Erika Pollak hopes Zev gets into Malcom X Elementary. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel.

By Chris Hammond

Ring the school bell. Today marks a day of hope and trepidation for hundreds of Berkeley parents. The deadline to submit applications for the Berkeley public school lottery is 4 pm.

For kindergartners, the lottery marks a crucial beginning. The results will determine which school they get. Parents and guardians wait to find out, will it be the neighborhood school? Or the school on the other side of town?

Then there are all the other considerations parents sweat: will we get one of the few seats in a Spanish language immersion class, or the school with the intensive music and dance program?

“I really, really do want my first choice,” said Erika Pollak, whose son will attend kindergarten next year. She visited all five schools the district listed for her child, based on where they live in Berkeley. The one she wants is spacious Malcolm X Elementary School, an arts and academic magnet school. “If I don’t get it, I’ll be disappointed, I’ll do what I can to change. I’ll go to the school administration.”

Parents and guardians receive assignment letters by mid-March. Melissandra Leonardos, Manager of Admissions and Attendance, said 68% of students received their first choice last year, and 11% got their second choice.

“Honestly, I don’t make exceptions,” Leonardos said. “Unless it’s truly for the health and safety of a student.” She described the school lottery as a controlled choice — parents get to choose first, second and third from a number of schools, but the school district puts controls on where students end up. Parents who are still unhappy with the choice they get can join a waiting list for the school they want.

Controls such as race, education and income influence the pick. The goal that both parents and school officials said they hope for: good schools for everyone.

The philosophy behind Berkeley Unified’s school enrollment is steeped in careful consideration and history. The path to today’s lottery began when Berkeley schools became the first in the nation to integrate voluntarily in 1968. For the next 27 years elementary students got on the bus in an effort to make sure all students shared schools equally.

“You visit my neighborhood, I’ll visit your neighborhood” became the motto. All students in grades K-3 attended school in the Berkeley hills. All students in grades 4-6 went to schools in the flats.

The integration worked as long as students stayed in the public schools. As years went by, more white parents put their children into private schools from 4th to 8th grade, then returned them to Berkeley High School.

When Berkeley voters passed school bonds in 1993 to retrofit seismically unsafe schools, the district reconfigured its schools. Oakland planner Fern Tiger’s firm was hired to assist with a solution. “We came up with the idea to divide Berkeley into three zones,” she said in a recent interview.

A map of Berkeley shows the zones run from the flats to the hills, southwest to northeast. If you live in the central zone, for instance, you get priority over other city residents to apply to schools in that zone.

Tiger says the zones resolved some parent concerns. They had complained that it was hard to get involved in schools that are split, especially if they had more than one child going to different schools. The zones also were drawn so students would cross fewer major streets.

Parents told Tiger and her staff many of the same concerns that parents mention today. “They wanted their children to get a good education. They wanted diversity. And they wanted schools near their house,” she said.

Tiger’s firm engaged the community — white and black — to host 70 neighborhood meetings about the new plan. “It was mostly upscale, white parents at first. But we reached out to people in the flatlands to get involved,” she said. Even the superintendent of schools at the time knocked on doors.

Leonardos said the current enrollment policy has evolved since 1993 to include more than geography, and parents’ race and ethnicity.

A particular student’s information is not the deciding factor. Instead, proprietary software the district runs takes Census data for education and income, mixes it with racial data drawn from the K-5 student population, and then breaks it up into 448 planning areas — smaller than census tracts, but larger than city blocks — to assign a student one of three “diversity categories”. Each school gets the same proportion of students from those three categories.

“The school district was already heading in that direction, to include parents’ education level and income,” Leonardos said. “Prop 209 crystallized our efforts.” The backers of Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative that outlawed racial preferences in public education, employment and contracting, lost their state Supreme Court challenge of Berkeley’s integration policy in 2009. The appellate decision now allows any district to adopt a plan similar to Berkeley’s enrollment policy.

Tiger said she’s not surprised that Berkeley’s small school district leads others in the state. Every school in Berkeley worked really hard to become a school of choice, she said. “Schools looked at their strengths, and how to explain this to parents. They had to figure out, ‘What do we have that’s special?’”

Pollak, who is a former first grade teacher in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, said she believes that the Berkeley school district does a good job by inviting parents to tour the schools.

What clinched her first choice? Malcolm X Principal Alexander Hunt called out his entire K-5 staff at the school’s kindergarten night January 13th. “He made them all show up,” Pollak said, impressed that the principal (who’s new on the job) was so proud of his staff. “And the third graders put on a puppet show for us.”

Last year, 630 kindergartners enrolled system-wide, fewer than expected. A second lottery, one for students who miss today’s deadline, is May 6. The school district expects enrollment to creep up over the next few years, due to a growth in births. The goal for kindergarten is a ratio of 20 students for each teacher.

”I think the lottery is a pretty cool system,” said Pollak. “I assume diversity works. I mean, that’s what I saw when I toured the schools.”

Chris Hammond lives in Berkeley. He and his wife are raising their two-year-old daughter. Soon enough they’ll brave the lottery, too.

Freelance writers with story pitches can email