The Berkeley school board voted to overhaul its policy for assigning students to the city’s three middle schools on Wednesday night, unanimously deciding to add a third enrollment zone at the start of the 2023-24 school year. The intention is to desegregate the schools.

The current policy, unchanged since 1994, divides Berkeley into two zones for King and Willard, leaving Longfellow as a “choice” school. 

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

As Longfellow’s enrollment has declined under this policy, the school has served a growing share of students with higher needs and a disproportionate share of Black and Latino students, leading to what some have denounced as a system of de facto segregation.

“It’s a broken, segregated system that doesn’t reflect our values,” said Ty Alper, school board director, just before the votes were cast. “It needs to be fixed. And we have the opportunity to fix it.”

The new policy adds a third zone in the middle of the city for Longfellow, bringing together students from the hills, South Berkeley and central Berkeley. The maps use Berkeley’s geography as a proxy for other kinds of diversity, including race and class.

However, the board still needs to finalize the map delineating the three zones and a plan for transportation. (Students from Sylvia Mendez Elementary could attend Longfellow to continue in the dual-language immersion program.)

A draft map of the new middle school enrollment policy creating three neighborhood zones was shared at the school board meeting Wednesday. Credit: BUSD

The decision has been years in the making. At stake, some say, was Berkeley’s progressive legacy on integration, earned in 1968 when Berkeley famously become the first large school district to voluntarily desegregate.

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.

A vote was delayed three years in a row. During that time, Longfellow got a new principal and a consultant published a report recommending that the district change its middle school enrollment policy to break a “reputation spiral” that continues to “push Longfellow downward.” This spring, directors Ty Alper and Laura Babitt took up the issue with urgency. “We must make sure that we do not have yet another year baked in educational imbalance and segregation,” Babitt said at a March 23 board meeting. 

A chart reflecting how the rate of students who are low-income, English learners, homeless or foster youth — a common metric used by the state — varies by Berkeley middle school. A similar chart was presented at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Any mention of the change has been controversial, sparking impassioned town hall discussions and agitated emails from Berkeleyside readers. But on night of the vote, not a single parent commented on the middle school enrollment policy. (A handful of people following along with the board’s discussion on Twitter commented that the three-zone plan would make it harder for their kids to get to school and one person tweeted about the possibility that families would leave the district in light of the decision.)

Nor did the meeting focus on the merits of desegregation, about which the school board directors seemed to agree. The conversation was dominated, instead, by the logistics behind the change. Was the admissions office using current census data to create the maps for the three zones? How would students be welcomed in their new schools? And, most notably, how would the students get there?

School board directors Ana Vasudeo and Julie Sinai emphasized concerns over transportation, initially leaning toward pushing a final decision back to November in order to hash out the details of a transit plan. “I would love to see that analysis before we approve a final model,” Vasudeo said, adding that it’s dangerous to put more cars on the roads and noting that transportation issues contribute to chronic absenteeism.

“I’ve been hearing some very serious and passionate concerns about transportation issues … largely coming from the hills,” Sinai said. But “the way the current zone works, we’ve got students coming from all the way in southwest Berkeley, who have a significant trek to get to King now. No matter what scenario we pick, there is going to be a trek for some community to get to the school.”

Board President Ka’Dijah Brown and Alper said transportation could be addressed later. “I do want to just urge my colleagues to to not let just transportation be a barrier to our decision,” Brown said. “The reality of it is, we don’t provide transportation to our middle schools” now, she said, and families figure out a way to make it work.

The school board ultimately decided that transit questions did not need to be resolved before they made a final decision.

Both the selection of the three-zone model and a vote to make the decision final, with the caveat that staff would present an implementation plan to the board in the fall, passed unanimously. The new three-zone policy will take effect in the fall 2023.

Featured photo of sixth graders at Longfellow Middle School on Aug. 16, 2021: Kelly Sullivan

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,...