Exactly 50 years ago, Berkeley Unified integrated all its elementary schools, taking an unprecedented approach. In a special three-part series, Beyond the Buses, Berkeleyside explores that history, its legacy and the equity issues that remain unsolved. Tomorrow, the second installment will look at a new high-school program trying to achieve what others before it have not. Part 3 on Thursday will train the lens on teacher diversity.

Fifty years ago this fall, hundreds of elementary school students in Berkeley boarded yellow buses and slid into rows of seats, some enthusiastic and others anxious.

For most of the children, it was the first year they would ride all the way across town each morning instead of walking to the familiar schools in their neighborhoods.

This was the fall of 1968, a turbulent year in Berkeley and the nation, and the one the school district had selected to launch its radical integration program. The kids from the flats — a majority of whom were black, and many from low-income families — would ride up to the hills for grades K-3. The children of the mostly white and more affluent families who lived up there would, in turn, get sent down to South and West Berkeley for grades 4-6.

What BUSD did voluntarily in 1968 was, by many accounts, unprecedented for a district of its size. It pioneered two-way busing — no longer the system in Berkeley, but an approach that yielded successes, missteps and wide-reaching effects still felt 50 years later.

“I can still hear the sounds of the buses,” said Doris Alkebulan, who was in third grade in 1968.

Each bus was labeled with a color and an animal: I rode the red rooster. I was on the green duck. Like their old Co-op grocery store numbers, it’s something some Berkeley natives of a certain age have never forgotten.

Unlike some of her classmates, who clung to their parents’ hands as they waited on their blocks that first day, Alkebulan was already an expert at bus-riding. She was part of a pilot the year before which sent 238 black students up to white schools. She remembers being in a bus with a few other black children as it chugged up the steep Marin Avenue to Cragmont Elementary.

“You heard the term integration, but you didn’t know how it related to you,” Alkebulan said. Her mother knew exactly how it related to her child, though. She had moved to California several years earlier from the infamous Little Rock, Arkansas, where her sister, Alkebulan’s aunt, had gotten a rock thrown at her in school because she was black.

Alkebulan’s mother was intent on getting her daughter a better, safer education, Alkebulan said. In Berkeley, she ordered copies of the child’s textbooks, so she could study extra at home. Alkebulan remembers being delighted when characters with dark skin like hers started appearing in the illustrations.

Doris Alkebulan (second row, fourth from left, in pigtails) was part of an integration pilot that bused 238 black children up to largely white schools like Cragmont in 1967-68. Photo: Courtesy Alkebulan

The pilot experiment was deemed a success, wrote Neil Sullivan, the BUSD superintendent at the time, in his 1970 memoir about integration, “Now is the Time: Integration in the Berkeley Schools.” Academic achievement rose for the black kids who were sent up the hill, though it stayed static for their white peers. But, he noted, many of the kids were lonely. The plan accentuated the economic differences between them and their new classmates, and between their own houses and the large homes and lush front yards they rode past on their way to the new schools.

“Now the facts of housing discrimination are engraved on their souls,” Sullivan wrote.

A year later, Berkeley expanded the pilot program — not only to all the black elementary school students in the district, but also to the white kids, and to everyone else. The hard work of desegregation, Sullivan said, was everyone’s burden to bear.

“The facts of housing discrimination are engraved on their souls.”

Though Berkeley’s plan brought with it plenty of tension, tussles, an effort to recall the School Board, and “white flight” out of the district, it also went a long way towards accomplishing what it was designed to do: create at least a base level of equal opportunity for public education for all the children in the city.

The Supreme Court had ruled in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, that segregated schools were unconstitutional. But many districts, including BUSD, were not explicitly separating kids of different races in different schools. Instead, they had neighborhood schools, which, because of decades of housing discrimination and settlement patterns, often ended up being just as segregated.

There is no untying the string that binds America’s housing policies and its education system together — there are only ways to try to loosen the knot. School districts can assign students to schools in manners that exacerbate the harmful effects of neighborhood segregation, or instead, like Berkeley did, take those students and mix them around the map.

