After years of delay, middle school enrollment recommendation expected in June

The Berkeley school board is set in five weeks to make a preliminary call on whether to overhaul how students are assigned a middle school — though further delay is possible.

Mr. David, a counselor at Longfellow Middle School, guides students in a getting-to-know-you game involving pool noodles on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

After three years of delays, the Berkeley school board is slated for a preliminary vote in mid-June on whether to overhaul its middle school enrollment policy. The final vote is set for November and a new policy would take effect in 2023.

The current middle school enrollment policy, in place since the 1990s, divides Berkeley into two zones for King and Willard, leaving Longfellow as a “choice” school. The policy leads to what some describe as a system of de facto segregation, in which Longfellow has a disproportionately higher share of disadvantaged students compared with King and Willard. 

Whether the board should change the policy is controversial. Some argue that de facto segregation is a stain on the first large school district to voluntarily desegregate its schools in 1968, while others don’t want the policy to change — some because they don’t want their kids to attend Longfellow. 

Opinions are split among Longfellow’s Black and Latino parents, too. While some want the middle schools to be rezoned, others say that getting resources for their kids to succeed is most important, and it’s not clear that integration will achieve that. Some parents prefer that their children attend a school with more kids who look like them.

Former Superintendent Donald Evans initially raised the middle school enrollment question with the school board in April 2019 with the intention of creating three schools “that reflected the racial, ethnic, economic, educational, and linguistic backgrounds of our City,” according to board meeting documents. A decision was intended for fall 2019, board documents show.

When Brent Stephens took over as superintendent in July 2019, the decision was postponed. On March 11, 2020, two days before the schools shuttered due to the pandemic, Stephens laid out a community engagement plan that would result in a vote in November 2020. The board decided to delay the decision another year to focus on pandemic response. In fall 2021, the board made the same call, extending the community engagement process and scheduling a vote for November 2022.

The preliminary vote is now scheduled for June 15 to give the district time to work out the details before a final vote in November. 

But a statement released by the district left the door open for another delay. Stephens described the preliminary vote as a “possible June decision” and characterizes the timeline for a final decision in November as a “goal.” 

School board momentum builds toward a vote 

At a March 23 board meeting, school board directors Laura Babitt and Ty Alper urged the board not to delay further. 

“Inaction is action and our middle school kids can’t wait,” said Vice President Babitt.

In August 2021, Babitt, along with board directors Ana Vasudeo, Julie Sinai, and Ka’Dijah Brown, wanted to delay the decision: The directors said the process felt rushed and wanted to make sure all parts of the community had a chance to weigh in. 

Now, Babitt feels the time has come to vote on the policy. “We must make sure that we do not have yet another year baked in educational imbalance and segregation,” she said. 

“This is an issue that I’ve felt urgency about for many years,” said Alper, who pushed back against the rest of the board directors at the Aug. 25 meeting for wanting to delay the vote. “In fact, I’ve been a little frustrated at times in the past that a majority of the board wasn’t willing to move more quickly.” 

“It can’t be that we’re afraid of pushback from the community on this because desegregating schools is always fraught,” Alper said at the Aug. 25 meeting.

Some parents have also been frustrated by the pace of change, while others asked the district to slow down further. 

James Schultz, a parent of a recent Longfellow graduate who now attends Berkeley High, urged the board on March 24 to “change the enrollment system to stop the racism that is happening in middle school.” Schultz said he was “tired of coming to these meetings” and could not “take this anymore.” 

A week later, one parent asked the board to delay changes to the enrollment policy, wondering if the impending $30 million renovation project at Longfellow would make it difficult to add more students to the school. “I sincerely support the district’s goals of equity across the three schools,” Adrienne Leder-Schriner said. “I’m commenting because the timeline proposed for implementation is concerning.” (Facilities director John Calise said space for students would not be a problem.)

In the last year, the district has held multiple community meetings about the potential zoning change and surveyed the community twice over whether they prefer to keep the current policy, create a third zone for Longfellow that includes the hills and the flats, or create “feeder” elementary schools. 

Survey respondents have consistently favored the three-zone policy. Asked about their first choice in a November survey that drew 1,315 responses from families, 39% of respondents voted for 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. An earlier survey brought similar results.

Staff says plan could cost $2.5M but school board members question if busing and programs should be included in cost

On April 27, Francisco Martínez, the district’s admissions manager, made a presentation to the board on potential costs of busing and additional programs and support services associated with changing the middle school enrollment policy. The total cost was estimated at $2.49 million, according to the drafts listed in the presentation. 

The price of transportation was listed at $1.7 million for five school buses and five bus drivers. This includes one bus from the Berkeley Hills to Longfellow and four buses for the north and south zones. All the buses would be electric and each would cost the district $250,000. The sum included $100,000 budgeted for each bus driver.

Additional programming was estimated to cost the district $740,000. This includes adding one counselor per school, creating Umoja and Puente, programs for Black and Latino students, at King and Willard, and continuing to pay for an additional seventh period at Longfellow.

Multiple school board directors pushed back on the idea of linking these costs to the policy change up front, since none of the costs necessarily come with it.

BUSD does not currently provide transportation to middle school students. That could remain true if the policy changed. 

“People are going without public transit” at Willard and King now, Sinai said at the board meeting. “‘Do we need to add buses?’ is a worthwhile discussion, but it is the status quo that they don’t have it now.” 

(Sinai said that adding a bus from the hills down to Longfellow makes more sense to her because Longfellow is harder to get to by public transit. Vasudeo advised the district to make planning transit options for low-income communities a priority first.)

Babitt asked why the transportation costs for the elementary school feeder option and the zoning policy were considered equivalent.

“I’m unclear why … a zone where people are closer to the school in their neighborhood would require us to spend so much on transportation,” Babitt said. 

As for the additional programming, Alper argued that was an option the board could explore later on, but that it wasn’t inherently tied to any policy change. 

“I feel completely comfortable voting to adopt a model that integrates the middle schools with some kind of zone system, even if none of the programmatic additions that were listed on that first slide were included,” though he said he might support some of them later.

Babitt said she wants to see Umoja and Puente expanded to the other middle schools as a way to address the racial isolation that students will likely face. Babitt said her daughter has been the only Black student in her class in the past, which research shows can negatively impact students. Some other Longfellow parents agree, saying that if the enrollment changes, they want the affinity programs at King and Willard.

Stephens responded that it was possible but not required to add transportation or additional programming, explaining that the presentation was intended to inform the public of the potential costs associated with changing the plans. 

“Our intent is to offer the community these cost estimates to ask them to weigh in on the value of spending money on these programs, in addition to the value of the policy assignment,” Stephens said.

Before the June 15 vote on the middle school enrollment policy, there are scheduled one more community survey and two final town halls on May 25, one in English and one in Spanish. The board will have five months before making its final decision. 

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.