A map of the current boundaries that dictate whether students can attend Willard or King middle school. Students living anywhere in Berkeley can opt into Longfellow. Credit: BUSD.

Berkeley Unified could overhaul its middle school enrollment policy in time for the 2023-24 academic year.

The school board, which had been set to vote on the policy last fall, delayed the decision twice to focus on managing the COVID-19 pandemic and extend the community engagement process. Now, the board won’t vote until spring 2022.

The current middle school enrollment policy leads to what some describe as a system of de facto segregation, in which Longfellow Middle School has a disproportionately higher share of disadvantaged students compared to King and Willard. At Longfellow, 60% of students receive free and reduced lunch, compared with 35% at Willard and 25% at King. White students make up close to half the student body at Willard and King, but less than 20% at Longfellow.

“None of our middle schools right now reflect the racial and socio-economic diversity of BUSD and the diversity that we seek to achieve through our policies,” Superintendent Brent Stephens said at a town hall Tuesday night.

Under the current policy, which was adopted in 1994, students are zoned to attend either Willard or King based on where they live in Berkeley. The map bisects Berkeley on a rough diagonal that runs northeast from San Pablo Park in the flats up toward Tilden in the hills. Longfellow was created as an arts magnet school that students living anywhere in the city can choose to attend.

Many praise Longfellow for its supportive environment, culturally responsive programs like Umoja and Puente, and devoted principal Paco Furlan. Last year, the board dedicated additional funds to support the pilot of a new seventh period, smaller class sizes and new electives, and the school is slated to get a multi-million dollar facilities upgrade. But the school also “wears a reputation that parents, families, and staff consistently call out as Berkeley’s ‘ghetto school’ or ‘the poor black and brown school,'” according to a May 2020 report commissioned by the district.

Longfellow has been under-enrolled in recent years, while King and Willard typically have waitlists. Out-of-district transfer students and those enrolling late have been placed wherever there’s room, which tends to be at Longfellow. Two years ago, the district started reserving some spots at King and Willard for students enrolling late.

BUSD kicked off a series of virtual town halls this week to discuss the enrollment policy. About 170 people tuned into Tuesday’s town hall, and a second town hall was held in Spanish Wednesday night. Four more town halls are scheduled this fall for families of Latino students (Oct. 4), students with disabilities (Oct. 5), English language learners (Oct. 13), and Black students (Oct. 14).

At Tuesday’s town hall, Superintendent Stephens and Francisco Martinez, who is in charge of admissions, outlined two alternatives to the current policy. The first creates three neighborhood zones throughout Berkeley, while in the second model, elementary schools would act as feeder schools for each middle school. Both would be designed to achieve socioeconomic and racial parity among the three middle schools.

A draft map of one alternative middle school enrollment policy that creates three neighborhood zones that dictate enrollment at each middle school. Credit: BUSD

These maps and alternatives have not been finalized. Stephens encouraged community members to propose other options and draw their own boundaries. The school board could also vote to keep the enrollment policy as is.

In the first alternative, which adds a third middle school zone for Longfellow, all three middle schools would bring students from the Berkeley Hills together with students from the flats. The zone for Longfellow would include some of central Berkeley and portion of the hills. Other than adding a zone for Longfellow, the boundaries for Willard and King would remain somewhat intact, according to a current draft map.

In both options, Sylvia Mendez students continuing in the dual language immersion program would attend Longfellow, the only middle school with this program.

In the second option, elementary schools would act as feeder schools for the three middle schools, as shown in the images below. (The proposed feeder schools have not been finalized and are subject to change).

Students from Cragmont, Berkeley Arts Magnet, Ruth Acty and Thousand Oaks would feed into King Middle School.

Credit: BUSD

Students from Emerson, John Muir, Rosa Parks, and Washington elementary schools would attend Willard Middle School.

Credit: BUSD

Students from Sylvia Mendez, Malcolm X, and Oxford would attend Longfellow Middle School. Since Longfellow is much smaller than the other two middle schools, the district must take elementary school size into account when planning the feeder schools.

Credit: BUSD

“Berkeley’s commitment to diversity and to integrated school communities is one of our core values as district and is really embodied in the elementary assignment system, which produces largely integrated schools across all of our 11 elementary schools,” Stephens said at the town hall.

Unlike Berkeley’s middle schools, its elementary schools have long been racially integrated. Since 1968, when BUSD became the first major public school district to voluntarily desegregate its schools, the district has bused elementary students across the city. Today, about 1,000 elementary students ride Berkeley school buses each day, roughly a quarter of the elementary school population, according to Stephens.

To pull off a change in the middle school enrollment policy, the district is considering adding buses to the middle school. Specifically, the district is exploring an express bus to take students down from the hills to the flats.

At the town halls, parents raised probing questions about the proposed policy changes. Some were concerned about transportation: Students from the flats, especially low-income students, would also need busing, they said. Others wondered whether desegregation could ultimately come at a cost to Black and brown students if it meant resources could no longer be concentrated at Longfellow.

“If brown and Black students will be divided up amongst the schools, I do wonder, you know, how is it then that they will have access to these programs?” Stout asked. Stout loves that Longfellow has programs like Puente and Umoja, as well as a full-time specialist from the Office of Family Engagement and Equity, and would like to see similar resources added to King and Willard if the enrollment policy were to change.

While some Longfellow parents adamantly oppose what they see as segregation, others think the focus should be on adding resources to the school, not changing its student body.

A survey conducted in June showed that many parents supported a middle school enrollment policy with three zones. Of the 1,928 people who responded to the survey, 41% supported the addition of a third zone, 26% preferred to see the elementary schools act as feeder schools, 20% wanted to keep the current policy and 14% were not sure.

The school board will vote on an enrollment policy by spring 2022. Over the next year and a half, the district will hold focus groups with teachers and administrators, and more town halls are promised later in the year.

Featured photo: Natalie Orenstein

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,...