Berkeley Unified no longer buses its kids back and forth — in fact, it has a very different school assignment plan that also strives for integration and is similarly lauded for its innovation. But the neighborhoods it is working with have changed dramatically since those first buses hit the road in the late 1960s, and so too has Berkeley’s student body.

So who exactly does school integration affect now, and what is the legacy of Berkeley’s model 50 years later? What worked, and why is educational equity still so elusive, even when everyone is allowed in the same school?

As students returned to Berkeley schools this fall — some riding those yellow buses, but many others buckled up in the back seat of a Prius — Berkeleyside took a look at what integration means for them today.

Root of the problem: Segregated neighborhoods, segregated schools

John Martin remembers watching his childhood best friend on his South Berkeley block getting picked up by a bus too. But this wasn’t a yellow BUSD school bus. This was a bus that would take the boy even farther afield than the Berkeley hills — to a Japanese internment camp.

“Golly, I can remember standing in the middle of Dohr Street and crying as the bus loaded my neighbor across the street,” said Martin, now in his 80s, whose black family stayed behind. “My little friend sat in the back, and I saw him waving until the bus turned a corner. My mother tried to console me, but she was very affected as well.”

Before World War II, many Japanese American residents lived and worked in South and West Berkeley. Redlining prevented non-white people from buying homes east of Grove Street, which is now, notably, called Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Housing segregation was not outlawed nationally until 1968, the same year Berkeley schools were integrated, though California had a law on the books earlier.

While the Japanese American population was incarcerated in camps, South Berkeley saw an influx of black residents who’d come to work in shipyards during World War II and flee discrimination in the South.

By 1963, many schools in that neighborhood served majority-black student populations. Most strikingly, Lincoln, now Malcolm X Elementary, was 97% black. By contrast, eight schools elsewhere were upwards of 90% white. The two schools with the largest Asian American populations — 20-30% each — were two of the rare schools already integrated by dint of their locations in central and northwest Berkeley: Washington and Jefferson elementaries.

Photo: De Facto Segregation in the Berkeley Schools (1963)

Only around 20% of students attended one of those schools that were integrated by default.

Those statistics come from a 1963 report called “De Facto Segregation in Berkeley Public Schools,” which highlighted how segregated BUSD schools were in terms of enrollment and a number of other factors, including teacher composition and curriculum. Martin, by then all grown up, served on the committee assembled by the School Board to study whether the district was meeting desegregation and equality goals, and how it could do better.

“I think the report had a solid impact,” said Martin. “The 35 members who participated in what I think was a wonderful experience provided, as I recall, a fine set of recommendations to the School Board, which they mostly followed.”

Photo: De Facto Segregation in the Berkeley Schools (1963)

Along with passionate advocacy by the NAACP and UC Berkeley’s Congress of Racial Equality, the force of new star superintendent Sullivan, and School Board members who spoke as strongly in favor of desegregation, that research helped pave the way for various integration pilots, including the tumultuous integration of the junior high schools in 1964, and ultimately the busing plan in 1968.

Tumultuous times, in the streets and schools

It wasn’t easy to get there.

Public meetings regularly drew impassioned and angry crowds and lasted even later than the marathon sessions do these days. Among the parents who lashed out at each other in those settings were many white residents who threatened to sell their homes if the district went through with integration, Sullivan wrote in his book.

“Busing was a bad word in Berkeley,” he said, though he noted that 2,000 students already traveled out of their neighborhoods to private schools. Cost was never a barrier to integration, as the first year of the plan was estimated to require just 3% of the district’s operating budget. Plus, the district received half a million dollars from the federal government specifically for the first year of the program. (President Ronald Reagan later eliminated federal funding for desegregation efforts.)

The final School Board meeting to consider the 1968 plan drew 650 people on all sides of the issue, and ended in a unanimous vote in favor. There were parents of all races who were delighted.

It still wasn’t an easy transition for many students. The tenor inside the schools at the time often matched that of the outside world, Sullivan wrote. In 1966, for example, that meant the Hunters Point riot that broke out in San Francisco after police killed a black teenager reverberated on Berkeley campuses. One day, 60 black students at Berkeley High, which as the only high school was already integrated, began chanting “Black power!” and demanded the district stop tracking students. Some white students argued with them, and the black students in turn began hitting them.

