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Report Lauds “Model” of School Diversity

A school integration plan that takes into account the demographics of a student’s neighborhood rather than the student’s race when making school assignments has been endorsed by University of California researchers as a model for other school districts seeking to maintain diversity.

The elementary schools in the Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District are well integrated, and the district’s integration plan is constitutionally sound, according to a report released Tuesday by The Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity at UC-Berkeley’s School of Law, and the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.

Public school districts around the country have been challenged to meet such goals since a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision endorsed the importance of creating diverse schools, but limited assignment to public schools based upon a student’s race. The ruling stemmed from challenges to integration plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. I , and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, parents sued the respective school districts, arguing their desegregation plans relied too heavily on race to determine school population. 

“Berkeley has had a succession of plans for four decades, showing a continuing commitment to avoiding the resegregation which has been so severe in the country, and particularly intense in California, during recent decades,” Dr. Gary Orfield, UCLA professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, told Diverse.

“The importance of the Berkeley plan now is that it appears to provide a way communities can continue to integrate their schools voluntarily and still comply with the severe barriers erected by the Supreme Court in the 2007 Seattle and
Louisville cases,” Orfield added.

Researchers examined the racial composition of each elementary school in the Berkeley district, comparing their findings to the district-wide racial makeup of the elementary school student population. The authors determined various ethnic groups to be over- or underrepresented in a school if their makeup deviated by more than 10 percent from the district-wide racial composition.

Eight of the city’s 11 elementary schools were found to be well integrated, according to the report, “Integration Defended: Berkeley Unified’s Strategy to Maintain School Diversity.” One school had a slightly higher proportion of Black students, and two with Spanish-language immersion programs had somewhat higher proportions of Latino students.

Researchers lauded the Berkeley school district for achieving substantial integration in a city whose neighborhoods are ethnically and socioeconomically divided. The district’s racial and ethnic population has become increasingly diverse since desegregation efforts began in the 1960s. By 2008, 30.5 percent of the students enrolled in its public schools were White, 25.8 percent African American, 16.6 percent were Latino, 7.1 percent were Asian, and 18.7 percent either in multiple categories, or did not specify ethnicity.

The city is divided into more than 440 micro-neighborhoods, called “planning areas,” with each area assigned a diversity code. The code is based upon the planning area’s average household income, highest level of education achieved by adults, and the percentage of students of color enrolled in elementary school. Parental preference for certain school is considered in the context of the diversity code. 

“Berkeley gets credit for assigning a diversity code to a planning area rather than to an individual student,” said report co-author Erica Frankenberg, research and policy director for the Initiative on School Integration at the UCLA Civil Rights Project. “That distinction is critical, and sets Berkeley’s plan apart from the ones…struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The district also  “provided transportation, conducted outreach, and tried to equalize schools so that all seem like good choices, and allowed students to be on multiple school waiting lists,” Frankenberg said.

The plan was devised in the late 1990s in response to limitations imposed by Proposition 209, the state law prohibiting the sole use of race, ethnicity or gender in determining public school enrollment. The Berkeley integration plan was upheld earlier this year by the California Supreme Court.

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