It was two days before winter break at Longfellow Middle School and it seemed like everyone was out sick.

Though a timid sun glowed behind the clouds, the campus diverted to a “rainy day” lunch schedule. There weren’t enough adults around to monitor the yard, so kids scattered to the library or gym, or to the theater to watch their classmates’ dance performance.

But where was that speaker they needed to amplify the music?

Principal Stacey Wyatt traipsed around the South Berkeley campus, searching for the device, announcing the schedule change, answering texts and walkie-talkie dispatches, popping into dance rehearsal and, in her parlance, “clearing traffic jams.”

“You definitely get your steps in,” Wyatt said, before shouting at a group of boys down a hallway.

“Please get off the chair! My insurance doesn’t cover cracked skulls!”

Someone located the speaker. Then Wyatt was off to play crossing-guard, waving a handheld stop sign to usher a never-ending line of sixth graders across the street to the building housing the cafeteria. She confiscated a pair of airpods. (“But I was listening to a book, swear!”)

Throughout it all, students ran up the principal, in the courtyard and hallways, embracing her, declaring their devotion.

“I love you, Ms. Wyatt!” they sang, one after another.

“You’re so extra,” she teased them. “I love you too.”

It was a remarkable sight: pubescent 12- and 13-year-olds, prone to start distancing themselves from authority figures, publicly hugging the grown-up leader of their school.

The love, chaos and creativity on display that morning in December all reflected the dynamics at Longfellow, a school some would say is at a crossroads. Others have called it a crisis.

Berkeley Unified’s smallest middle school is a place where beloved teachers work tirelessly to help students thrive, and where a new principal has come in with a strong will to help her school succeed. But, in recent years, Longfellow’s enrollment has plummeted, its test scores have declined, and the percentage of its students with high needs has grown. Disparities between Longfellow and its two peer schools are blatant.

a yellow school building with a tree and flagpole in front of it
Longfellow Middle School is at 1500 Derby St. in South Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Many people say those disparities de-facto segregate Berkeley’s middle schools. They argue that Longfellow is “separate and unequal,” serving a different population than King and Willard without the resources it needs to do so successfully.

These questions are poised to be at the center of a likely contentious decision this year on whether to integrate the three schools.

For 51 years, the Berkeley Unified School District has bused its youngest students around the city to ensure that its 11 elementary schools are balanced, both racially and economically. That system of forced integration doesn’t exist at the middle school level. King and Willard are classical “neighborhood schools,” drawing their students only from the areas surrounding their campuses. Longfellow is a “choice” school, meaning anyone can enroll. Nobody’s automatically assigned there, unless they miss the admissions deadline.

Without set populations guaranteed to enroll in each school, racial disparities, uneven resources and academic gaps have arisen among the campuses — with Longfellow producing the most worrisome statistics. Some advocates have held this data up, saying it’s a clear cause for dramatic desegregation. They contend that BUSD should rezone the district, redistributing kids throughout the schools to give everyone the same shot at success. As is, the overrepresentation of students with challenges at Longfellow fosters a tough and tumultuous environment, they say.

But others fear that if it is rezoned, Longfellow could lose what’s special about the school: a tight-knit community, impressive teachers and the cultural diversity that’s disappearing elsewhere in the district. Spend a couple hours at Longfellow and it’s easy to spot engaged students and controlled classes — a rebuttal to a dominant narrative of mayhem that some parents and teachers have pushed. Teachers who spoke with Berkeleyside said those negative portrayals dangerously misrepresent the complete story of the school.

Wyatt, who came to Berkeley one and a half years ago, has been plunged into this complex situation and opinionated community. She believes she can help Longfellow reach its great potential, but says she needs more time.

A vocal group of parents and teachers say that deadline has passed.

A school in flux

Longfellow’s “choice” system is a vestige of an era when it was a specialty school, receiving federal magnet funding, from 1998-2000, to offer arts and technology education. The school was popular then and for several years after, benefiting from a couple of star principals, and drawing kids from the historically black South Berkeley neighborhood as well as the rest of the city.

Things have changed.

Enrollment at the school has taken a nosedive. While 150 incoming sixth graders picked Longfellow as recently as 2017-18, only 69 enrolled in 2019-20 for 188 open spots, according to the district admissions office. (From 2012 to 2016 that number fluctuated between 136 and 169).