Physical clashes continued after all schools were integrated.

“Many of us who grew up in the ghetto — Irish, Negro, Jewish, or other — made our way with our fists, feet, and elbows,” wrote Sullivan, who was white. “But if we were white kids, and if our parents were able to push their way up economically, we could get up into the middle-class schools, where we learned to restrain or sublimate.”

People who experienced elementary integration in 1968 — people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, most now in their 50s — have varied memories of that era. For some, it was an eye-opening, deeply positive experience they credit with shaping their world views and careers and giving them lifelong friendships. For others, it was scary. Still others barely realized they were part of a pioneering cohort of kids who’d still be discussed 50 years later.

“Asian kids, black kids, white kids, we all got along.”

“The only change I felt was there were more kids I didn’t know,” said Dean Fukawa, who was bused from Jefferson to Franklin. “In that sense, it was a good experience to me, to see newer faces. Asian kids, black kids, white kids, we all got along.”

When Anna Clark Foote rode the bus to Washington Elementary as a white second-grader, the only differences on her mind were those between “big kids and little kids.”

The integrated school “did not in any way feel uncomfortable or unnatural,” said Foote. The principal at the time was Herb Wong, who is credited with starting BUSD’s renowned jazz program, and who hired many other musicians to teach at Washington, including the teacher down the hall named — Foote swears — Mr. Funk. The teachers would put on records at recess, and a multicultural group of kids would dance their hearts out.

“To this day, I remember how great that was,” said Foote, whose two best friends were a black girl and another white girl. “There was a sense of being exposed to different cultures. The teachers, I think, were very comfortable with interracial classrooms. They sort of came to it from that artist/musician perspective. It helped with the egalitarian feel.”

Herb Wong, Washington Elementary School principal (in sunglasses), brought Duke Ellington (center) to Berkeley to celebrate the anniversary of integration. Photo: Suzanne McCullough

In 1969, to celebrate the anniversary of integration, Wong somehow got Duke Ellington to come meet the kids and then perform at the Berkeley High Community Theater.

“I don’t even think I knew the potency or importance of what was happening,” Foote said. “In retrospect, it is a really great memory to have, that we took the time as a Berkeley community to say, “We did it.”

For Brandon Baum, who was bused in fourth grade to Columbus (now Rosa Parks) from the mostly white Oxford, “the positives vastly outweighed the negatives. It helped me connect more easily and readily with people of other races.”

“I think I got into a fight every day for the first week.”

Yet, “I think I got into a fight every day for the first week,” at Columbus, said Baum, who is white. “There was definitely a racial component to it. In hindsight, I can imagine being an African American kid in Berkeley, you’re probably pissed off about the way things were.” Martin Luther King Jr. — who wrote an introduction praising the Berkeley plan for the book Sullivan would later publish — had been assassinated just months earlier, in April 1968.

But Baum, now a lawyer who’s taught at UC Hastings, quickly made friends. “I’d always been kind of a tougher kid. Not a bully, but kind of a regular face at the principal’s office. I would stand up for kids. I got a reputation of being somebody who wouldn’t back down. Suddenly I was accepted,” he said.

He doesn’t remember discussing integration with his parents. “We were free-range kids at that point,” Baum said. “School was the way we learned. Parents of Berkeley kids then were much less affluent — there were people who dropped out of high school, and hippies.”

Other parents had strong feelings, in both directions. According to many accounts and documents, BUSD saw a sharp decline in enrollment in the years following integration, in part precipitated by white families leaving the district.

Laurie Kayed remembers seeing it firsthand in her neighborhood.

“The Berkeley hills emptied out in the summer of 1968,” she said. “I remember in third grade my classmates talking about moving to Orinda. It seemed like everybody was going. When I asked my mom if we were moving, she was adamant that we were not. She was a believer in integration as a means of social justice.” As a kid, she noticed it most that Halloween, when the trick-or-treating rush was nowhere to be seen.

