Berkeley Unified could overhaul the middle school assignment system. Photo of Longfellow students: Natalie Orenstein

Shaking up middle school assignments

Berkeley’s elementary schools have been integrated for 50 years. Berkeley High, the city’s only standard public high school, has always been integrated.

But racial and economic demographics differ significantly among the district’s three middle schools, as King (North Berkeley) and Willard (South Berkeley) are classic “neighborhood schools,” enrolling kids who live in the historically segregated areas around each campus. Longfellow, formerly a magnet school, enrolls students who choose to go there.

Some BUSD officials are hoping to overhaul the way families are assigned to those sites, integrating Berkeley’s pre-teens so the makeup of one middle school matches that of another.

“We haven’t re-evaluated our middle school assignment plan for two decades,” said board member Ty Alper in a phone interview. “We’re overdue to look at it, and when you look at the numbers, it’s pretty stark that the demographics of our middle schools don’t reflect the values of integration and diversity that we are committed to. That’s not an issue of any one school, that’s an issue of all three schools.”

Disparities have grown wider over the past few years, according to district data. Nearly two-thirds, 62%, of Longfellow’s students are defined by the state as “unduplicated,” meaning they are either in the foster care system, receive free or reduce-price lunch or are English learners. Compare that with Willard, where 37% of kids are unduplicated, or King, where that population is just 25% of the student body.

Those gaps affect the outside resources coming into each school: Where parents are wealthier, they can raise more money for enrichment programs and extra staff members. That’s why the Parent Teacher Association at King brought in $190,506 in 2017-18, while Willard raised $92,267 and Longfellow raised $28,000, according to data provided by the PTA Council. (King is much larger than Longfellow, but the revenue is still much higher per capita there.)

These issues came up last year, with parents calling attention to challenges at Longfellow, imploring the district to better support the high-needs students at that school. The board ended up committing some new resources to the middle school.

The idea of rezoning the middle schools came up officially for the first time at the April 10 board meeting, where district staff gave a brief presentation and set a target implementation date of fall 2020. No details have been determined yet, like where the zone boundaries would be drawn, and whether this overhaul would require busing students. Staff said they could come back with more information in June.

Some board members said the concept requires more consideration and caution. Julie Sinai said there could be an “uproar” if the district plowed ahead with the plans without first ensuring all the schools had programs that were attractive to families.

Laura Babbitt, from a Longfellow advocacy group, asked the district to do both: improve offerings at Longfellow while pursuing a new school assignment plan.

The president of the PTA Council, Mara Kolesas, thanked BUSD leaders for taking on the project.

“There’s a dramatic imbalance in the sociological makeup of Berkeley middle schools, and that’s deeply troubling. It defies our professed values and threatens our educational mission,” she said at the meeting. “This is not a single school issue, but a district-wide issue.”

Tampons and tennis coaches

Some district staff and families left the April 10 School Board meeting pleased that officials gave a bundle of new programs and expenses an initial stamp of approval.

The board approved $141,500 in ongoing expenditures and $248,000 worth of one-time programs for next year specifically. (See the full list in Item 13 on the meeting agenda.)

Several student-athletes had asked the board to increase their coaches’ stipends. Currently, BUSD lags behind its peers with coach pay, according to advocates. The board approved the permanent $50,000 increase proposed by staff.

Other big-ticket items: a $75,000 digitization of the oft-criticized analog HR system, and $90,000 in polling for an upcoming district bond measure.

The board had previously passed a new policy requiring free menstrual products in many district bathrooms, bringing BUSD into compliance with state law and going beyond those requirements. The funding approved April 10 includes $23,000 to get that system set up, and $8,000 a year to continually stock and maintain the bathrooms.

The complete 2019-20 budget will come before the board for approval by the end of June. The board previously struck around $2 million in expenses in preparation.

300 pieces of art

Berkeley High will be bursting with student artwork this week, both on stage and on the walls.

For one, the Berkeley International High School art students will be displaying — and selling — their “stunning and provocative work.” It looks to be a cerebral exhibit, promising more than 300 pieces “that explore questions of ecology, economics, identity, urban planning and how the brain works.”

Opening night is Thursday, where visitors can buy the pieces and catch live accompanying performances from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m in the Community Theater galleries. The show will be up and open during the school day through April 26.

The same night, students will perform a version of Stephen King’s class high school horror story — with song and dance. “Carrie The Musical” is directed by BHS students Maya Ezekiel and Uma Supatra-Campbell, featuring a live band and original choreography by students Timothy Marston and Caleb Meyers.

From the drama department’s description: “It is a love story gone wrong, but also a tale of the struggles of a single parent, an exploration of how people experience trauma, and it asks some serious questions: when you stand by and witness cruelty, can you ever be forgiven?”

Shows are Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available online. Perhaps avoid wearing white — or at least leave your favorite prom dress at home.

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,...