This school year, BUSD had to fill the gaps by placing all of the out-of-district transfer students at Longfellow, along with most people who applied late. The resulting population at Longfellow includes a much larger percentage of students with high needs — kids from low-income families and with learning disabilities, for example — than King and Willard each serve. It also has the highest portion of kids of color: 24% African American and 43% Latino last year, compared to 10% African American and 16% Latino at King.

Advocates, both parents and teachers, say BUSD must fund and staff Longfellow in a manner proportional to its needs. For a few years, they’ve pleaded with the district to pour money into a school they say needs it more than the campuses awash in PTA funding and high-achieving kids who require less support.

Proponents of rezoning  say Berkeley can’t proudly claim to be an integrated district when it stands by its segregated middle schools.

A new state “report card” has further infuriated many in the community, revealing a massive, growing academic achievement gap between Longfellow and its peers. The data indicated that students of color fare better academically at the other middle schools.

To many, the disparities among the sites call not just for more money and programs, but for the complete overhaul of the school assignment system. Proponents of rezoning, which would eliminate the district-wide “choice” option for Longfellow, say Berkeley can’t proudly claim to be an integrated district when it stands by its segregated middle schools.

Superintendent Brent Stephens has spent a lot of time at Longfellow since he started the job in July. He initially punted the rezoning discussion, saying a new leader shouldn’t take on such a monumental effort before getting better acquainted with the district. Staff and officials also worried the controversial pursuit could threaten the success of the three BUSD tax and bond measures coming on the March 3 ballot.

In early January, however, Stephens announced he wants to revisit the question of rezoning the middle schools, work that should start in a few weeks. Following a “community engagement” process, the district aims to make a recommendation to the School Board in November.

A black woman holding a walkie talkie chats stands in a circle on a school courtyard with several black and Latino boys about 12 years old
Principal Stacey Wyatt chats with students during their lunch break. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Rezoning supporters are not naive to the potential for backlash. The decision deals with the most sensitive and urgent topics in Berkeley and beyond: race and housing. Conversations could get ugly. Some parents bought homes in North Berkeley assuming their kids could go to King, but now they might get zoned for Longfellow. Families with means could put their children in private school instead; such “white flight” has happened in Berkeley before.

With parents ringing a louder alarm about Longfellow, district leaders know they need to make the school desirable again, either in order to keep families there after it’s rezoned, or to give the students who already go there a fair shot if it’s not.

The enrollment drop “made people wake up” in the district, said Francisco Martinez, BUSD admissions director.

In a letter announcing the rezoning process, Stephens wrote, “The District also recognizes the need for meaningful engagement with the Longfellow community, including long-time residents who have deep ties to the school.”

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BUSD has hired a consultant, Perry Chen, to draw up a “vision” for Longfellow. He’ll meet with the school community and visit others, producing a plan for short- and long-term investments. That work is funded by a $35,000 grant from the Berkeley Public Schools Fund.

Then there’s Wyatt, who arrived in 2018 after a successful stint in Oakland Unified. She has previously seemed lukewarm on rezoning, saying her chief concern is her day-to-day job supporting students and staff at the school.

“To me, the work is really on the ground,” she said in an interview. “The ask from me, to the people who support me in the district, is: I may make mistakes, I definitely need direction, but I kind of need some space. It’s going to take time.”

The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t just the March on Washington, she said. It was the months of organizing and setbacks and baby steps that enabled it.

“People latch onto this visionary moment and these phrases that sound really powerful and real, but they don’t know that, dude, you have to meet with kids every day and then go back over the work again,” she said. “But we have to create a space where you can trust that our actions are about kids growing. How do we build the trust in the community to know those things are happening?”

Many families at the school — whose kids have a mere three years to learn everything they’re supposed to — say they’re done with those sorts of tiny steps and trust-building. They want more money for the school and big change, now.

“No matter who the principal is, they’re going to need support for their population,” said Laura Babitt, a recent Longfellow parent and advocate. “Obama couldn’t come in, without the right resources and without the right concentration of funds, and make a school great, right?”

Majority of Longfellow’s students have high needs. Does the funding match?

