About 30 students sit on the steps of in a school courtyard eating lunch
Students eat lunch outside at Willard Middle School in Berkeley. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

A new enrollment policy designed to desegregate Berkeley’s middle schools has succeeded in bringing approximate racial parity to the three schools.

This year’s 6th grade class is more racially balanced across the three middle schools than it was in years prior, when a disproportionate number of Black and Latino students enrolled at Longfellow, according to data released by the district this week.

“The district’s new middle school enrollment policy has resulted in a more diverse sixth grade experience for students at all three BUSD middle schools,” Trish McDermott, BUSD’s communications head, wrote in a statement.

Since 1994, students in Berkeley had been zoned for one of the two middle schools — King or Willard — while Longfellow was a “choice” school. Initially intended to be an arts magnet school, Longfellow had seen declining enrollment, and the district filled empty seats with students who hadn’t registered on time for middle school. Last year, the district assigned about 100 late enrollees to Longfellow, Principal Salita Mitchell said, well over half the number of students in 6th grade, compared with just 30 this year.

The school board overhauled that policy in June 2022, creating three zones that cut diagonally across the city. The new policy also required that students from Sylvia Mendez Elementary attend Longfellow. The change was designed to end what critics denounced as “de facto segregation” in the middle schools.

This year, the 6th grade classes at all three middle schools more closely reflect Berkeley Unified’s racially diverse student body.

At Longfellow, the number of white students in 6th grade nearly doubled over the previous year. Last fall, 21% of students in 6th grade at Longfellow were white, compared with 37% this year. That’s much closer to the share of white students at Willard (41%) and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School (46%).

There are still proportionately more Latino students at Longfellow than the other two middle schools. That’s likely because more Latino students participate in the dual-language Spanish immersion program at Longfellow. Over half of the students at Sylvia Mendez Elementary, home to the dual-language program are Latino, compared with 22% of students in the district as a whole.

The number of Black and Latino students increased in the 6th grade at King and Willard and declined at Longfellow. White students are now the largest racial group at Longfellow, though this has been the case at Willard and King for years.

Last year, Black students made up 9% of the 6th grade class at King, 7% at Willard and 22% at Longfellow. This fall, those numbers look more similar across the schools, with the share of Black students in 6th grade at each school hovering at about 11% or 12%. 

Whispers that the new enrollment policy would cause families to leave the district seem not to have been realized.

The number of students did decline from 5th to 6th grade, but no more than in a typical year. Last year, the district lost 51 students from 5th to 6th grade. This year, it was 36. 

And the racial composition of this year’s 6th grade class is hardly different from the 5th grade class last year. 

White students make up 42% of 6th graders this fall, down half a percentage point from last year’s 5th grade class, a change of 11 students. The share of Latino students in that grade rose half a percentage point, a change of four students. The number of Asian students fell while the number of multiracial students rose in proportion, suggesting the shift has more to do with the way the district reports multiracial students to the state.  

In other words, there doesn’t appear to be a trend in the race or ethnicity of students who left BUSD between elementary school and middle school.

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,...