Rebecca Berlin was appointed in January to serve as an interim Albemarle County School Board member representing the White Hall District following former member David Oberg’s resignation last fall. After a busy spring on the board, she’s now running for election in November to a full term in the seat. Joining the board just as its annual budget process was heating up, Berlin had to immerse herself in the details quickly.
“The budget is an amazing resource for School Board members and for central office staff,” said Berlin. “It’s one of those things I wish every parent and community member would have the time to read because the amount of information in there is so helpful. I’m a big historical context person, so I like to know what’s happening now but also how we got here. When I came in, we were focused on test scores and learning loss, and I wanted to know what we are doing now, and how do we continue things that we started [such as mental health counselors] that have been helpful.”
Berlin said that the board is clearly concentrating on the achievement gaps between assessment test pass rates for students of color and their peers in other demographic groups. “Sometimes people think that the problem is just in reading, but in fact it is reading, it is math, and it is science,” where gaps exist, said Berlin. “We need to decide what should schools do, and what are the things that we are going to support in the budget? For our reading interventionists, some schools only had part of one teacher’s time each day, so we added about 15 interventionists so that all schools, including middle and high schools, are staffed.”
One addition to the budget proposed by Superintendent Matt Haas was funding for one School Resource Officer [SRO]—a county police officer who spends time in schools interacting with students and preventing dangerous or unlawful behavior—to be centered at Albemarle High School. “I’m a proponent of this as a test,” said Berlin. “As a researcher, I’m looking at both sides of the story as well as talking to white, Black, and brown students, and there is not one answer. I want to make sure that [the SRO] is someone who can be a support to the community as well as someone who is there in an emergency, and that we keep collecting data about whether everyone feels comfortable and safe.”
ACPS recently proposed a $257 million budget for 2023-24, a 45% increase over the budget adopted in 2017-18, though student enrollment has increased by only 1% over that span. “That [disconnect] is one of the biggest concerns I hear from people,” said Berlin. “But as we think about our student population, particularly coming out of the pandemic, there’s a huge range of student needs—mental health, behavioral, academic—and one teacher can’t do it all. So, the question is how do we bring in additional services to make sure that students get what they need and also that we give teachers the support they need so they’re not burning out.”
Berlin thinks collective bargaining could help support teachers once the process is set up. “We want to hear the voice of the teachers, the needs of the teachers, in a way that is not confrontational but that brings the two parties together,” she said. “It was important for [the board] as we were voting [on collective bargaining] to make sure that it’s a partnership, and we’re seeing that in the draft the lawyers are working on. You know, there are places like Pennsylvania that have been doing collective bargaining for 30 years, it’s just so new for us.”
Berlin also serves on the board of the Albemarle Foundation for Education, a nonprofit organization that works with the school division to raise outside funding to “help the division reach its strategic goals,” according to its web page on the ACPS site. “Foundations are often started in areas where there is a lot of economic diversity between schools in a division—for instance, the difference between what a Murray Elementary PTO and a Greer PTO can raise to support [educational goals] is very different,” she said. “So foundations can bring in additional support for some of those schools, and also can help the school district with other potential large gifts from the community or businesses in the area.” If elected, Berlin will remain on the AFE board as one of two School Board representatives.
One of the non-budget issues Berlin voted on this spring was to change the name of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School to Ivy Elementary, despite the 85% of the MLES community who preferred to keep the name and allegations by members of the name-change committee that they were coerced into voting for the change. “You can read history in many different ways,” said Berlin, whose daughter attended Jouett Middle School when its name was changed to Journey. “But when I sit down with Black and brown families and they talk about how the name itself is triggering and puts a pause on them feeling 100% welcome in that school, then that’s why I felt comfortable voting yes.”
The school board recently received the results of an instructional audit prepared by an outside consultant that addressed the root causes of the achievement gaps between students of color and other demographic groups in ACPS. Berlin said the report’s recommendations “will become what we’re doing” going forward. She described multiple strands of action, including streamlining core curricula, providing additional curriculum supports for teachers, and ensuring that the division’s strategic goals connect from the board to the central office to schools and communities.
Regarding the report’s specific focus on the test scores of students of color, Berlin said, “Across the board, we need to improve, so if we look at the places we’re failing the most, that’s where we need to start. And I think we know that if we focus on those, there will be some spillover effects [for the rest of the student population]. There are many pieces of this [initiative] that make me confident that this will work, and one of those is that from the beginning Dr. Haas has been very public about this process. That will hold every one of us accountable.”