Parents say their collective stomach first dropped at a meeting in fall 2017.

That’s where Dave Stevens, BUSD data analyst, presented Longfellow’s demographics.

Stevens invented the Academic Support Index, a scoring system that’s well-respected and used by other districts. A student’s ASI score reflects how many “headwinds” they face. Headwinds blow in students’ faces — they’re gusts that make learning and succeeding in school more challenging, such as homelessness or non-fluency in English. The winds are weighted and translated into an ASI score of zero (no headwinds) to 8 (the most).

several preteen girls raise their arms, mid-dance
Longfellow dancers rehearse before a lunchtime performance. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

An ASI score of 3 or higher is considered high-need in Berkeley. These scores are proven to be strong predictors of academic success, so the district uses the system to better distribute resources. Those targeted “interventions” have shown success.

So parents were startled, then angry, when they learned that 68% of Longfellow’s students that year had an ASI score of 3 or higher. That year, 38% of Willard’s population, and only 28% of King’s, was ASI 3+.

The most common ASI score throughout Berkeley in 2017 was 1. At Longfellow it was 5.

“We’re here to highlight what an overwhelming task Longfellow has,” said parent David Bogdonoff, flanked by supporters at a School Board meeting in the spring of 2017 after that data was released.

At the time, rezoning was barely on the table. The parents wanted immediate support for the school. Since then they’ve collected all their requests in a 30-plus item spreadsheet, ranging from parity in afterschool offerings to more bilingual and math support staff and lockers on campus.

“Fund it, resource it adequately, follow up as needed, and this next generation of Longfellow students will be able to succeed and thrive,” Bogdonoff told the board. “Do nothing, and Longfellow will simply become the school that’s full of high-needs students performing at racially predictable standards.”

District and school leaders have worked, in years of deep budget cuts no less, to address some of the concerns. They’ve moved the whole African American Success Project to the campus and they’ve given Longfellow extra math support staff. BUSD’s Martinez also pointed out that the enrollment drop ironically yielded something parents have long desired: the smallest class size across all sixth grade in the district.

Some parents scoff at suggestions that these expenses have made noticeable differences.

Test score gaps are severe

Advocates for dramatic change at Longfellow say the segregated populations have contributed to disparities in how Berkeley students experience and succeed in middle school. New numbers put out in the fall of 2019 were ammunition for this argument.

The release, from the California School Dashboard, the state’s school “report card,” gave King and Willard top marks for English and math. Students there were 39 to 60 points above the “standard,” which is determined by state test scores.

Longfellow’s students were 34 to 45 points below the standard.

On the other hand, all three schools got second-to-best scores for what the state deems “academic engagement,” based on rates of chronic absenteeism. Longfellow’s absence rate was even lower than King and Willard’s. That’s an achievement for a school whose students are more likely to come from farther away, or from homes with parents working late or raising kids on their own.

But the academic marks — which actually dropped from the previous release — are deeply concerning to many parents.

The district-wide PTA Council wrote a letter to the School Board saying the data reflect a school-specific “crisis.” They compared the performance of many groups of students to their counterparts at other schools, noting, for example, that while Longfellow’s African American students used to perform better than, or comparably to, King and Willard’s, they now do much worse on tests.

“In only three years, Longfellow’s African American scores have plummeted while those at King and Willard have improved,” the authors wrote.

Data on other marginalized groups — like kids from low-income families — revealed similar trends. The PTA Council said the stark figures challenge the idea that Longfellow has as strong of an academic program as other schools, and simply receives lower marks because it serves kids who are farther behind.

“These data trends prove that the conventional wisdom about Longfellow — that it is a haven or safe space for children of color and other high-headwinds children in which they can prosper and advance academically — is no longer true. To the contrary, the data show that Longfellow is now a school where they fall significantly behind their peers at King and Willard,” the letter said.

(However, in an unrelated recent school board presentation, the superintendent revealed data showing that even among Berkeley’s integrated elementary schools, there is wide variation in achievement for black students.)

One Longfellow teacher said the sheer number of kids reading or performing below grade level has made support and intervention classes saturated there, while elsewhere they might be open to anyone who could benefit.