Many of those who stuck around would keep their kids in the newly integrated hills schools for K-3, then move them to private school when it got time to bus them down to the flats, said current BUSD Admissions Manager Francisco Martinez.

That “white flight” was in part what prompted the district to revisit its radical integration model.

New integration plan is just as creative and contentious

BUSD’s population dropped from 16,000 students to 9,000 in the 15 years after integration, according to district documents. That plummeting enrollment spurred a second look at the plan, as did the persistent academic disparities between racial groups, and a desire to get parents more involved in their kids’ education.

Sure, everyone should share the burden of integration, but did every single student need to go all the way across the city for school?

In 1995, the district upended two-way busing, creating three “attendance zones” — swaths that each included multiple schools and a diverse range of neighborhoods — and implemented a “controlled choice” system. Parents could request a school, and preference was given to those requesting inside their zone, so long as desegregation criteria was met. White, black and all other students were each distributed so their respective representations at each school matched their districtwide averages. At the time, black students were 39% of the district, so each elementary school was roughly 39% black.

Under that plan, only groups making up at least 25% of the district’s student body — white and black students — were distributed so school demographics matched up. Whereas 11% of the student body was Latino, for example, so those students were part of the broader “other” group. Strikingly, black students no longer make up a quarter of BUSD, meaning the 1995 plan would now apply to just “white” and “other” groups.

That same year, middle schools became grades 6-8 instead of starting with seventh grade, and Longfellow opened as a magnet school accepting students from all over the city.

But just a year later, that kind of plan became illegal.

In 1996, Proposition 209 prohibited schools from determining enrollment based on race, sex or ethnicity. When Berkeley Unified reviewed its plan again in 2004, it had to contend with the new restrictions.

“The board wanted racial integration,” but it couldn’t mandate that outright, said Martinez, who wrote the 2004 plan.

So they tried something a little different. The district drew lines around 445 “planning areas,” sections of four to eight city blocks. Using census data, each section is given a “diversity index” score of 1-3 based on the percentage of students of color there, the median income level, and the mean adult education level. Parents can still request schools, but if demographics vary between campuses, enrollment is shuffled — based on the diversity score of a student’s planning area, not the student’s own identity.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, that districts could not assign students to schools based on individual racial identities. Whereas Brown, and later decisions that strengthened and expanded it, said the use of race-based enrollment to segregate schools was unconstitutional, Parents Involved said districts could not use race to do the opposite, to desegregate schools.

But the court left the door open for districts to desegregate through other approaches.

“We have to be really creative if we want to achieve integration today,” said Meredith Richards, a Southern Methodist University education policy professor who’s studied Berkeley schools. “When I look at what Berkeley’s doing, it’s really creative.”

The most effective and innovative integration models are, in one view, “a little bit perverse,” acknowledged Richards. “They’re trying to exploit our extreme residential segregation,” taking something harmful and using it to promote equity.

The Berkeley architects viewed their 2004 plan not just as a clever workaround, but a more nuanced stab at integration, Martinez said.

“Socioeconomic status is a huge factor on how students perform,” he said. “We wanted to expand the notion of diversity,” by including median income in the diversity index algorithm.

“There’s a blessing and a curse to using this socioeconomic” indicator, said Richards. Sometimes it’s given weight to the detriment of the very distinct significance of race. “I can’t get districts to say ‘race’ anymore,” she said.

Though Proposition 209 supporters tried to challenge the Berkeley system, a California appeals court ruled in 2009 that BUSD had not violated the law with its 2004 plan, as school assignment was based on neighborhood diversity, not student race. The Supreme Court refused to take up a challenge to that decision, handing Berkeley, and anyone else who wanted to copy the plan, a victory.

Back in 1968, Sullivan’s slogan was “schools worthy of imitation.” But there have been surprisingly few copycats of any of Berkeley’s plans, scholars say.

“A lot of times when you’re seeing these initiatives, they’re not these broad district-wide” plans, Richards said of the 2004 approach. “It’s a handful of schools designed to be more diverse.”

