The Albemarle County School Board selected Dr. Rebecca Berlin to replace White Hall representative David Oberg on the board after Oberg announced his resignation in October. Nine candidates applied for the vacancy, which is a one-year interim position until a new election can be held in 2023. The board conducted a 20-minute interview with each candidate at its December 1 meeting and asked a set of four general questions to each person, such as why they are applying to serve on the School Board and what elements of the division’s Strategic Plan excite or concern them.
Berlin is an Earlysville resident and mother of two children, one a junior at Albemarle High School and another who is a recent AHS graduate. “My background is as a special education teacher, as a teacher of children with autism, as an inclusion teacher, and as a researcher and adjunct faculty member providing research at UVA on teacher-child interactions as well as a teacher preparation faculty member,” she said during the board interview.
Most recently, Berlin was Chief Learning Officer for Start Early, where she provided professional development help for teachers to scale up local Head Start programs in Chicago to be implemented in communities nationwide. “I have worked at a number of national organizations, which has allowed me to work with communities and states all across the country,” she said.
In answer to why she’s interested in serving on the School Board, Berlin talked about the achievement gaps across student groups in the county, particularly among Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged children. She noted that those gaps existed before the pandemic and are worse now, with some students in the bottom 10% of the state. “As I think about the fact that we are a community with average student expenses above the state average, in a university town, that really made me pause as a mom, as a taxpayer, as a teacher, as a researcher, and as a community member, and I felt like this was the time that my background could be used to help and support the difficult conversations that are in front of the School Board and Dr. Haas,” said Berlin.
When asked about the school division’s Strategic Plan, dubbed “Learning for All,” Berlin said she loved the emphasis on students thriving both socially and academically. “I was beyond impressed and so excited thinking about thriving students, affirming and empowering communities, and equitable, transformative resources,” she said.
As for the division’s challenges, “where we are compared to where we need to go gives me pause,” she said. “We need to continue to increase compensation for teachers, figure out how we can continue academic interventions and mental health support for students, and keep up with infrastructure needs. How does the board make those goals a reality in the budget that we have?”
Board member Ellen Osborne asked for Berlin’s views on the division’s anti-racism policy. “I love the fact that [the policy] was student-driven and student-supported, and the fact that there’s 100% training of teachers and continued professional development for the teachers on this,” said Berlin. “I think it’s an example for the state as well as for the country. We need to make sure that the policy continues to stay at the forefront of everyone’s mind and it’s not just a ‘we did it and now it’s done,’ kind of thing, that it continues to be a priority for everyone.”
Speaking about White Hall in particular, Berlin touched on the continued growth in the district and how to support that growth. “We have to always be looking ahead,” she said. “We have to make sure that all families, no matter what language they speak, are able to fully participate in those school communities. Also, as we look at the reading scores, particularly in the elementary schools in the White Hall District, we need to make sure that all students have the academic intervention that they need to make not just passing scores, but to continue to grow in reading, because we all know that research shows that reading is so predictive of achievement later on.”
Returning to the issue of achievement gaps, Berlin also highlighted the related problem of student mental health needs, and the long-term nature of solutions. “This hard thing for the public to understand is that this is something that we’re not going to fix overnight,” she said. “We are not going to see the scores go up in a year or two years, it’s going to take concentrated effort. This is not a one-time budget [item], we are going to have to find enough money to support both the academic and mental health needs of these kids, because we’re not going to make the academic benchmarks that we want for all of our children unless we can make sure that all children feel safe and secure and their mental health needs are met.”
After she was selected to fill the White Hall position, Berlin talked about her interests and particular skill set with the Gazette. “One of my biggest interests is always taking what happens in the academic world, or the policy world, and then figuring out how it’s actually interpreted and how it scales locally,” she said. “What does this policy mean for teachers, principals, parents, and children, and what’s most equitable for the students?”
Alleviating the achievement gap among students will require addressing the teacher shortage and “the recruitment, retention, and wellness of teachers,” said Berlin. “As a teacher preparation person, I know what the pipeline of future educators looks like, and unfortunately, it’s not great. While it takes money, the easiest thing to do is to say, ‘Okay, how do we get additional well-trained bodies into the classrooms to support the teachers?’ Because of the staff and substitute shortage, teachers feel like they can’t take a day off because one of their peers will have to substitute. I would love to see more specialized programs with [UVA’s Curry School], and more support from them.”
Berlin thinks that her facility with data and applying metrics to measure outcomes will be useful in assessing the impact of the county’s strategic plan. “It’s literally one of the best strategic plans I’ve seen as I’ve looked at work done across the county,” she said, “but now it really is a question of how we make that a reality.” She believes that data can and should be leveraged to support the school division’s equity mission.
“[Equity] is the most important thing we need to do, and when I think about it, I really think about data, like when I saw in some districts only 10% of Black boys passing the SOL,” she said. “And we have to remember that the SOL is not even a high benchmark. Unfortunately, there’s not going to be a one size fits all solution, it’s really going to be thinking subgroup by subgroup, school by school, working with the principals and with the specialists and teachers in the schools to see what’s working. One of the things I always say is, data should be a flashlight and not a hammer.”