Berkeley School District Kindergarten Fair This Saturday

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday December 07, 2007

Parents attending Berkeley Unified School District’s annual Kindergarten Fair on Saturday will get to sample classroom life and ask questions about the district’s assignment process. 

Hosted by LeConte Elementary, the fair aims to make enrollment easier for parents and to introduce them to faculty, staff and special programs. Francisco Martinez, the district’s manager for attendance and enrollment, will give a presentation on Berkeley's Student Assignment Plan. 

The district’s assignment system came under scrutiny in 2003 after it was sued by the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of a parent who charged the district with race-based assignment of students. 

The foundation also filed a lawsuit against the district last year for allegedly violating California’s Proposition 209 by racially discriminating among students during placements at elementary schools and in programs at Berkeley High. 

Although the district went on to win both lawsuits, a recent U.S. Supreme Court hearing—which limited the consideration of race in school integration plans—poses a new challenge for the district. 

District officials continue to defend the assignment system and have even called it a model for other schools. 

“Everything around the student assignment process is of great interest,” said district spokesperson Mark Coplan. “Not only to those who will be going through it now, but everyone else interested in Berkeley's role in integrated classrooms ... 99 percent of the population are happy with it. There’s a very small fraction who don’t like the program. They want specific assignments for their child and continue to ask the question about whether it’s fair or not.” 

The district’s assignment system allows parents to register their first, second and third school choices, and then a computer lottery—which takes account of factors such as race, ethnicity, student background and parental income and education—gives the final placement.  

The students are assigned schools based on their address, which falls into one of three distinct geographical categories. 

“No individual student is identified by race, ethnicity or economic background,” said school board Vice President John Selawsky. “It’s based on where they live. We don’t have to change our process because we prevailed twice in the California Supreme Court.” 

Selawsky added that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling left room for the kind of approach the district was trying. 

“Schools can use strategic-attendance zoning as well as magnet schools and special programs to ensure diversity,” he said. “I occasionally do hear complaints, but we have no intention of changing what we have. Parents who are new to the district should know that the assignment system has been used for a long long time now and it’s what ensures diversity at each school site. It serves a bigger good and the interest of our students and education.” 

According to Martinez—who analyzes multi-year enrollment patterns to calculate enrollment numbers every year—610 students are expected to enroll in kindergarten in 2008. 

Last year, the number was 630. 

“The enrollment numbers for kindergarten have ranged between 570 to 630 for the last five years,” he said. “It’s very stable ... Applications from out-of-district students will be accepted over the summer. We first enroll students who are Berkeley residents and then open it up to others if there is space.” 

With 427 students, Thousand Oaks Elementary School has the largest enrollment rate, followed by Rosa Parks (386) and Cragmont (382). 

The district’s Office of Admissions and Attendance will begin accepting forms for the first lottery for fall 2008 on Jan. 7 with the deadline of Feb. 8 at 4 p.m. 

Assignments for the first lottery will be mailed out by March 7. 

Besides representatives from the 11 elementary schools, volunteers from the city’s transportation services, after-school programs and libraries will also be present. 

The schools will also be open to visitors from Nov. 27 to Dec. 18 and Jan. 10 to Feb. 8 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. 

Kindergarten Nights—mainly directed at new families—will also be hosted by each elementary school in January.