At its December 9, 2020 meeting, the Berkeley School Board unanimously approved the name “Ruth Acty Elementary School” for the school formerly known as Jefferson. The new name recognizes an inspiring educator, the first Black teacher in Berkeley Unified School District, who dedicated nearly 50 years of her life to teaching students in Berkeley, from Kindergarten through Adult School.
Ruth Acty has been described as “a tenacious, committed, dedicated, caring and loving educator, trailblazer and history maker.” Her importance to the history of Berkeley schools has long been recognized, including earlier proposals as an eponym for a school facility. In 1998, when she passed away at the age of 85, her Celebration of Life included a tribute from the senior curator of the African American Museum and Library, where the Ruth Acty Papers are archived, who stated, “Miss Ruth Acty’s significance in the history of the Bay Area is unparalleled….She was a superior mentor and role model for planning and reaching goals, despite the odds.”
The approval of the new name follows an intensive community process that was triggered in June as a result of the Black Lives Matter resolution approved by the Board. An advisory committee was appointed by Superintendent Brent Stephens and lead by Natasha Beery, Director of BSEP and Community Relations, and facilitator grace kong. The committee, composed of teachers and parent/guardians, worked intensively for three months to engage the school community in the search for a new name. Name suggestions were received from across the community, and the committee referred to selection criteria to narrow the list to seven names for consideration. Many of the names represented local heroes: Betty Reid Soskin, Maya Angelou, Muwekma Ohlone, Ruby Bridges, Ruth Acty, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Yoshiko Uchida.
Teachers created learning materials about the top names,posted on the BUSD website as well as the school website. Classrooms were engaged in discussions and voting. Staff reported widespread engagement and enthusiasm from students, and families and staff attended virtual town halls and special meetings which also yielded positive responses, with many comments that all of the top names were excellent choices.
After a series of meetings to review the community feedback, the Committee unanimously recommended the name Ruth Acty Elementary School. Board Director Ka’Dijah Brown, who made the motion to accept the committee’s recommendation, thanked the committee for its diligence, and noted that “my heart is really full, receiving this presentation, especially as a response to Black Lives Matter.” She and Director Sinai also commented on the importance of recognizing Black excellence and Black joy, as well as the need to increase representation and role models. Retiring Board members, Director Beatriz Leyva-Cutler and Board President Judy Appel reflected upon the value of learning opportunities about local history.
The Committee also provided additional recommendations for carrying the learning forward so that the inspiration and educational opportunities would not end with the selection of a new school name. The ideas included developing a “local heroes” curriculum, and perhaps a mural at the school to recognize the many inspiring stories that were uplifted during this process. The Board further approved the recommendation of honoring the inspiration of the 2003-2005 effort to rename the school “Sequoia” by designating the multipurpose/cafetorium meeting room as “Sequoia Hall,” along with a plaque that would tell the story of that history. Upon recommendation by the Superintendent and Committee, the Board further directed that staff continue to engage with local tribal representatives about the ways in which indigenous history and presence is reflected in our schools, including in our District curriculum, with the potential for a later naming opportunity.
The process won high praise from Board members for its inclusiveness and thoroughness, to the facilitator grace kong and process leader Natasha Beery, with appreciation also expressed for the contributions of those who participated in this renaming process both in the past and this year. Principal Mary Cazden thanked the advisory committee for “the heartfelt and challenging work in leading our community to such an inspiring name.” She also recognized the extra effort of staff for the curriculum and lessons that “supported student voices in a very meaningful way” and thanked the school community for their participation and ongoing support. She concluded by saying that “in this very challenging year, this experience and process was actually a light in 2020.”
Details about the renaming process can be found under item 13.1 in the online agenda packet of the Board meeting. The slide deck of the presentation is posted online, and the Board discussion can be viewed on the YouTube video of the meeting beginning at 1:59:20 after the meeting was called to order.