Opinion: Reflections and lessons learned from my time on the Berkeley School Board

Systemic change in education comes from relentless focus.

To residents of the city in which I was born and of the school district in which I was educated:

Thank you for the honor it has been to serve you and the children of Berkeley for the last eight years as a member of the Berkeley School Board.

At my last School Board meeting in November, I followed the tradition of many outgoing elected officials and shared my thanks, reflection sand lessons learned from my time on the board. This piece is a condensed version of what I shared at that meeting.

Before proceeding further, I would first like to send my thoughts and prayers to my friend, former colleague and Berkeley School Board President Judy Appel, her wife Alison and their family. I wish them the quickest of recoveries. The board and the district benefit from her insights, experience and voice, and things are not the same without her.

My motivation to run for School Board

I was first elected back in November 2010 as probably the first Berkeley School Board member who actually had graduated from the same schools that the board oversees. It was the Berkeley schools that set me on a path to earn three graduate degrees. It was the Berkeley schools that provided me with the personal experiences to recognize the deep inequities that permeate our society as well as my own societal privilege. It was the Berkeley schools in which I made deep friendships that last to this day. I ran for the School Board because not all of my friends in the Berkeley schools had a similar experience and I had a responsibility to change that.

We made meaningful progress

There are many data points that show meaningful progress over the past eight years and we should be proud of this success.

  • Academics: Reading proficiency has increased for all students, according to our local assessments, with the highest gains seen in African American students (50.1% to 59.4%) and English Learners (30.7% to 38.9%). We also saw increases in reading and math proficiency according to the statewide assessments, although the gains were not as pronounced for African American students and English Learners.
  • Graduation rate: In the past eight years, the graduation rate for our African American students increased by almost 10 percentage points (from 72.7% to 82.0%) and the graduation rate for students from low-income families increased by more than 13 percentage points (from 72.5% to 86.1%).
  • Suspension Rate: We have had significant success lowering suspension rates, particularly for African American students. In 2011-12, the suspension rate for African American students was 11.5%; in 2017-18, the suspension rate for African American students was 5.1%.
  • Attendance Rate: Our attendance rate increased from 93.3% to 95.9%, according to district data. This means that the average student attended almost a week more of school in 2017-18 than the average student in 2011-12!

There are also many data points that illustrate that there is still more work to do. In particular, we continue to suspend too many African American students (as compared with all other students) despite the gains we have made, and we continue to fail to equip too many of our students, particularly African American students and English Learners, with the necessary academic skills to succeed after high school.

My individual leadership role

There were certain things in which I took more of an individual leadership role. For instance, I took the lead in:

  • Creating the district’s well-regarded Local Control & Accountability Plan (the plan to improve outcomes for at-risk students)
  • Increasing the number of teacher preparation and collaboration minutes
  • Consolidating our two-way immersion program to a single site, which likely saved the program from elimination
  • Overseeing our bond program, saving Berkeley taxpayers at least $12 million
  • Making board meetings more open and transparent by providing Spanish translation at all meetings and improving the process for public comment

Additionally, I wrote and spearheaded both the Berkeley soda tax (approved as Measure D in 2014) and Vote16 (approved as Measure Y1 in 2016).

I am also responsible for a number of failures. For example, early on in my tenure I tipped the balance on the board in opposing the opening of a classroom for expelled students at the Berkeley Adult School. Any expelled student in Berkeley must attend the county-run school in Hayward. Thus, a classroom in Berkeley could have led to significant benefits for our expelled students. But I was swayed by the loaded rhetoric of some residents who expressed concern over the “those types of students” that would be walking through the neighborhood to get to class — I forgot that “those” students were “our” students.

My lessons learned

Lastly, I want to share my lessons learned from my time on the board.

  • First, embrace the role of public servant. It is a privilege and a big responsibility to represent constituents and to try and serve their needs. Listening to constituent concerns enhances one’s ability to make the right decisions. Additionally, constituents typically understand that the power of an individual board member is limited. And many simply want to be heard—BUSD, like all local governments, can often be an impersonal bureaucracy.
  • Second, it is important to get yelled at. Embracing the role of public servant does not always mean doing everything constituents want. In fact, it is sometimes important to go against such requests. This means voting “no” (or “yes” depending on the issue) and then sitting in respectful silence while getting yelled at as a result.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, system change comes from relentless focus. School districts operate in 12-month decision-making cycles. But systemic change takes much longer than a year to occur and even longer for results to materialize. In my time on the board — and in my day-job working with districts on this exact issue — I have come to see that the only way to achieve change is to maintain focus on a few key issues. I have tried to keep the district focused (although I have been part of decisions to do the opposite). Staying focused is particularly difficult as it requires saying “no” to good ideas; the public nature of the board further compounds this difficulty.

Indeed, the need for focus is most acute when it comes to the allocation of money and staff. The relationship between these scarce resources and their impact is often thought of as linear — e.g., the impact of one full-time position at a single school is the same as the impact of two half-time positions at two schools. My experience both on the board and professionally working with other districts has shown me that this is not true. Rather, the relationship between resources and their impact is exponential — i.e., the impact of one full-time position (at a single school) is greater than the impact of two half-time positions (at two schools) because of the focused attention of that full-time position to get to know the school and the needs of the students in that school.

Serving on the Berkeley School Board has been one of the highest privileges and honors of my life. Thank you for the opportunity to serve and to give back.

Josh Daniels is a current Berkeley resident, Berkeley native, graduate of Berkeley schools and served on the Berkeley Unified School Board from November 2010 through December 2018. He is director of finance and operations at the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence.