Teacher ushers students into class
Teacher Christina Freschl welcomes kids back to class at MLK Jr. Middle School on Aug. 16, 2023. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Before the bell rang Wednesday at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in North Berkeley, a student wheeled his cello through the courtyard while students chatted in groups, decked out in new baggy jeans and sneakers. Across the city in South Berkeley, teachers at Longfellow recognized students whose siblings — even parents — they had taught, gently encouraging them to respond in Spanish.

It was a normal beginning to an exceptional school year, as a new middle school enrollment policy designed to ensure diversity in all three Berkeley middle schools goes into action for the first time. 

read about berkeley’s 1968 desegregation of its elementary Schools

After years of debates and delays, the momentous day felt typical. “It just feels like the first day of middle school,” said Joshua Paz, who is in his ninth year teaching at Longfellow.

Berkeley was famously one of the first school districts to voluntarily desegregate its elementary schools in 1968, but for years its middle schools were, some said, “de facto segregated.”

Since 1994, students in Berkeley had been zoned for one of the two middle schools — King or Willard — leaving Longfellow as a “choice” school. Initially designated an arts magnet school, Longfellow had seen declining enrollment. As fewer families opted in, the school enrolled disproportionate numbers of high-need students.

Map showing how Berkeley's three middle school enrollment zones each encompass parts of the hills and the flats
A new map with three neighborhood zones is designed to create middle schools that reflect the diversity of Berkeley. Click to enlarge. Credit: BUSD.

The school board overhauled that policy in June 2022, creating three zones that cut diagonally across the city and requiring that students from Sylvia Mendez Elementary attend Longfellow. The change brought an end to what school board director Ty Alper called “a broken, segregated system that doesn’t reflect our values.”

Today, more than 50 years after the 1968 decision, the 6th grade classes at Berkeley’s three middle schools are visually more representative of the city, a precursor of what’s to come for 7th and 8th graders over the next two years. The district hasn’t released enrollment numbers breaking down the student body demographics yet.

On Wednesday morning, a bus dropped off students from the Berkeley Hills at Longfellow, the first middle school bus in Berkeley in at least 20 years. Seven students had signed up for the bus so far.

Teacher outside talking to group of students
Teacher Robin Goldman takes a new 6th grade class on a tour of the MLK Jr. Middle School campus on Aug. 16, 2023. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Longfellow’s enrollment process was affected by the new policy, Principal Salita Mitchell said. 

While the district used to assign about 100 students who hadn’t registered for middle school to Longfellow, Mitchell said that number dropped to about 30 students this year.

Plus, with students from Sylvia Mendez not being given the option to attend King or Willard, Longfellow’s dual-language Spanish-English immersion program was full this year. In prior years, Longfellow had to recruit students to join the program.

students sitting in class
Caitlin Alastra’s 6th grade students work on a first-day activity at Longfellow Middle School on Aug. 16, 2023. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

What challenges may come from the new policy have yet to arise. 

“I feel like the other schools may be more impacted than us,” said Mitchell, who became principal this summer after serving as interim principal last year.

Changing the enrollment policy was controversial. Some praised the school board directors for taking a moral stance on the issue, while other families complained that they didn’t want their children to attend Longfellow for different reasons, ranging from the noise from the new renovation to those from Sylvia Mendez who were caught off guard about the new policy.

Whispers that families would leave the district seem not to have been realized — anecdotally, district leaders said they haven’t seen a major change.

At King, new principal Michael Tison Yee said he’s seen a lot of year-to-year continuity at the school, dating back more than a decade, when he did his student teaching under veteran teacher Akemi Hamai. “There’s a lot of trust in this place,” he said. “We only have two new teachers this year,” he boasted.

Across the middle schools, teachers set the tone for yet another year in their classrooms, seemingly unfazed by a change to the enrollment policy. 

Teacher at white board talking to students. It says "First Day of Middle School 2023" on the board
Laura Kretschmar instructs 6th grade students in her classroom at MLK Jr. Middle School on Aug. 16, 2023. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Students laughing in class
Joshua Jacobs’ students play a getting-to-know-you game at MLK Jr. Middle School on Aug. 16, 2023. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

In Joshua Jacob’s class at King, students darted from corner to corner, responding to prompts about their summer travels and their favorite music. Across the courtyard, students in Laura Kretschmar’s 6th grade class reflected on their worries for the year and debated the best day of the week to start school.

The class settled on Wednesday. 

“So we did good then,” joked Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel. 

“You did good,” a student responded, throwing her a thumbs up.

Ford Morthel touching a parent's arm and smiling broadly
BUSD Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel speaks with families waiting to get help with their children’s class schedule at MLK Jr. Middle School on Aug. 16, 2023. Credit: 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,...