Some parents returned to the School Board in early January, dashboard data in hand, to plead again for support. Those included elementary school parents who said they live near Longfellow but are barely considering the school. Even parents of Sylvia Mendez Elementary students said they were looking at Willard, a blow for the district. Sylvia Mendez is supposed to be a feeder school of sorts into Longfellow, as both offer Spanish-English “two-way immersion” education.

But some Longfellow teachers warn against giving too much weight to standardized tests.

“I know from experience teaching here that a lot of kids will understand something better than how they test on it — it could be test anxiety or a lack of confidence, and a lot of times it’s fundamental academic skills,” said science teacher Adam Bairzin. “A large portion of our population is starting off behind where a lot of other students might be elsewhere in the district.” Some of his students haven’t grown up with computers at home, he said, so they might get bogged down just trying to navigate an online testing system, for example.

Still others say test scores don’t capture the social benefits to students of going to a small school with peers who share their experiences of the world and where close relationships are easier to develop. They don’t reflect resourcefulness or empathy.

Test scores, Wyatt said, “don’t say who our students are” or “what they’re capable of.” But the principal has a pragmatic approach.

“Most educators are like, ‘standardized test scores are biased,’ and that’s all true,” she said. “Unfortunately, everything that we want our students to be capable of doing, much of it has some sort of standardized element to it. Even to get into the post office, the military. You can’t say, ‘I want a student to go to Cal’ when they’re not ready to pass a standardized test. The question is, how do we teach our students to be able to attack something that is currently a gatekeeper to where you want to go?”

To progressive parents who criticize society’s reliance on test scores — then hold up the poor marks as proof of Longfellow’s issues, or as a reason not to enroll their kids — Wyatt has a message.

“You can’t have it both ways,” she said.

Principal says: give us space and time to get stronger

Longfellow’s diverse population was what drew Wyatt in the first place.

The overrepresentation of people of color at Longfellow, relative to the rest of BUSD, also means there are students of many different backgrounds learning together at the school.

“This idea that you’d have such a diverse population that is functioning and capable is really an exciting piece, and one of reality.” — Principal Stacey Wyatt

“That’s hard to find in the Bay Area,” Wyatt said. “I’ve had experiences with schools that were all Latino, all African American. This idea that you’d have such a diverse population that is functioning and capable is really an exciting piece, and one of reality.”

That diversity has made rezoning a sensitive proposition. Berkeley has recently grown significantly whiter, and students of color are used to being minorities at their schools. At Longfellow, they have a rare chance to see themselves reflected, in each other and in their principal. And, while South Berkeley’s changed along with the rest of the city, many black families still feel connected to Longfellow.

(However, as one African American mother put it, “If you isolate one community into one place, where they don’t have the right resources and they don’t have the appropriate teachers, then how is that helpful?”)

Wyatt’s arrival in the fall of 2018 was “sort of a homecoming” for the principal herself, who spent her formative years between Berkeley and Richmond, at one point living half a mile from Longfellow on Prince Street.

Wyatt says she has a vision for a school where the students’ cultural backgrounds are assets in the classroom, where kids discuss politics and their own experiences of the world. She’s also working to expand “differentiated instruction” practices, a teaching approach where content and assessments are adjusted to correspond to students’ varied learning styles and levels.

A kid hugs an adult in the middle of a crosswalk. The adult is holding a small stop sign
A student stops to hug their principal as they head to lunch. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Teacher Bairzin came to Longfellow the same year Wyatt did, and said her leadership keeps him there.

“I don’t know about the administration they’ve had in the past, and I’ve heard stories,” he said. “What I do know is Ms. Wyatt has been an incredible principal to work under. After getting here I sort of had that epiphany: this is what teaching can be like. There’s a saying that you can’t be both an evaluator and a coach, and yet Ms. Wyatt is the only person I’ve met who manages to walk that line.”

Most of the parents and teachers who spoke with Berkeleyside described Wyatt as a BUSD newcomer thrust into a tough, if not impossible, situation. Her job was made harder this year when the vice principal was out on medical leave.

Some at Longfellow described the school administration’s management and communication systems as “dysfunctional.” Programs are started or stalled without teachers realizing it, they say, and parents feel they’re left without important information. Responding to these complaints, the administration has increased the number of newsletters it sends home.

kids sit at cafeterias or walk around the room. walls are painted yellow.
Students chow down on burgers or lunches brought from home. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Others, employees and families alike, praised Wyatt’s people skills and vision, describing a hardworking and attentive leader who’s able to forge real connections with students who are at a vulnerable age.

