Berkeley Public Schools vs. Oakland Public Schools

Parent Q&A

  • Hi Parents! 

    My husband, baby (8 months!) and I currently live in Oakland. We are committed to public schools and have a plan to move by the time he's old enough to go to Kindergarten.  I would love advice on the pros and cons of both the Oakland and Berkeley public school systems.  We would want our next home to be someplace we could stay through K-12, so just as interested in hearing about middle and high schools, as well as great elementary schools in the area. 

    Thank you so much! 

    Piedmont, Berkeley, Albany, Alameda, and Castro Valley all have better overall public school systems (K - 12) than Oakland on this side of the tunnel. If you are willing to go through the tunnel, then Lamorinda area, Walnut Creek, San Ramon, Danville all have great public school systems.  Oakland has a handful of great schools but you will need to select where you live very carefully. I think there is a small portion of Rockridge area where you are zoned for Hilcrest for lower grades and Oakland Tech for high school. We live in Oakland in an area with a good elementary school and Oakland Tech (the most popular high school) but our middle school is weak, and we intend to choose private school for middle school.

    You've got a few years yet. Any school is good if parents are involved and participate with their community.

    Recent threads have discussed how Oakland schools are merging for budgetary and shrinking attendance reasons.  This phenomenon is happening throughout the Bay Area and is most evident in larger school districts.  Try to keep an open mind.  Smaller school districts such as Piedmont are being financially bailed out by parents and the local community.  My advice would be to find neighborhoods where the majority of the kids actually attend their local area attendance school.  This will create many more opportunities for friendships (and mischief-making).  A supportive community is involved and will help a school to survive and thrive.

Archived Q&A and Reviews



Berkeley or Oakland for Public Elementary Schools?

March 2015

We just moved to the Bay Area (Oakland) from New York, and have about one year before we will be applying for my older son's Kindergarten. I am doing as much research as I can on my own, but could really use the HELP and wisdom of this parent community!

We are currently renting in a neighborhood with a questionable (I've heard) school: Piedmont Ave. Elementary. We are starting to look to buy a house, and want to make sure we buy in a neighborhood with an elementary school that will be great for both of my sons over the next 10 years. Right now, I am trying to determine the differences in character/quality between the ''good'' schools in Oakland (Chabot/Hillcrest/Thornhill/Peralta) and the Berkeley public schools, in order to focus our move on Berkeley or Oakland. I understand the different zoning systems, and I know that Oakland is a lottery whereas Berkeley is zoned. My impression is that ALL Berkeley public elementary schools are ''good'' whereas Oakland is ''hit or miss'' and there's more pressure to get into one of the top schools. I am personally more attracted to Berkeley's model of public education, as it represents more equity and diversity, but I really don't know anything about the individual schools or, really, what ''good'' means. So, a few questions: 1) How would a school like Chabot or Peralta, for example, compare to a school like Cragmont or Thousand Oaks, for example? 2) Is there something core to Berkeley schools that differs them in character from Oakland schools? Does one district tend to be more ''common core'' test-centered, for example? Are Berkeley schools more socioeconomically/racially diverse? How does PTA involvement differ between the districts?

I would really appreciate help in sorting all this out - please share any feedback you can give, including on questions I might not have thought to ask! Thanks so much. Mom to two seeking good public school for the long haul

BUSD over OUSD. This is based on our experiences (6 years) in OUSD (hills school), and hearing about friends experiences in BUSD. We have never been in BUSD ourselves. anon

The Berkeley schools (and libraries and parks) are funded at a much higher level than the ones in Oakland. The funding comes from a parcel tax, so taxes are higher (I always feel so grateful to the older people in Berkeley who vote reliably for the school taxes, even though their children are grown and gone.) The higher funding means smaller class sizes, music, art, and more specialty classes. It also means that all of the schools are ''good'' and have a similar level of resources. The PTAs raise money in both districts, but less of the money needs to go for basic needs in Berkeley. anon

