Opinion: BUSD fails to live up to Berkeley ideals at King Child Development Center

Security issues caused by a nearby shooting highlighted what parents already knew: King Child Development Center has not been sufficiently supported by the district.

My son, Calvin, is having a true Berkeley experience in his first year of school in Berkeley Unified School District. He is halfway through transitional kindergarten (TK) at King Child Development Center (King CDC). Some highlights:

  • Songs about choosing water over juice or soda
  • Lots of “I” statements and space-respecting
  • Composting and recycling sorting in class
  • Monthly tea parties, bi-weekly gardening, and six field trips to Tilden for “Forest School”
  • His teacher’s refrain for all students: “Make a better choice.”

On Friday, Feb. 1, he also had another Berkeley experience, one I never wanted for him: his first close proximity to a shooting. Two blocks from his school, an hour before school let out, a man was shot multiple times. The Berkeley Police Department advised four schools, including King CDC, to secure their perimeters. However, my son’s teacher never got the message.

Let’s look back and see how we got here. King CDC at 1939 Ward St. houses three classes of transitional kindergarten and four preschool classes for a total of 140 children. The two programs are run independently with separate staff and separate budgets. BUSD budgets are never enough. A group of parents had to fight for a custodian — with a campaign of emails, threats to call the health board, and public comment at School Board meetings — to clean the combination cafeteria/library. An age-appropriate play structure scheduled to be constructed last summer was shelved and funding re-allocated (the fight for this is ongoing).

On top of that, King CDC has had staffing problems. TK is now on its third principal of the school year — fourth if you count the two-week substitute. The TK administrative assistant is part-time and so is the preschool secretary. The interim TK principal’s contract was up the day before this incident. The preschool principal oversees three sites and wasn’t at King CDC. When the incident happened early that Friday afternoon the office was empty.

Here’s how I found out about the shooting: Another parent emailed me after he saw it on Berkeleyside’s Twitter. This was 15 minutes before dismissal and the reports were that Berkeley Technology Academy next door and Sutter Health on Milvia down the street were on lockdown. His daughter takes the bus to aftercare at Washington Elementary. He called the office but, since it was empty, no one answered. He emailed me because, in the absence of an e-tree or phone tree, all year I’ve been updating everyone with whatever news I have in a Google group we set up ourselves.

I skimmed the Berkeleyside article while calling my mother-in-law, who was at the school picking up Calvin. She had seen the street blocked off by police, but all was calm at the school. No mention of perimeters secured or the gun violence two blocks away. I emailed the Google group a link to the news article and confirmed that dismissal went as planned so no one else would be caught unaware. Parents replied and began to cc: BUSD administrators with questions and outrage at the lack of communication. Without the news article, would we have been notified? Hours later, we finally got a reply: the BUSD official statement from Director of Schools Maggie Riddle, which we had already seen on an update to the Berkeleyside article. Subsequent emails from Riddle and Pasquale Scuderi, associate superintendent, acknowledged concerns and the breakdown in communication.

At at a meeting at King CDC four days after the incident, Riddle brought a thick binder of safety protocols and cited a failure of training. No contingency plan for an afternoon like that Friday with only teachers on site and no administrative staff. The preschool teacher-in-charge told me he heard the helicopter overhead and contacted the offsite preschool principal, so there was a breakdown in protocol there as well. By the time he found out what was going on, the perimeter restriction had been lifted. King CDC is one of the few BUSD sites that’s fenced on all sides with a coded gate, so technically the perimeter is always “secured.” The all-clear happened to come right at dismissal time so, in this case, Calvin’s teacher’s actions would have been the same if she had known. But she didn’t know.

This incident highlighted what we already knew from months of emails, facilities meetings and School Board meetings: King CDC has not been supported by the district. It’s more than a lack of an appropriately-sized play structure or clean facilities, it’s a lack of leadership and a willingness to put the issues at the site at the bottom of the list. The good news is that, the Monday after the incident, a new principal started and has committed to stay until the end of the year. We planned our lofty goals: an e-tree and phone tree, a reviewing and revising of safety protocols, and a phone number we can call that someone will answer.

My hope for BUSD: Make a better choice and start prioritizing the kids at King CDC. Support the teachers who have been carrying this program and safeguarding our kids, some of the youngest in the school district.

Anna Pritt has lived and worked in Berkeley since 2004. She is the Operations and Finance Director at Heyday, a nonprofit book publisher. She has three children — Calvin (5) and twins Matilda and Gwendolyn (2.5) — and MANY years as a BUSD parent ahead of her.