The hugs are proof.

On that busy December day, Wyatt dropped into dance rehearsal. The young performers were eager to impress their principal, jumping into formation and presenting the choreography, as Wyatt bobbed her head and swayed her hips, marking the moves along with them.

Wyatt was wearing a button that said “respect,” which she believes in demonstrating to, as well as demanding from, kids.

“There’s no confusion about what’s expected. When I come into the hallway and kids see me, they start to [disperse],” she said. “Not because I’m a big monster, but because they know I’m going to say, ‘Move it, get to class, I want you on time.’ I’m very clear that I’m the elder and that holds responsibility. Some kids like it, some don’t, but I’m just consistent with it. I think that’s a real sense of security.”

Wyatt’s a fan of zombie movies and all that apocalyptic, end-of-the-world stuff.

“And I always come back to ‘Lord of the Flies,’” she said. “With kids, if things are crazy, people do desperate things. Why do that to our babies?”

Despite that authoritative approach, some think Longfellow’s staff should have even higher expectations of students.

“The kids are not being challenged enough, they’re not being pushed enough,” said an African American mother of a sixth grader, who didn’t want to be named. “There’s a lack of cultural knowledge [among staff]. When you’re put into a population that’s more of color, and you don’t have the skills, the training, the mentorship, the support and the consistent curriculum to help with your own self-bias of what you think is needed versus what’s needed, then there are too low expectations.”

At a string of 2017-18 Berkeley School Board meetings, kids read aloud statements about the hectic nature of their school days and the impact on their learning.

“One first period class we probably did five minutes of schoolwork and the rest of the class was just screaming and yelling,” said one boy, who spoke alongside the parents using the public comment period to ask for more funding for Longfellow. “I think this is because there’s a lot of kids that need help and extra support, and if we could have more stuff to help those kids and support them that would be really good,” the student said.

Some district administrators blame the public alarm-ringing for scaring off other fifth grade families and exacerbating challenges at the school. (Sixty-nine new enrollees in 2018-19 was a significant low, though applications had already dropped from 150 to 119 between 2017-18 and 2018-19.)

Many people who spoke to Berkeleyside, or declined to be interviewed, expressed concern that the further highlighting of issues at the middle school could make it even harder to turn it around, and could continue to underplay the many positives about life and learning at Longfellow. Others agreed change is possible, but said it won’t happen if issues are ignored.

Preteens line up in a meeting room, holding signs that say "ghetto," "ADHD," "disrespectful," and "traumatized."
Longfellow students and staff give a presentation, at a 2019 School Board meeting, on the harmful impact of stereotypes and the value of “taking back our narrative.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Longfellow’s reputation has by now reached its students, making some feel like they go to a second-rate school.

When it was Longfellow’s turn to be spotlighted at a school board meeting last year — each campus got a day — students acted out a skit about stereotypes, announcing, “We’re here to take back our narrative.”

Wyatt played a video of kids talking about what they used to think of Longfellow, and how they feel now.

“I used to think” Longfellow was boring, dirty, a place for “bad kids,” they said. Now? “It’s open to everyone.” “Everybody’s really nice.” The math teachers are great, and we can learn about black history.

Not everyone at the district was thrilled to have kids on camera talking about how crappy they’d heard their school was.

But to Wyatt, the students’ reflections demonstrated the positive work already going on at the school, and that change is not only possible but in progress.

Then, too, she publicly asked to be allowed to take charge of her school’s direction, sharing not-so-coded skepticism about rezoning.

“With space and the proper equity supports, BUSD’s most diverse campus does not need to be saved,” she told the board. “No, we just need to be supported in owning our own narrative and allowing for the intentional deep culture work that will move our students further than any zone lines will. It is hard work but my folks is ready.”

Wyatt still hasn’t stated an explicit position on rezoning. But even with the consultant process, she’s asked Stephens “to allow me to implement my school plan,” she wrote in a letter to a parent. The superintendent told Berkeleyside he agreed it’s the principal’s job to oversee the visioning process, and both leaders say they’re on the same page about its purpose.

