As a Berkeley teacher, I have followed the recent discussion about out-of-district students with interest.
As the students in question use false addresses, it would seem that no one knows exactly how many there are, where they live, or what their test scores are, even Mr. Baggins, though he claims without evidence that these students are responsible for our achievement gap.
The following are some of my observations about out-of-district students, based on my 12 years of teaching in BUSD:
• Many of our students do live in other cities. While they come in all races and classes, the majority of them are people of color whose families have lower incomes than many Berkeley families.
• Most of our out-of-district children have a strong connection to Berkeley. Many of them and their families used to live in Berkeley, some for generations, and have been forced out by high housing prices. The students quite often have extended family (e.g. grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.) in Berkeley and are often cared for by these extended family members after school.
• It is impossible to generalize about Berkeley residents or out-of-district students when it comes to behavior or achievement. There are white, middle class Berkeley residents who are violent, disruptive and chronically tardy, and out-of-district, high-achieving African-American and Latino students who come to class every day on time with their homework complete and whose behavior is exemplary.
Like undocumented workers in the US, our non-Berkeley resident students contribute a lot to our schools. Aside from many of these students’ great attitudes and diverse perspectives on life, BUSD receives state money for every student attending our schools; in fact, I read in the Daily Planet a few years ago that at the elementary and middle school level these students represent a net gain in funding for BUSD.
Furthermore, our excellent cooking and gardening programs (in place at all Berkeley elementary and middle schools) are funded by a grant which depends on each school having a certain percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Without our lower income out-of-district students, I suspect that BUSD would have to drop these programs.
Those who are arguing for getting rid of out-of-district kids should be aware of the other consequences that this will bring:
• Our schools will be significantly less diverse racially and economically, thereby impoverishing the educational experience for all of our students.
• Our popular Spanish Immersion programs may have trouble finding enough native Spanish speakers to continue functioning.
• Fewer students will mean less funding, possibly leading to lay-offs, program cut-backs and even the closure of schools, as has happened in Oakland and San Francisco.
Besides being a teacher, I am a Berkeley homeowner who willingly pays the extra taxes to keep our schools strong. Were I to worry about my tax dollars being misspent, I would be much more concerned about the billions of dollars that are being used to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan and enrich the executives at Halliburton and Bechtel than I would be about the few dollars I may pay to enhance the education of kids whose families can no longer afford to live in Berkeley, if indeed these students represent a financial burden to the district, which I doubt.
At my school’s fifth grade graduation ceremony two years ago, each student shared a dream for their future. Many shared dreams of becoming athletes, veterinarians or video-game designers. Out of over 60 graduates, only one student shared a dream that explicitly involved making the world a better place for everyone: He was a quiet, studious, well-behaved boy from Oakland (whether attending my school “legally” or “illegally,” I don’t know.) But as far as I’m concerned, we could use a little more of his spirit of selflessness and generosity here in Berkeley.
Terry Fletcher is a teacher in the Berkeley public schools.