This is the first in a series profiling Berkeley elementary schools. The reports are written by students of the UC Berkeley Journalism School.
For parents in Berkeley, choosing an elementary school is about as easy as finding a parking spot on Fourth Street. Within Berkeley’s 10 square miles are 11 elementary schools, each with its own personality.
Whether they prefer bilingual education or are looking for a focus on arts and crafts, all parents will benefit from doing as much research as possible.
Marissa Saunders, parent outreach officer for the Berkeley PTSA Council, says many families don’t bother to understand the school assignment system and are sometimes unsatisfied with their children’s assignments. But Saunders, a mother of two students, says Berkeley schools are worth navigating the complicated assignment process.
“The different choices make it different. And they have a lot of different enrichment classes, a lot of exposure to different things both culturally and socially. We have a pretty diverse school district—the kids learn from each other,” says Saunders.
Since 1994, the district has used a system called Controlled Choice to assign pupils to schools. Controlled Choice splits the city into three school zones: Central, Northwest and Southeast. Central includes Berkeley Arts Magnet at Whittier, Cragmont, Oxford and Washington Communication and Technology. Northwest includes Rosa Parks Environmental Science Magnet, Jefferson and Thousand Oaks. Southeast includes Emerson, John Muir, Le Conte and Malcolm X Arts and Academic Magnet.
Controlled Choice also allows parents to rank their top three school preferences. A pupil who lives in a zone has a good chance of being assigned to a school within that zone, but there is no guarantee.
It is common for children from the same neighborhood to attend schools throughout the city. A student who attends a school within his zone will have access to Berkeley Unified’s buses. However, if parents seek a school outside the zone, they are responsible for providing transportation.
In February, the district adjusted Controlled Choice so that school diversity would be achieved based on racial, educational and economic diversity in each planning area. The city was broken down into 445 planning areas, with each encompassing several blocks.
A number called “Percent Students of Color” is used to measure the racial diversity within each planning area. Each school strives to enroll a balanced number of students from planning areas where PSC is as low as 10 percent or as high as 90 percent.
In August 2003, the Pacific Legal Foundation, a frequent challenger of affirmative action programs, sued the school district on behalf of Lorenzo Avila. Avila, who had two children in Berkeley schools at the time, said that the district violated voter-approved Proposition 209, which prohibits racial preferences in public education.
In April, two months after adjustments to Controlled Choice had been implemented, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the district, allowing it to continue to use race in its school assignment process. The Pacific Legal Foundation has announced that it will not appeal.
The new Controlled Choice system also incorporates parent income level and parent education level into the diversity equation. 2000 census information is used to derive average household income and average parent education level in each planning area.
“Before it was plainly black, white and other. Now one factor is class and that’s changing the picture,” said Berkeley PTSA Council President Roia Ferrazares. By including such socioeconomic factors, BUSD extended its definition of diversity to incorporate more than just race.
Based on race, parent income level and parent education level, each student will be assigned to one of three Composite Diversity Categories. When assigning students to schools, the district will take proportionate numbers of students from each of the three categories to create a diversity balance at every school.
Bilingual education can be found at four schools: Cragmont, LeConte, Rosa Parks Environmental Science Magnet and Thousand Oaks. At Cragmont, LeConte and Rosa Parks, students learn both English and Spanish through a Dual Immersion bilingual program. From kindergarten through 6th grade, teachers emphasize both languages.
Thousand Oaks offers the only transitional bilingual education program in the district. Under this system, kindergarten through 3rd grade classes are taught entirely in Spanish and 4th to 6th grade classes are taught in English. The Transitional Bilingual program is based on the idea that a strong foundation in a child’s first language makes it easier to learn a second language. The district also offers a Chinese bilingual program at Jefferson.
Specialized programs can be found at four schools: Berkeley Arts Magnet at Whittier, Malcolm X Arts and Academics Magnet, Rosa Parks Environmental Science Magnet, and Washington Communication and Technology Magnet.
In February of this year, magnet schools were incorporated into the new Controlled Choice system, so they no longer use a separate student assignment system.
Although Berkeley’s magnet schools no longer enjoy state funding, they have retained their magnet status. PTSA fund raising and the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project tax, recently renewed, have picked up the slack to ensure that magnet schools maintain the unique classes and activities that define them.
2003-2004 test scores and rankings for each school are available online at http://api.cde.ca.gov/. The annual Academic Performance Index measures schools on a scale between 200 and 1000. California schools strive to meet a minimum performance ranking of 800.
2004 School-Wide API Growth Test Scores:
Berkeley Arts Magnet at Whittier: 765
Cragmont: 785; Emerson: 816; Jefferson: 838; John Muir: 819; LeConte: 697; Malcolm X Arts and Academics Magnet: 752
Oxford: 785; Rosa Parks Environmental Science Magnet: 662; Thousand Oaks: 770; Washington Communication and Technology: 721.
Parents who want their children to be considered for the first round of school assignments should submit their Parent Preference Forms between January and February. After receiving assignment letters in the mail, students should register in June. The Parent Access office can be reached at 644-6504.
Elementary school profiles will follow in coming issues.e