In a 2012 study, Richards and colleagues looked at whether a “Berkeley-style” integration model (the current one) would be replicable in the largest urban school districts in the U.S.

First, the researchers confirmed that “Berkeley’s segregation rates have remained extremely low since shifting from a race-based to a geography-based integration plan.” Then they conducted empirical tests to gauge how effective the plan would be elsewhere, finding that the diversity index based on various factors was a pretty accurate proxy for race, and that the average school would experience an 8% to 11% increase in diversity under the plan.

Berkeley’s is a “promising and innovative policy strategy,” the report said. The UCLA Civil Rights project and UC Berkeley’s Warren Institute have also encouraged districts struggling after Parents Involved to adopt plans like Berkeley’s.

Still, the best plans can only go so far. Like Richards said, districts can merely work with what they have and do their best to “exploit” the segregated neighborhoods.

“In a diverse district it’s possible to achieve integration,” she said. “But when you look at a district like Dallas, which is mostly poor, no matter what, each school is going to be predominantly poor. Really the biggest barrier to integration is district boundaries.”

But just how diverse is Berkeley now?

BUSD’s “planning areas” were updated based on the 2010 Census. The next one is around the corner. What if the new map of Berkeley looks quite different than the last?

Integrating a changing Berkeley

What is the significance of school integration if you’re integrating a homogenous population?

There are a lot of theories — and fears — about how the racial makeup of BUSD’s students has changed in recent years. Exorbitant rents and a hot housing market have pushed many people of color out of the area and prompted others to sell homes inherited from longtime residents. There is deep concern that gentrification is affecting Berkeley schools, which have proudly clung to the history of integration and become famous for the diversity of their student bodies.

Speaking to Berkeleyside recently, a teacher asked, “At what point does Berkeley High become Monte Vista?” That’s the majority-white Danville high school with barely any black students.

If you look at Ed-Data, a California school database compiled by the state and collaborators, it seems Berkeley may be headed in that direction.

Back in 1963, black children made up a bit more than a third of the district’s students, and white students just more than half. By 1995, when many white families had fled the district, there were more black students (39%) than white (33%). By then, of course, students who were neither black nor white had more representation too.

More recently, BUSD’s black population has dropped yearly, according to the database. In 2009-10, the earliest year available on the site, black students made up 24% of the district. By 2017-18, the portion drops to 16%. Over the same period, the white population grew from 31% to 39%. The site also shows the Hispanic/Latino population growing 21% to 24%, the “two or more races” category expanding from 9% to 14% and the Asian student body static at 7% or 8%.

There’s no question Berkeley is getting whiter and wealthier, but figuring out by exactly how much, and why, turns out to be a more complicated task than those statistics would suggest. All Berkeley High freshmen are taught that race is a social construct, and their teachers need look no further than at how those students have been categorized to make their point. The same kid who’s considered Hispanic by the federal government could be called a “child of African descent” by BUSD and a person of “two or more races” by another agency.

On district enrollment forms, families can mark any number of races their student identifies with. The district keeps its own internal demographic databases, which don’t always match what is required to be reported on state lists.

For example, if a Berkeley student marks “black” and “Latino” on district forms, they only show up as “Hispanic” on Ed-Data. Hispanic/Latino is considered an ethnicity, not a race, by the federal government, so that category overrides anything else the student marks. Plus, if they’re Middle Eastern, they’re often marked as “white” by the government, even when they don’t identify as such. Lastly, if they are two or more races — a growing population no matter whom you ask — that’s how they show up in the charts. There is no telling which two races they are, let alone whether they more strongly identify with one than another. All these things combined could explain why BUSD’s own data paints a — somewhat — more gentle picture of how the schools are changing.

The district has also created its own category, “children of African descent,” to internally track how many students they have who might experience the world as black, despite being labeled as Latino or two-or-more-races by the state. Currently 19% of BUSD students are in this “children of African descent” category, according to the district, compared to the state’s 15% black or African American figure.

David Stevens from BUSD’s Research, Evaluation and Assessment department, recently took a look at how student demographics differ between each class, from the current seniors to the new transitional-kindergarteners.

