I could not remain a helpless bystander. Inspired by the positive achievements of Indivisible’s citizen action campaign, our student voice subcommittee has created an informational website, Berkeley High Parent Advocate, which accomplishes some of our goals. There you will find an outline of the complaint process from the point of view of parents who have been through it. You will also find information on our work on student surveys and long-term substitute strategies that might minimize the regular disruption of learning. I invite you to visit and share your story or suggestions. Talking openly about our experiences at Berkeley High is an important first step toward becoming active allies for our students.
Finally, I’d like to express my gratitude to the BUSD teachers and administrators who work very hard for far less pay than they deserve. I know they want the best for our students and hope they understand that feedback from the families they serve will help make our community stronger. Our children have all read books about change-makers in their classrooms. Let’s show them how it’s done in real life, even if the change-makers are just their boring old mom and dad.