School District's Integration Plan Serves as a Model

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School District's Integration Plan Serves as a Model

Berkeley Unified School District was among the first in the nation to voluntarily desegregate its schools. Now, its integration plan is being studied as a model for other districts.

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Berkeley Unified School District was among the first in the nation to voluntarily desegregate its schools. Now, its integration plan is being studied as a model for other districts.

While Brown v. Board of Education mandated the desegregation of public schools 50 years ago, school districts across the nation are still segregated, according to a report released in January by UCLA's Civil Rights Project.

The study says many schools still do not reflect the racial and socioeconomic diversity of their communities due to residential segregation.

Berkeley public schools have maintained an active integration plan since 1968, though federal funding for voluntary integration plans was halted in the 1980s.

Berkeley Unified School District's 2004 revision of its integration method, the Student Assignment Plan, is seen as a model for other districts, said Erica Frankenberg, a research and policy director for Civil Rights Project, which is studying the plan.

"One of the questions is, 'Is it successful in creating racially diverse schools?'" Frankenberg said. "Whether it's one option that should be considered by districts."

Under its current plan, the district assigns students to schools based on the neighborhood's diversity index. The index is split into three categories-racial and socioeconomic make-up and parent education demographics.

Under the plan, parents list their top elementary school choices. Students are then distributed so that certain percentages of each category are represented in every school.

In the city of Berkeley, wealthier residents tend to live in the hills while the more economically disadvantaged reside below, said the study's co-author Lisa Chavez, a research analyst at the Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity.

The city's stratification makes it ideal for the district's integration plan, said Bruce Wicinas, a parent in the district who helped create the plan. He said the plan would not work in cities like San Francisco, where there is not as much residential segregation.

According to district spokesperson Mark Coplan, federally funded buses are provided for students who live far away from their assigned schools.

Ann Williams, vice president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School Parent Teacher Association, said she sees the district as a leader in integration.

"We're ahead of the curve," she said. "If Berkeley can't do it, then who can?"

Frankenberg said one of the reasons the district's plan is seen as a model is that it uses geographic data instead of the race of individual students in determining school assignment.

Integration programs in Seattle, Washington and Louiseville, Kentucky were forced to close by the Supreme Court in 2007 for basing school assignments on individual students' race.

While the Berkeley Unified School District may be viewed as a model, its plan is being challenged by the Pacific Legal Foundation for the second time, according to Alan Foutz, a staff attorney for the organization.

Both lawsuits claim the integration plan violates California Proposition 209, which states that public institutions cannot give preferential treatment to an individual or group based on race, ethnicity or sex.

Chavez said the district has been surprisingly resilient in combatting multiple lawsuits.

"Here, people are very committed to integration," she said.

A hearing for the current lawsuit will be held March 19 in the state court of appeal in San Francisco.

Williams cited Cragmont Elementary School as an example of the success of the oft-challenged integration plan. Located in the Berkeley hills, the school would be mostly white if it weren't for the plan, Williams said.

She said that while diversity sometimes causes tension, it is also an important learning experience. Last year, a 5th grade teacher at Cragmont used a racial slur as an example of why a student's derogatory comment about sexual orientation was unacceptable.

"The biggest thing was this conflict that happened and got everybody engaged," she said. "The kids observed and somehow it was a more fertile ground for the mind."


Tess Townsend covers local schools. Contact her at [email protected]

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