Stephens is the person who’ll ultimately make an official recommendation to the School Board about rezoning, and he said he’s of two minds.

“I’m really moved by the argument that as the demographics in Berkeley change, and as families of color find themselves increasingly in the minority in school community after school community, that having a school that is representative historically of the neighborhood where it sits has its positive attributes,” he said in an interview.

But, he said, “Berkeley is really rightfully proud of its history around school desegregation. It was the right decision then, it’s the right decision now.”

“It’s love and love and love”: successful classes challenge reigning narrative

Some teachers say negative stories about their workplace are unrecognizable to them. They describe a sense of “community” and a feeling of “family” that, while trite in concept, is palpable on the campus.

Math teacher Marlo Warburton, who’s been at the school for 14 years, said scenes of outbursts and boredom don’t ring bells.

From her vantage point, “it’s love and love and love” in the classroom. “We’re super happy, we’re focused. Kids learn here. This is a place where, if I had kids, I’d want them to go.”

At the start of two consecutive periods of math this month, Warburton’s students filed into the classroom on time, greeting the teacher and quietly taking assigned seats. A list on the whiteboard instructed them to “silently produce these items”: completed homework, lined paper.

Welcome to Day 12 of eighth grade algebra.

Tackling progressively difficult equations, students solved for “x” (or “cats,” as in “2x is 2 cats”). Through warm-ups, group work and a homework head-start, the pre-teens focused intently on their teacher and the math. They called out when it was time to divide by three, and raised their hands to ask, with curiosity, why they got the correct answer even though they multiplied before they subtracted. No one so much as took a bathroom break or a peek at a cellphone.

chaotic classroom scene. Two kids have their hands up.
Kids eagerly attend a voluntary after-school tutoring session, vying for the attention of math teacher Marlo Warburton and volunteer helpers. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

When Warburton unveiled the mega problem, all parentheses and cats on both sides of the equation, one boy complained good-naturedly.

“I’m not trying to do this. That’s hella long,” he observed.

“Trust me,” the teacher responded. “It’s going to be fun.”

By the end of the exercise, he was among the kids shouting out the next steps to take to solve the problem. Warburton asked him if it went all right, and he admitted it had. The kids finished their work in time to beg Warburton to recite a “math joke” before the bell rang, and she pulled out a book of riddles.

In a class of 27, it can be easy for a teacher to miss a struggling student. In each period, Warburton, a National Board Certified teacher, took a “confidence check” in the middle of the lesson. Students held their thumbs up if they understood the material and down if they were befuddled.

“If you’re secretly thinking, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ just come to tutoring. I’m your coach, if you need practice with something,” Warburton said. Tutoring was right after school in the same room, and about 30 kids showed up to the voluntary program.

YouTube video

Eighth grade might not be representative of the rest of the school, however, as those kids are part of the last cohort that chose Longfellow in high numbers.

Warburton said she knows Longfellow has unique challenges — in fact, she was attracted to the school after a decade at John Muir Elementary because of the logical pairing of a high-needs population and an inspiring staff. To her, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what happens within its walls.

“A larger number of students arrive here with lower skills,” she said. “That leads to the perception that learning is not happening here. It isn’t like students are coming to Longfellow and staying flat. There can be a massive gain.”

That dynamic can make her beloved job tough.

“It’s harder to move kids if they all need to move,” Warburton said. “A heterogeneous classroom really is ideal for everyone, and we can take better care of students who need help.” Like lots of people who work at the school or whose kids attend it, she doesn’t have a strong opinion on whether that happens through rezoning or not.

Other teachers said their newer colleagues might not stick around like Warburton has. Some who spoke with Berkeleyside say they have coworkers threatening or planning to leave when the year ends.

And there was the issue of teacher recruitment in the fall — a district-wide problem that hit Longfellow hard. The school was missing two science teachers for several weeks into the school year.

What should happen to Longfellow?

Money going to schools doesn’t only come from district coffers.

PTAs fund important enrichment programs and support services. And at schools with more affluent families, the potential for those offerings is far greater.

Take the revenue brought in by Berkeley’s PTAs in 2017-18.

