Berkeley school district considers proposals to desegregate middle schools

Photo of Willard Middle School
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
Plans to desegregate the middle schools within BUSD are met with community concerns.

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Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, has proposed plans to revise its enrollment policies in an ongoing bid to desegregate its middle schools.

According to BUSD superintendent Brent Stephens, the plans are meant to address disparities in student enrollment patterns that have emerged since the current middle school assignment policy was created in 1994.

“Our current system does not result in integrated middle schools and in my opinion we are long overdue to fix that,” said Ty Alper, president of the BUSD Board of Education, in an email. “I am open-minded about the best way to accomplish it, but I would like to see all three of our middle schools much more closely match the diverse demographics of our district as a whole.”

According to the California Department of Education, the student populations of Willard Middle School and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School are 30% and 24.1% socioeconomically disadvantaged, respectively, compared to 57.3% of students at Longfellow Middle School.

The enrollment differences between schools, Stephens said, were partially caused by demographic changes and an “unfair” perception among some that Longfellow Middle School is lower in quality than the other two schools.

“Segregation happens on so many levels in schools, from things as simple as where students may hang out on campus by race and class, all the way up to how students are treated, how teachers are placed and then, how they treat students,” said Zeus Leonardo, a campus professor in the Graduate School of Education, or GSE. “It’s not just throwing bodies in a classroom and calling that integration.”

According to Stephens, the current enrollment policy divides Berkeley into two geographic zones: one for King Middle School and one for Willard Middle School. Any family can choose to send their children to Longfellow Middle School, which serves the entire city, Stephens said.

One proposed plan would establish three geographic zones for the three middle schools, while another plan would assign each middle school its own set of feeder elementary schools whose students would graduate into the middle school, Stephens said. Maintaining the status quo is also an option, he added.

“There are benefits to integrated schools, both social and academic benefits,” said Frank Worrell, a campus professor in the GSE. “When students have cross-race, cross-ethnic friendships, they are actually more socially competent. There’s also some evidence to suggest there’s greater academic competence across the board.”

An in-progress poll has shown that preferences for the three proposals are split relatively evenly, though Stephens cautioned that conclusions should not be drawn given the low number of responses so far. Previously, in a June survey conducted by BUSD, about 65% of respondents said they wanted to change the middle school enrollment system.

However, Longfellow Middle School parent Tesha Sengupta-Irving, a campus associate professor in the GSE, raised concerns that efforts to reintegrate Berkeley’s public middle schools may reduce the “strength and potency” of existing social awareness and cultural programs designed for minority students.

“If we don’t protect the content and the teachers who are teaching our children, just mixing the children is not gonna move the needle forward,” Sengupta-Irving said. “(Longfellow has) a kind of racial competence and racial love that I would like to see protected and preserved in the transition if there is to be one.”

Contact Gabe Classon and Rachel Raps at [email protected].