The Bonar Street headquarters of the Berkeley Unified School District. Photo: Kaia Diringer
The Bonar Street headquarters of the Berkeley Unified School District. Photo: Kaia Diringer

The Berkeley Unified School District has continued its stepped-up efforts to cut down on enrollment fraud during its second year of widespread home visits and address verifications prompted by a new policy adopted by the School Board last year.

Wednesday night, the board got an update from BUSD admissions manager Francisco Martinez about how enrollment and address verifications have gone so far in the 2016-17 school year.

Martinez was charged by BUSD last year with keeping a closer eye on school enrollment. As part of the new board policy, students in certain grades are required to provide proof of residency — such as a utility bill and additional documents — before being allowed to re-enroll.

This year, the families of all students heading into middle and high school had to provide proof of Berkeley residency if they wished to continue to attend BUSD.

Of nearly 700 students who attended fifth grade in Berkeley last year, 33 did not provide the documents, and went elsewhere for middle school, according to Wednesday night’s enrollment update. Of approximately 740 rising ninth-graders, 28 did not submit documents and they, too, left for other districts.

District staff also visited 503 homes as part of the address verification process “when the staff believes this is necessary to ensure compliance with the Berkeley residency requirement.” As a result of that process, 89 students were not enrolled in Berkeley for the current school year. According to the report, home visits took place in Berkeley, Oakland and West Contra Costa County.

Ethnicity: overall BUSD compared to interdistrict permits, transitional kindergarten up to 12th grade. Source: BUSD
Ethnicity: overall BUSD compared to interdistrict permits, transitional kindergarten up to 12th grade. Source: BUSD

The district did accept 799 students on inter-district permits, including 72 students who are new to BUSD. Of those, 30 are children of BUSD employees, 15 already had siblings at BUSD (though their families have moved or never lived in Berkeley), and 27 have “extenuating circumstances,” such as safety-related issues.

The district looks at a combination of good grades, attendance and behavior to decide whether to approve those transfer permits.

“All three are used,” Assistant Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi told the board, adding that students are “not going to be penalized if the struggle is purely academic.”

Martinez said permitting decisions are made in collaboration with school principals to ensure someone more familiar with each child is involved.

Home visits took place all over the East Bay. Source: BUSD
Home visits took place all over the East Bay. Source: BUSD

Nearly 160 inter-district permit requests were denied — including 42 from BUSD students — though this year’s permits did increase as compared to last year, when 743 students were admitted through that process.

According to the report, another 84 Berkeley students submitted their own requests to be allowed to attend public schools outside BUSD, and were approved. That includes 27 in elementary school, 17 in middle school and 40 in high school.

Martinez told the board Wednesday night that, of the roughly 9,700 students enrolled in BUSD, about 1,260 of them are new to the district this year. (As noted above, only 72 of the new students are on inter-district permits.)

He also reported declining enrollment in Berkeley, about 100 fewer students overall as compared to the prior year.

Getting documentation from families can be a big job, Martinez told the board. He said about 70% of families came in on their own to provide proof of residency, but the district had to follow up with many others individually by phone. The district office was also open on four Saturdays to make it easier for families to show up.

Martinez said home visits were done if families were not able to provide documents, or if there was something else questionable about the case.

School Board Director Ty Alper had two children go through the verification process this year, and praised the district for offering a “really efficient process” despite no increases in staff to help. He said the board might want to look at increasing staff in the future.

“We’re all down on that hall a lot and we see the parents waiting outside,” he said.

Board members said they got very few complaints about the process this year, and that it seemed to have run smoothly.

Board President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said she had been surprised to get a visit at her own home from a BUSD staffer looking to check out the address. Her children are all grown, she said, but someone had apparently used her address to register another child for school.

She said the district needs to be welcoming to families, but must also make it clear what the rules are for BUSD enrollment.

Martinez said a letter is sent in January to families of students who are struggling academically to let them know they need to improve or may need to go back to their home districts.

School Board Director Josh Daniels said he is concerned about the changing demographics of Berkeley schools, which he last attended in the 90s. He said the changes over the past five, 10 and 15 years have been dramatic.

“It amazes me how the affordability challenges that we face have changed the demographic,” Daniels said. “It’s just very stark. We’re not the city, but it’s just something that I continually see in our neighborhoods and in our student body.”

Scuderi noted that the changing demographics have also impacted ninth-grade placement at Berkeley High, where its model of small schools is being reconsidered and may be revamped in the future.

Director Judy Appel noted that a concern from the board, when it approved the enrollment policy last year, had been that families who had been in Berkeley schools but living outside the city would be afraid to come in to register, and would simply leave.

She said she appreciated any efforts BUSD staff take to ensure that kids in good standing are able to get the permits.

“I think we need to have a real discussion about the impact on our schools of doing this,” she said.

Director Karen Hemphill described the address verification process as “very sensitive,” but said she had only gotten one complaint this year, which she said was “a special case.”

She said she is worried, too, about how the city’s changing demographics will impact Berkeley schools, particularly for students who are experiencing “racial isolation.” Hemphill, who is black, said at least three black families on her block alone have left or are leaving Berkeley this year.

Those changes are likely to impact and reduce state and federal funding for schools, she said, and could hamper Berkeley’s efforts to end  “racial predictability” in classroom performance.

“My neighborhood has completely changed,” Hemphill said. “You see that all through South and West Berkeley now.”

“How do we further our equity work as our population changes?” she added.

Berkeley School Board to get student residency update (11.04.15)
BUSD poised to adopt tougher school enrollment policy (05.08.15)
School board votes on short-term overcrowding solutions (01.15.15)
Berkeley School Board primer: Decision time for board on overcrowding (01.14.15)
Berkeley School Board primer: Discussion of overcrowding solutions continues (12.10.14)
School Board considers options for tackling student surge (11.13.14)
Illegal enrollment is boon and burden to Berkeley schools (04.08.14)

Follow Berkeleyside on Twitter and Facebook or get the latest news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s Daily Briefing. Email us at Support independent local journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...