Stevens showed his data to Berkeleyside, but emphasized that no hard conclusions can be drawn from it, as it’s purely a moment-in-time snapshot. For example, his data shows both black and African-descent students declining significantly between the current 12th grade class and the current kindergarten class.

Maybe that decline illustrates the impacts of the housing crisis that took root since the seniors started their schooling.

But maybe that trajectory in part also represents typical trends, where black families enroll in Berkeley elementary schools then leave the district before those kids graduate high school. BUSD employees are also allowed to enroll their kids in the schools — a huge draw for job candidates, and a reason demographics of a given class can change during later grades.

Maybe there are current political circumstances, beyond housing affordability, that have led to fewer of families of color starting their kids in BUSD these past few years, or even marking certain racial categories on the forms. Stevens and Natasha Beery, BUSD director of community engagement, recalled how the schools got a bit whiter and more affluent around 2008, when the economic downturn prompted some families to pull their kids out private schools. “That didn’t involve any gentrification, necessarily, because those people were already living in Berkeley,” Stevens said. Many Berkeley families still send their kids to private schools until middle or high school, and yet the current snapshot shows more white students in the younger grades.

“The concrete truth is we have fewer black or African American kids.”

“Historically a lot of black families in Berkeley owned property,” said BUSD mother Lois Porter, at a recent meeting of the Parents of Black Children Collective, an advocacy and support group for people who have black kids in Berkeley schools. “But the next generation didn’t hang onto it. They sold it and moved to Antioch and Pittsburg. There wasn’t a big rush of African Americans buying their houses. They were priced out and cultured out. Even the African Americans able to pay median pricing, they’re sending their kids to St. Mary’s. There’s ‘black flight’ too. There are a lot of affluent African American families but their kids aren’t here [in Berkeley schools]. They’re creating opportunities for their children they don’t see here.”

“It’s complex, the different ways of looking at the changes in Berkeley,” Stevens said. “But the concrete truth is we have both fewer black or African American kids, and fewer kids of African descent. Those numbers have dropped over the years.”

BUSD has also cracked down on fraudulent enrollment in recent years, possibly affecting student demographics, but Martinez insists the enforcement effort has reached all sorts of students. Anyone who graduated from Berkeley High remembers students from places as varied as Richmond, Kensington, Rockridge and East Oakland. Martinez has a map with little dots denoting all the homes where he’s done in-person check-ins, and there are spots everywhere. On the flip-side, he pointed out, children of color have disproportionately high representation among those who get legal inter-district transfers.

Perhaps even more striking than the racial changes is the education level of the families entering BUSD. While around 65-70% of the parents of the district’s oldest students have college degrees or more, 75-80% of the parents of the youngest kids are that highly educated, according to Stevens’ work. And the percentage has risen significantly for both black and white families. Again, this data is from the current snapshot and does not tell the whole story, but certainly tells a chapter of it.

“You’d have to talk to real estate [professionals], but anyone who’s moving into this city and buying a home is probably highly educated, to be able to afford the price of the house, or you’d have to inherit it,” Stevens said.

Or perhaps this is the Obama-era assertion that “everyone can go to college” paying off.

“There’s been a very concerted effort to really help with the matriculation to post-secondary education for under-represented kids,” Stevens said. “Maybe this is the reward. We don’t know if that’s true.”

But the percentage of kids designated as “English learners” does seem to be declining. (There was an uproar last year when BUSD slashed one of its bilingual programs, at Thousand Oaks Elementary, citing the drop in demand from native Spanish speakers.)One thing that hasn’t changed, he noted, is the percentage of “socioeconomically disadvantaged” students in Berkeley. That population makes up about a third of every single class currently.

All these changes can have wide-reaching effects in a school setting.

The boost in “that parent education level might drive some other things teachers have to contend with,” said Beery. Things like curricula and assumptions educators make about students.

Is integration enough?

Berkeley Unified buses linger in front of Sylvia Mendez Elementary after dropping students off in September 2018. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Why focus on integration in the first place? Is it, more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, an accomplished or antiquated goal?

