Longfellow Middle School 6th grade math instructor Joshua Paz teaches class on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Longfellow Middle School sixth-grade math instructor Joshua Paz teaches class on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

As it prepares for a potential revamp of its middle school enrollment policy in 2023, Berkeley Unified School District is surveying community members about the controversial change.

Parents and staff weighed in on the policies in a November survey that drew 1,464 responses. A plan to add a third enrollment zone was the most popular — winning the support of a majority of families responding to the survey, even if it wasn’t necessarily their first choice.

The three-zone policy earned support from 60% of families, while 49% said they could support the feeder elementary schools option and 38% said they could support the current, two-zone plan.

Community members were split about the option they preferred most. Asked about their first choice, 39% of survey respondents said the three-zone policy, compared with 28% who preferred a plan with feeder schools, 26% who wanted to keep the current policy, 5% who weren’t sure, and 2% who wanted a different policy entirely.

While not true for all families, the survey results reinforce “the community’s wish to move away from the current policy and adopt something that provides more integrated and diverse schools,” said Stacey Smith, a consultant in charge of the community engagement process.

The school board will take the survey data into consideration when it votes on whether to leave the current enrollment policy or replace it with a new one in November 2022.

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

The current middle school enrollment policy divides Berkeley into two zones for King and Willard, leaving Longfellow as a “choice” school that families can select. But relatively few families opt to send their children to Longfellow, which has suffered from declining enrollment and serves a disproportionate number of low-income and Black and Latino students.

Some say the current policy leads to a system of de facto segregation in Berkeley’s middle schools. At the same time, many who enroll at Longfellow love its tight-knit feel, culturally responsive programming, and dual-language immersion program.

Both alternatives would be designed to achieve socio-economic and racial parity, as in the district’s elementary schools.

One option would add a third zone between the boundaries of King and Willard to bring students from both the flats and hills to Longfellow.

In the other option, elementary schools would act as feeder schools for the three middle schools. These 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.
  • Students from Emerson, John Muir, Rosa Parks, and Washington elementary schools would attend Willard Middle School.
  • Students from Sylvia Mendez, Malcolm X, and Oxford would attend Longfellow Middle School.

For staff responding to the survey, 39% voted for the three-zone policy as their first choice, but the feeder schools plan was a close second, at 37%. Only 11% of staff respondents preferred keeping the current plan.

The survey data mirror the results of a similar one conducted in June. The results of that survey show that 41% of respondents preferred the addition of a third zone, 26% voted for the feeder schools, 20% wanted to keep the current policy and 14% were not sure.

White and multi-racial parents were overrepresented in the fall survey, Latino and Black parents were underrepresented, and Asian families were nearly proportionately represented. While the data hasn’t been broken down by demographic to the public, Smith said at Wednesday’s school board meeting that 43% of Latino families responding to survey said the three-zone policy was their first choice.

All three options came with their own sets of issues for community members.

While the three-zone policy was the most popular, families worried about transportation and splitting border schools. The feeder school option, popular because it kept students together after elementary school, raised even more transportation issues. (The district currently does not provide busing for the vast majority of middle schoolers.) And though the current policy produces segregated schools and comes with “perception issues,” some families say it works for them, including some Longfellow families who like that additional resources, like an on-site family engagement specialist, are concentrated there.

Superintendent Brent Stephens called the survey results “a good snapshot of sort of concerns, questions, preferences in our community” at the school board meeting.

Next, the school board will tackle the practical questions of logistics and cost. How much transportation would middle schoolers need for any given policy, and how much will that cost the district? Does research support one integration model over another?

It’s questions like these that will drive the board’s decision, particularly because the survey results don’t reveal an “overwhelming preference,” said School Board Director Ty Alper at the meeting. “The purpose of engagement is in gathering good questions and providing information. I’m less interested in the sort of straw-polling of the community.”

Berkeley Unified also hosted a series of town halls in September and October, and met with various leadership groups across the district. A similar community engagement process will continue throughout the spring and early fall, before the school board is set to make a decision in November 2022. The policy would not take effect for another year after the decision is made.

Laura Babitt, newly named school board vice president, said the work starts with a policy but does not end there. “We’re Berkeley. We started this 50 years ago with integration,” Babitt said at the board meeting. “But yet we’re still not at the point where people who are of color don’t feel racial isolation.”

“Diversity does not equal integration and inclusion,” said Smith, quoting a comment that parent left on the survey.

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,...