King raised $190,506 and Willard collected $92,267. Longfellow’s revenue was $28,200.

Even when controlling for the different sizes of the schools, Longfellow has a lot less of that to work with — roughly $56 per student, versus $186 a head at King.

That’s the argument for integration in a nutshell: when all schools serve populations with equal levels of financial and social capital, all schools have the same chance to succeed. There are plenty of people who believe that any number of shiny new programs or purchases cannot achieve what rezoning and integration can, and must.

But the district knows it can’t just plop kids in different schools and expect things to work themselves out. In the 1960s and again in the 1990s, integration and rezoning resulted in growing pains and flight. When one of the schools is already struggling to attract students, the challenges of integration are even greater.

Whether rezoning happens or not, “these questions about [Longfellow’s] history and reputation won’t fade from the consciousness of families in Berkeley,” said Superintendent Brent Stephens in an interview. “The program has to be compelling.”

Stephens said he’s too new to BUSD to know exactly what Longfellow’s program needs. But he’s sketched out three broad possibilities.

First, the district could bolster its two-way immersion program, a well-respected and research-backed offering. Next, Stephens shared a vague concept of a “school that sort of centers on the experience of African American and Latino students, and have it be a benefit to everyone.” Even if the schools are integrated, Stephens said the school could play off “strengths in the local neighborhood” and “amplify” its history.

Lastly, the district could return Longfellow to something closer to its magnet identity, weaving arts and technology, project-based learning and career preparation into its fabric.

That’s where the school’s promising “maker space” comes in.

Maker spaces became popular several years ago, in pace with the tech boom. They’re hubs of engineering and design, where students can innovate, collaborate and explore in a more self-directed and open-ended setting than a conventional classroom. Longfellow’s was the brainchild of a science teacher who left last year unexpectedly, but it was resurrected by Wyatt and is now helmed by teacher Jen Fuller. Here the goal is to align the program with Berkeley High’s substantial career technical education offerings, giving kids a leg up and employable skills.

When other leaders and officials talk about “investing” in Longfellow, its maker space is always the focus.

Longfellow’s maker space is almost universally loved by students and parents. Housed in an old cafeteria, it overflows with half-finished papier-mâché projects, 3D printers, sewing machines, and glue guns dripping cobweb-like strands. Over winter break, the school district installed $150,000 of state-of-the art modular blue furniture.

An art installation spelling out “How dare you” hangs on the wall, painted to look like the ocean and covered in discarded candy wrappers and water bottles. Fuller arranged for the students to show the piece at a Palace of Fine Arts exhibit on climate change.

During an eighth-grade elective period in December, students descended on the maker space and got to work on their projects of choice: building boxes, designing buttons, programming animated cats on Chromebooks.

“Students don’t like to feel like they’re being told what to do,” Fuller said in an interview. “They feel like they’re discovering. There’s more agency in it. Then you get to the nitty-gritty of: this is how circuits work.”

The free-choice structure lets the teacher pay attention to students who are behind, while “kids who are advanced can take on leadership roles,” she said.

A later sixth grade class that day took on a different tone, with Fuller teaching a structured lesson, and dealing with behavior management issues at one table of boys for a chunk of the class.

Kids in the course raved about the “options to express ourselves” and the “rebreather” after traditional academics.

That December day, many of them were working on pieces to sell at a holiday craft fair. Even among these children, funding is the theme — several griped about how the class can’t afford the supplies they need. Whether they’d adopted their teachers’ grievances or arrived at the conclusion themselves was unclear.

One student has taken it upon himself to start a crowdfunding campaign for the class.

Nyx, the thoughtful 13-year-old, admitted that he initially asked his parents if he could transfer to King.

“But during the middle of the year, I was like, I like it here,” he recalled. “Yes, it’s not the best school in the world, but half the fun is getting it to be.”

After fashioning a box for the craft fair raffle, Nyx checked on a group of classmates working to troubleshoot and repair two secondhand 3D printers.

“It short-circuited or something, so it’s all melted,” noted Omeed, 13, eyeing a heated bed. Another boy had read the whole manual. Two kids were on Amazon duty, using the crowd-funded money to purchase the pieces they’d determined the printers needed.

Where’d these run-down machines come from?

King’s reject pile.

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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,...