New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has written extensively on integration, and is a product of busing herself, calls it the single most important way to reduce racial disparities in academic achievement.

In a longitudinal study looking at two generations of black families, Rucker Johnson, UC Berkeley public policy professor, found that black adults who’d attended integrated schools had better educational, socioeconomic and health outcomes than even their own siblings who went to segregated schools, and that the positive results carried over to their children.

Johnson and Hannah-Jones emphasize that the primary benefit of integration has to do with resources and spending. Segregated black and Latino schools have fewer advanced courses, less-experienced teachers, and PTAs that can’t afford to fund the enrichment programs prevalent at schools across town.

“As a reporter, I’d witnessed how the presence of even a handful of middle-class families made it less likely that a school would be neglected,” Hannah-Jones wrote in 2016.

Black and Latino students are also more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty or to have experienced trauma, so put all together in one school, they might require more funding and support.

These issues came up in Berkeley this year. Members of the Longfellow Middle School community begged the School Board for more support, explaining that they had the highest percentages of students of color and socioeconomically disadvantaged kids in the district — it’s a magnet school, so anyone in the district can enroll — and needed more staff and money to serve the many students who struggle there. The board gave the school some more help for the time being, but there are early talks of revisiting the middle school assignment policy to better integrate the campuses. As is, King and Willard are classic neighborhood schools, serving students in their geographic areas.

Longfellow Middle School is a magnet, so anyone can enroll. It has higher percentages of students of color and low-income students than the other middle schools. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

At a recent School Board candidate forum, an audience member asked whether the middle schools are “separate and unequal.”

Ty Alper, a current board member up for reelection, said he is inclined to think they are.

“The disparity in PTA funding” between Longfellow and its peer schools “is really incredibly stark,” Alper said. “In elementary school we don’t have neighborhood schools; we have a complicated assignment plan that works really well, in my opinion. It’s designed to produce elementary schools that are roughly similar demographically.” A comparable system should be instituted for older kids, he said.

“Without doing that, we’re never going to overcome the disparity in funding in a meaningful way,” Alper said.

But even though most Berkeley schools are already integrated, a significant achievement gap persists throughout the entire district.

Even back in 1968, superintendent Sullivan said the integration effort couldn’t stop once they’d simply plopped a bunch of kids in a mixed classroom.

That year, the district also created the nation’s first and reportedly only high-school African American studies department. BUSD leaders also listened, partially, to the people, including many black students, who’d implored the district to get rid of tracking. They began phasing it out.

But there was still an innocence to the optimistic belief that integrated schools would cure many of the woes wrought by housing discrimination and broader inequality, remembers Gertrude Allen, whose white children were in Berkeley schools in 1968.

“We were very excited about it,” she said. “I remember the first day the buses were out on the street and everybody was cheering them. But it’s hard to imagine now how naive we were, we really thought we were just solving the problems of the world. And in a sense, you do it kind of step by step. We know so much more now about therapists and non-violent communication — all that stuff. But I think we’re finally beginning to wake up to what a deep racial problem we have in this country. We’re a racist society. And you don’t get over that overnight just by throwing people together. I’m not sure how you do get over that.”

In the 50 years since two-way busing began, there have been countless other BUSD initiatives — some small and some significant, some that saw success and some that flopped or backfired — to address disparities, racial and otherwise, among Berkeley students.

This year, the district started a program designed to foster “African American success.” It also overhauled the whole ninth-grade program, having every single student in a previously fragmented class take the same core classes. It’s a major change for Berkeley High and one advocates are hoping will help start all students off on equal footing.

For most people in the Bay Area these days, “green duck” and “red rooster” probably most strongly recall the names of food-delivery startups. But 50 years ago this fall, they were the labels attached to school buses that became symbols of a collective effort to overcome an oppressive history.

The young children who rode those iconic vehicles were aware of little aside from their own sense of security and the quizzes they’d take in class that day. But they were early participants in an effort that is still very much in the works in Berkeley, and beyond, half a century later.

Read Part 2 of Beyond the Buses.
Read Part 3 of Beyond the Buses.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...