Updated, Nov. 10 On Wednesday night, the Berkeley school board discussed the details of a new middle school enrollment policy, which passed unanimously in June and will take effect at the start of the next school year.

The presentation on the middle school enrollment policy is available online

The new policy creates a third enrollment zone in an effort to desegregate the city’s three middle schools, bringing students from the flats and hills to Longfellow. For years, the school has served disproportionate numbers of Black, Latino and low-income students, compared with Willard and King middle schools. 

The school district plans to finalize details of the policies by December, and parents will begin registering their children for middle school next semester.

At the meeting, admissions manager Francisco Martinez presented a new map for the three school zones — it’s still technically a draft, but it’s not likely to change — and board directors hashed out policies for siblings and students who attend Sylvia Mendez Elementary. 

Parents have been awaiting the new map for months, as it will determine boundaries for where their children attend middle school. The map was developed based on data from the 2020 census, including families’ socioeconomic status, parents’ education level and students’ race.

At the meeting, board directors weighed in on the policies, though at this point in the process, they don’t have the power to approve or veto what the district describes as “administrative regulations.”

These are the policies discussed Wednesday night:

  • Elementary students whose siblings are enrolled in a middle school already will be given priority so that siblings can attend middle school together. 
  • For the 2023-24 school year only, the district plans to give enrollment priority to students who are currently enrolled in fifth grade and have an eighth-grade sibling graduating from middle school next year. The one-year policy is the result of a compromise, an effort to create a buffer for families to transition to their new middle schools without watering down the policy too much.  “Every exception we make dilutes the point of the policy, which is to end these years of disparities and systemic racism that our current system perpetuates,” said school board director Ty Alper. 
  • Students at Sylvia Mendéz will attend Longfellow Middle School, regardless of where they live in the city, in order to “solidif[y]” the district’s dual language immersion program, which is most effective if students continue through middle school. Students who don’t want to continue in the language immersion program will be able to opt into the English-only program at Longfellow. Students who are better suited to attend the newcomer program at King Middle School will be able to do so.
  • Requests by families who want to attend a middle school outside of their zone will be considered during the open enrollment period.
  • The district will add one bus route for middle school students who live more than a mile and a half from Longfellow Middle School. BUSD doesn’t currently provide buses for middle or high school students, and the change is mostly designed to accommodate students living in the hills who will commute to a new middle school. 
  • BUSD is partnering with AC Transit to potentially shift some bus schedules to accommodate the school schedule or provide a bus pass. (The district doesn’t expect that the new enrollment policy will substantially increase the number of families who have to travel more than a mile and a half to school.) 

Board director Ana Vasudeo urged the district to consider transportation for students in Southwest Berkeley who will be attending King Middle School. Other directors said that, while another bus for those students would be beneficial, it shouldn’t necessarily be a priority, since the status quo is that there are no buses for middle school students now.

District leaders say they’re concerned negative parent reactions could affect school culture

Changing the middle school enrollment policy has been on the table for four years.

In surveys conducted by the district, community members consistently chose the three-zone model as their top choice. In the last survey conducted in the fall of 2021, 39% of respondents picked the three-zone model as their first choice, compared with 28% who preferred a plan with feeder elementary schools and 26% who wanted to keep the current policy.

But with details about the new policy becoming definitive, a small but vocal group of parents has become agitated about the issue.

Almost every parent who spoke at public comment at Wednesday’s school board meeting didn’t want their child to attend Longfellow. They had a range of reasons: The timing just wasn’t right, the renovation at Longfellow would disrupt their children’s education or they didn’t know they would have to attend Longfellow when they enrolled at Sylvia Mendez. 

“Is Longfellow going to be ready to deal with an influx of new students that have just come out of a pandemic?” asked parent Noelle Vidal.

“Now it seems to be that we’re going to be forced to send our child to Longfellow,” said Leon Salvatierra, a parent of a child who attends Sylvia Mendez. “If the district wants to make sure that Longfellow is a stronger school, they shouldn’t force enrollment, but they should allocate more resources to that school.”

School board director Ty Alper, who has long pushed for a change to the middle school enrollment policy, said delaying the new policy was not on the table. “It’d be completely antithetical to the whole point of our plan … to delay it so that certain students could avoid living through some construction at their middle school.” 

Many praise Longfellow for the tight-knit feel on campus and culturally responsive programs like Umoja and Puente. But the school also “wears a reputation that parents, families, and staff consistently call out as Berkeley’s ‘ghetto school’ or ‘the poor black and brown school,’” according to a May 2020 report commissioned by the district. Longfellow, the report claimed, was stuck in a cycle in which the school’s reputation turns families away from the school, in turn making it difficult to improve.

School board president Ka’Dijah Brown said Wednesday night she found parents’ negative reactions to the impending change concerning, and she worried the negative attitudes could spill over into the school.

Brown, who attended Longfellow, said the school “has a history of being an incredibly safe space for many Black and brown students.” Given the pushback from families, including “the tone in which [parents’ comments] were presented tonight,” Brown said she is “nervous about the impacts on students as well as the impact on faculty and staff.” She asked district leaders if steps could be taken to mitigate that kind of harm.

Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel said the pushback was also a wake-up call for her. 

“This is all like, ‘Whoa, this is what it’s really like in Berkeley,’” Ford Morthel said. “We need to definitely get some coming together of hearts and minds as we make the transition. It’s not just about maps and policies.”

Student director Ian Segall added that the district’s segregated middle schools continue to shape Berkeley High’s social landscape. 

“One thing that I don’t think is talked about enough between adults, but is definitely talked about between students, is how segregated Berkeley High is — socially, especially. And I feel like the current structure of middle schools is a direct contributor to this,” Segall said.

A few parents who spoke weren’t opposed to the new plan, but asked for clearer maps, a request that was seconded by Alper. 

And, in one of the last comments of the night, a parent praised the board directors for making the just choice to integrate the schools, following in the footsteps of leaders like Sylvia Mendez and Martin Luther King Jr., and urged them to stay the course. “We can’t just wait to desegregate. We have to do that now,” he said.

An initial version of this story was published at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 9.

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,...