Should Oakland Schools Finally Try to Integrate? 

OUSD, like the city itself, is highly segregated. But unlike Berkeley, Oakland has never attempted to desegregate its public schools.

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click to enlarge Zach Bell, left, and Ron Towns started Camp Common Ground to disrupt racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation. - PHOTO BY LANCE YAMAMOTO
  • Zach Bell, left, and Ron Towns started Camp Common Ground to disrupt racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation.

Typically, the lottery system only comes into play for schools in high demand—like Montclair and Thornhill elementary schools in the Montclair district and Chabot Elementary and Hillcrest elementary and middle schools in Rockridge. At those campuses, there are usually far more applicants than the school has room for.

Wilson has found that this system, which was designed to help diversify Oakland schools, hasn’t worked as planned. Most students remain locked out of the higher-performing schools because they don’t live within their attendance zones and don’t have siblings who attend those schools. And because Oakland neighborhoods tend to be segregated, the school attendance zones just serve to reinforce segregation in the city.

“If you were to take a redlining map from the 1930s and overlay over boundaries, they’d be almost identical,” Wilson said of the district’s attendance boundaries. Redlining was the racist practice by banks and the federal government that blocked people of color from living in certain neighborhoods.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 was designed to address segregation in the nation’s schools. But it was mostly directed toward the 17 states that had laws at the time mandating the segregation of African Americans. California and other states that were not required by the Supreme Court to take immediate action were left largely unaffected by the ruling.

Ten years after Brown, Berkeley Unified School District implemented one of the first voluntary desegregation plans in the nation. Though it’s been repeatedly challenged in court over the years, the plan has remained one of the most successful integration models in the country.

BUSD’s desegregation plan is now in its third iteration, and the district has consistently kept up with changing laws and anti-integration efforts. The original 1964 plan focused on desegregating the junior high schools. It turned the three schools into one ninth-grade campus and two seventh- and eighth-grade schools. The district split the city into two zones that included equal proportions of different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

In 1968, the plan expanded to include the city’s elementary schools. The new plan was more complex. At the time, the district had 14 elementary schools—four of those schools were in the city’s flatlands, six were in the Berkeley hills, and the other four were toward the middle of the city and were already somewhat integrated.

To desegregate, the district divided the city into four zones, each spanning from the hills to the flatlands. In each zone, one of the four flatland schools was designated for grades four through six, and at least two schools located mid-city and in the hills were designated for kindergarten through third grades.

This plan required extensive busing with 3,500 out of 9,000 elementary students required to be bused, according to a 1977 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The plan continued until 1993 when the district decided to switch to its first “controlled choice” integration plan. The new plan divided the district into three elementary school zones: northwest, central, and southeast—again running from the hills and flatlands. The district was then split into 445 “planning areas,” which were each about four to eight city blocks. Using census data, each area was then analyzed by race and ethnicity. This was done so each elementary school reflected the racial and ethnic distribution of the surrounding planning area, according to a 2009 report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. In 2004, the district implemented a revised “controlled choice” plan that included socioeconomic status as a measure.

The school district categorizes each zone on a scale of one to three based on demographic data. “If in a particular school zone, 50 percent of the neighborhoods are category three, then roughly 50 percent of the students should be category three,” explained Ty Alper, BUSD school board director.

The plan was challenged several times after California passed Proposition 209, which prohibits discriminatory or preferential use of race or ethnicity in public education. In 2003, the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation sued Berkeley, alleging that the plan violated Prop. 209. But an Alameda County Superior Court judge disagreed, ruling that Berkeley’s desegregation program was legal because race was just one of several factors considered, and it was not used to grant any preferential or discriminatory treatment.

Alper said he’s proud of Berkeley’s current plan and how it’s ensured socioeconomic and racial diversity that’s been upheld by the courts. But he acknowledges that there are always challenges with integration that are difficult to resolve.

“There’s de-facto segregation and social segregation that we’ve tried to address,” he said. “That is a real concern that’s difficult to figure out how to resolve.”


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