Students at Longfellow Middle School will soon be getting a seven-period day. File photo: Natalie Orenstein

Change is on the horizon at Longfellow Middle School, which will be getting a longer day, smaller class sizes and more electives. Last week, the Berkeley school board voted to award the middle school one-time funds to add a seventh period and 55 minutes to the school day. The district’s other two middle schools will stick with six periods. 

The funds are part of the district’s latest effort to reduce long-standing inequities at Longfellow, which — a May 2020 report shows — has a greater share of disadvantaged students and lower test scores than King and Willard and has faced persistent resource gaps, under-enrollment, and teacher and staff turnover. 

Last year, the district modified the middle school enrollment policy so that students enrolling late would be spread out among the three schools, rather than automatically ending up at Longfellow. And in July, the school board devoted an additional $10 million from Measure G funds to improve facilities at the school that Principal Paco Furlan said will likely go toward classroom upgrades, as well as a new playground, track and garden. Further changes could be coming: In November, the board will consider overhauling the middle school enrollment policy altogether.

Longfellow is the only “choice” middle school in the district: Any student can choose to attend, but enrollment has declined while waiting lists at King and Willard persist. Parents selecting Longfellow do so for the supportive community and popular dual-language immersion program. 

As the district works to address persistent disparities, the solutions remain contested. 

Some parents are pushing for an end to what they see as de facto segregation — by income and race — at a school where 60% percent of students received free and reduced lunch as recently as 2019, compared with 35% at Willard and 25% at King. 

Other parents, who say they appreciate that students don’t feel singled out for needing extra support at Longfellow, worry the school culture will change with an influx of new students, losing its tight-knit feel. The school’s demographics are already shifting due to the adjusted enrollment policy. In this year’s class of sixth graders, 45% of students receive free and reduced lunch. The share of Black students in the grade has fallen from 30% in 2020 to 20% this year. 

While questions remain about the best way to address academic disparities, everyone welcomes the additional resources being directed to the school.

“When you think about the amount of resources that are pouring into Longfellow, holy cow. It’s amazing. It’s an amazing place to be a principal,” said Furlan, the new principal at Longfellow this year. Previously, Furlan had been the principal at Rosa Parks Elementary for nine years. “These resources are really going to help us in our mission as a middle school.”

The school board devoted $400,000 to fund a seventh period for two years. On top of that, Longfellow will receive about $130,000 out of the state’s COVID relief funds, which equates to $150 per student and an additional $150 for every student with high needs.

The funds are a win for advocates who have been pushing the district to devote more resources to Longfellow. Everyone seems excited: Furlan said teachers overwhelmingly support the addition of the seventh period, as do the school’s PTA and the Club de Padres, a group of Latino parents.

Next year, Longfellow will be adding new electives, including a Latinx studies class called Puente Raza, a conflict-resolution course called Peace Academy, a maker lab, and a garden and cooking program. Class sizes will be smaller, capped at about 24 students. A new schedule means students will be able to take intervention courses alongside existing electives like music and Umoja, the school’s African American studies program. The extra period will ensure that students don’t have to choose between a support class and an enrichment class. 

“The courses give our Black and Latinx students more in-depth knowledge of history, so that they can be seen on campus. It’s important to acknowledge that race matters and people matter and your history matters, and by doing that, it can change some of the stigma,” said Longfellow parent Erin Holland about the culturally affirming courses.

Still, with the money for the pilot program only meant to last two years, some parents say additional funding is a stop-gap for the more fundamental problem of segregation.

“There are resources being thrown at the school to deal with the historic trend of inequity, which are very welcome, but they won’t solve the root problem of socio-economic disparities,” said Olivia Lim, a parent at Longfellow who penned a letter to the school board advocating for a change to the middle school enrollment policy. The letter was signed by Longfellow’s School Site Council, PTA Board, some teachers and other parents.

Others worry that bringing a new group of wealthier parents to the school will come at a cost to the school culture. While Holland wants the enrollment policy to change, she wonders how you make Longfellow “on par” with the other middle schools without sacrificing the way the school feels like home to many Black and Latino families.

“People are saying it’s an issue of segregation,” said Paz Melendez-Canales, a long-time Longfellow parent who has had three children attend the school’s dual immersion program. “To me and to other Latino parents that I’ve talked to, we don’t really have a problem with that. The only problem we have is that the students have needs that are not being met.” 

For Melendez-Canales, these additional resources will start to do just that. Meanwhile, parents like Lim are calling on the district to use its discretion to fill more seats at the under-enrolled school for the following school year while the district waits until November to consider broader changes to the enrollment policy.

Report on Longfellow Middle School finds ‘persistent inequity’

In November 2019, the district hired Perry Chen, an independent consultant, to evaluate the needs at Longfellow. In May 2o2o, Chen published a report characterizing Berkeley’s middle school landscape over the last 25 years as one of “persistent inequity.”

Here are a few findings from Chen’s report:

  • Longfellow “consistently experiences resource gaps, constant turnover, climate and culture problems, and wears a reputation that parents, families, and staff consistently call out as Berkeley’s ‘ghetto school’ or ‘the poor black and brown school.’” 
  • The middle school enrollment policy and the school’s reputation among families work in tandem to consistently produce under-enrollment and demographic differences at the middle schools. “[T]hat cycle is reinforced by an enrollment system that relies on reputation.” 
  • The report recommends starting with district-level policy changes, not site-level improvements. “American urban education reform has shown that trying to address a school’s inequity situation with site-level change alone has often failed,” Chen wrote. “[T]o view the Longfellow dilemma as primarily “site-level problems” misses much of the big picture, misses how the school’s change efforts sit inside a powerful and recurring system.”

Correction: This story has been updated to note that the school board approved additional Measure G funds for Longfellow in July, not June. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the board passed Measure G.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...