By Staff Writer Tanisha Srivatsa
Who Is Michele Berke?
As a parent, educator, and 17-year Fremont resident, Michele Berke is an active member of the Fremont community. In 2015, she was elected as a trustee on the FUSD Board of Education, and she is currently running for reelection. As the Early Childhood Education Principal at the California School for the Deaf (CSD), which is California’s only public school for deaf students, Berke is the only District 5 Board candidate with a background in education. She builds upon this experience in her policies on Special Education and school environments.
Through her positions on the Board and at CSD, she has been involved with task forces and committees, including accreditation task forces and FUSD’s Budget, Curriculum & Instruction, Supplemental Materials, and Immersion Committees.
COVID-19 AND THE SCHOOL BUDGET:
Since Fremont is now in the “red zone” on Governor Newsom’s COVID-19 timeline, which allows most non-essential indoor businesses to reopen in limited capacities, campus reopening plans are being deliberated at both the school and district levels. Because one of her priorities is addressing the pandemic and creating a feasible reopening plan, Berke wants to make sure that the district doesn’t rush into a decision.
Before reopening, though, Berke’s goal is to make sure that the district has taken the appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. “As a principal, I want to see my students every day. I miss the laughter, the smiles on the playground, that kind of thing. Having said that, what’s going to get us back is ensuring we have a safe way of returning,” Berke said.
Through distance learning, she hopes to implement equitable policies and initiatives so that all students have a chance to succeed. Last spring, she worked with the district to ensure that students with food insecurities could receive free meals from the district through partnerships with companies and local businesses.
This year, she hopes to implement more equal-access technology practices, including one-to-one student to technology ratios. To start, she wants to create free, socially-distanced learning hubs where students have a safe place to learn with qualified adults who can help them, similar to the School Pod at the Fremont Teen Center, which does require an entrance fee.
California and FUSD’s budget crises have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a fact that Berke is well aware of. Though she originally wanted to fund more student initiatives, such as sports and arts programs, as well as other district-wide projects, she understands that due to these circumstances, many of these will not be feasible. In 2014, Fremont constituents voted for Measure E, passing a $650 million bond meant for middle school conversions; however, due to pressing issues of overcrowding, much of this money was spent on creating new classrooms in North Fremont at Brookvale and Patterson Elementary Schools.
“In retrospect, we had to do it,” Berke said. “But it also meant that we were pushing out the timeline for doing the middle school conversions, and so what’s happened is we’re now in a climate where with every conversion that we’re doing, the costs are escalating.” Coupled with FUSD’s general lack of funding from the state, this means that further reductions are needed in areas such as transportation and arts programs. As a member of the district’s Budget Committee, Berke hopes to ensure that any further budget cuts do not affect class sizes and students’ educational opportunities.
Berke wants to work with the district to include curricula that is reflective of Fremont’s diverse population. According to a 2017-18 study by the CA Department of Education, 67% of FUSD teachers were white, despite 89% of FUSD students identifying as people of color. Because of this disparity, Berke wants to lead efforts in hiring Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) teachers who reflect Fremont’s diverse demographics and to incorporate curricula, such as Ethnic Studies courses, that represent different perspectives.
“In fourth grade, every California student is supposed to learn about the California missions. The perspective was [the colonists] saved the savages by creating these missions and gave people meaningful work. Well, what happened to the Native American perspective in that narrative? What happened to the oppression that was really going on? None of that is in that conversation,” she said.
One of Berke’s priorities is ensuring that all students are engaged with culturally-responsive pedagogy and programs that support their mental health and emotional needs. At CSD, Berke deals with many of the same issues that FUSD deals with regarding school environments, non-inclusive like curricula and systemic racism. Berke has spearheaded inclusion programs at CSD that seek to give all students an equal education, and works with students on Individualized Education Plans and Individualized Family Service Plans on a daily basis. She hopes to do the same throughout FUSD.
Mental health is also one of Berke’s prioritized policies, especially after Mission San Jose High School’s ASB hosted panels on mental health and microaggressions this past summer. Berke said, “A school environment is all about… creating communities. But if we’re creating a community of oppression, or creating a community of unhealthy competition … that’s not okay.”
She acknowledges a tripod model of students’ stress, which she says can come from students themselves, their parents, and their teachers. She also wants to work with on-campus organizations such as Challenge Success in order to facilitate conducive learning environments for all students and train teachers in regards to microaggressions and systemic racism.
When it comes to special needs students in FUSD, Berke hopes to promote a mindset of inclusion, rather than exclusion, and supports the integration of special education students into regular classes.
“We’ve often heard that ‘Oh, Special Ed [encroaches],’ and those are the negative words that [people have] used for the spending that we do for Special Ed kids. And we have to shift that paradigm. They’re not Special Ed kids who are separate from FUSD, they are Fremont students, and they deserve a general education to the greatest extent possible,” she said.
SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICERS:
Berke supports the FUSD School Resource Officer (SRO) program, a recently-contested partnership between the district and the Fremont Police Department (FPD) that assigns FPD officers to FUSD high schools in order to patrol campuses, monitor students’ behavior, and foster positive relationships between students and law enforcement officers through workshops and presentations.
Several members of the community have raised concerns about this police presence in schools, causing the district to form a task force to discuss the continuation of the program. Berke supports this initiative, but also advocates for the contributions SROs bring to campuses in terms of mental health, such as serving as informal counselors and mentors to at-risk students.
She said, “If Fremont police come in, they come in with this mindset of ‘it’s a criminal activity and we have to deal with it,’ as opposed to [an SRO] who knows the students and the school site, and has a very different approach to intervening. [We want to make] sure that [arrests do not] escalate to becoming this ‘all guns drawn, and we’re gonna take them down’ kind of attitude.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT MICHELE BERKE:
Visit Michele Berke’s website at www.berkeforgreatschools.org