Monday, June 18, 2007

A Diversity Leader – Berkeley’s Student Assignment Plan

A California court recently held that the Berkeley Unified School District (“BUSD”), one of the first school districts in the nation to desegregate voluntarily, could consider the racial composition of a student’s neighborhood in a student assignment plan designed to maintain racial diversity in Berkeley public schools.

The History: Following the Brown decision, a citizens’ commission concluded that Berkeley suffered from severe housing segregation that led to racial isolation in its schools. In 1968, BUSD became one of the first school districts in the nation to voluntarily integrate its schools. In 1995, BUSD adopted a comprehensive plan to preserve integration in its schools in light of continued residential segregation in the city.

In April 2004, in Avila v. Berkeley Unified School District, the Alameda Superior Court ruled that BUSD’s plan to preserve ethnically and racially integrated schools does not violate Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative that banned the use of racial preferences in government, public education and employment. Judge James Richman said in the Avila ruling, “although Proposition 209 specifically applies to public education, its text does not mention voluntary desegregation plans or otherwise indicate that prohibited discrimination or preferential treatment includes a race-conscious assignment plan that seeks to provide all students with the same benefit of desegregated schools.”

The Current Plan: BUSD’s current plan, adopted in February 2004, assigns each neighborhood a diversity rating as a means to promote diversity at the city’s 11 elementary schools and in Berkeley High School’s small schools program. The current plan seeks to ensure that the student population in each elementary school reflects the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the total elementary school population of the school’s attendance zone within a target range of plus or minus 5-10%.

The Elementary Student Assignment Plan is founded on BUSD’s belief that: “diversity in our students population enriches the educational experience of students; advances educational and occupational aspirations; enhances critical thinking skills, facilitates the equitable distribution of resources; reduces, prevents or eliminates the effects of racial and social isolation; … and promotes participation in a pluralistic society.”

The Mechanics: The Elementary Student Assignment Plan (“Plan”) divides the district’s 11 elementary schools among three attendance zones. The entire district is further divided into 445 planning areas, of between 4 and 8 city blocks in size. Each planning area is assigned a diversity category designation of 1 to 3. The diversity category number assigned is calculated based upon three factors: the percentage of “students of color” in the planning area; the planning area’s level of parent income; and the planning area’s level of parent education. Each factor is weighed equally in calculating the diversity category number. Parents of elementary school children submit a preference form, indicating their top three elementary school choices.

BUSD assigns students based on six priority categories:

  1. Currently attending the school and residing in the zone;
  2. Currently attending the school and residing outside the zone;
  3. Sibling currently attending the school (in category 1 or 2);
  4. Not currently attending and residing within the zone;
  5. Not currently attending and residing outside the zone;
  6. Inter-district transfers.

Within each priority category, a student is assigned to a particular school based upon their preference, as well as the diversity category number assigned to the planning area in which the student lives.

The High School Small School Assignment Plan applies to the one high school in the district, Berkeley High. In addition to the regular high school curriculum, Berkeley High offers students the opportunity to pursue a more specialized curriculum either in one of its four “small schools” or in one of its two academic programs. The district selects students for the regular high school and the small schools based upon several diversity characteristics: the diversity/planning area category numbers used in the elementary school assignments; English-language learners; and special education needs. As with the elementary schools, assignment to the small school programs is partly determined by the diversity category of the neighborhood in which the student lives.

Assignment and Race: In April 2007, an Alameda Superior Court ruling held that neither the Elementary Student Assignment Plan nor the High School Small School Assignment Plan violate Proposition 209 because no assignment decisions are based upon the race of an individual student. Instead the assignment criteria take into account multiple factors related to the geographic area in which a student lives, only one of which is race-conscious. In other words, the racial makeup of the entire student population in a given planning area – not an individual student’s race – is a factor in assignment decisions. The court further held that the “integration plan” developed by the school board, in which the diversity of a student’s neighborhood is a factor in assignment decisions, does not offend Proposition 209 because it does not discriminate or grant preferences on the basis of race or ethnicity.

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