I can't speak for Oakland schools, but do hear that you are accurate about hit or miss for K-5. By the way, Berkeley does have zones, but you also enter a lottery in your own zone, so it is like Oakland in that respect. You don't get to just pick a neighborhood and choose your school... Also, 10 years includes middle school, and I hear the middle schools aren't so good in Oakland... I have kids at Berkeley High (went to Longfellow Middle), Willard Middle, and an elementary BUSD school. So far we have had a very good experience with elementary and middle. Yes, the schools are very diverse, which brings a rich quality to the experience my children are having; they meet kids who are all different colors, speak a multitude of languages, and come from a huge variety of life experiences. The PTA participation is not very high, but I don't remember it being high when I was a child either. A few dedicated parents do a LOT of work. That's just the way it is. BUSD is not perfect, by any means, but they do a very good job with the diverse student body who attends the schools. We have found the teachers to be excellent, overall, and very dedicated to the kids. I say if you're planning to do public schools, Berkeley is your best bet in the long run. BUSD Mom of 3

Sorry I am so late in responding. I am a Peralta parent and Peralta pride runs deep. It is my opinion that you can't get a better elementary education in the East Bay than at Peralta! But having said that, I don't think children need to have the very best in order to thrive, and there are lots of good to great elementary schools in Oakland that are not on your short list of four schools (Montclair, Glenview, Crocker, Sequoia, to name a few). And I think you can't go wrong with any of the elementary schools in Berkeley either, and they do have that benefit of smaller class sizes.

But I wonder why you are only asking about elementary schools? Those six years fly by and then you have seven more years of middle and high school to consider. I think Berkeley is more consistent in their offerings in this regard, so if you want to have very little risk in your school choices, go for Berkeley. I also have a child in an OUSD middle school, and while I don't have the love for the school, like I do for Peralta, I do think he is getting a solid education and we have met tons of great families at his school. But you must have a stomach for TRUE diversity--your middle class culture will not be the dominant one and you have to be okay with that. Lots of people aren't, even though they hate to admit it. In Berkeley, your middle class culture will likely be the dominant one, K-12. So in summary, OUSD offers lots of great elementary schools, okay middle schools, and a large variation in high schools. From what I can tell, Oakland Tech seems very similar to Berkeley High in terms of offerings, test scores, college placements, and size, and I am greatly looking forward to our years there.

Oakland mom who used to be a Berkeley mom

We have our choice of Berkeley or Oakland - which one?

April 2011

My family just moved to Berkeley and we have Oakland services so our choice of school districts. I am wondering which is better for elementary school. My daughter is entering K and has been assigned Kaiser in Oakland. We await the Berkeley June lottery. John Muir and Emerson are both very close by. Assuming she can get one of those, which is better - Oakland or Berkeley elementary? Is this apples and oranges?

Full disclosure - I am a Berkeley School Board Director. I will leave more subjective discussions of this topic to others BUT will say that Berkeley public schools are generously supported by citywide parcel taxes that have greatly assisted the School District in maintaining a lot of programs, such as small class sizes, music and art, enrichment classes, sports, and academic support that other school districts, such as Oakland are no longer able to support. While upcoming State budget cuts will undoubtly impact Berkeley, they are likely to be devastating to Oakland as Oakland has already had to reduce programs and even close schools to meet PAST budget deficits (Berkeley has been able to balance the District budget with minimal impact to classroom learning as yet). Also since Berkeley has a school assignment program designed to balance schools socio-economically, there is far less disparity among school populations and resources between schools than in Oakland. Karen Hemphill

It is a difficult question to answer (Which is better: Emerson (BUSD), John Muir (BUSD) or Chabot (OUSD). Ideally you'd find a family with exactly your family's needs and interests, that had a child or children that attended all three schools. But, there are, perhaps, too many variables: Each child's own needs and strengths, each family's interests and concerns, and the fact that the exact community that was at a school in the past will not be there next year. The combined community of families, students, principal and teachers changes every year to some degree. Given that, I encourage you to not seek which is ''best'', but discuss the attributes of a given school community with families that have been there for more than a year. Also ask them about their school district, and how they feel the individual school will do in the face of budget cuts at the state and district levels. Do they see continued community support for the schools? How is District leadership? Will the PTA and others be able to continue picking up the slack in funding? Is there a broad-based diverse and active PTA? Are parents and other community members involved in the classroom? And then consider what your daily routine will be like getting your student to and from school. Is there an after school program on site? How is the parking (if you need to drive). Anon

Personally, I think that Berkeley schools are great. Thanks to higher property taxes in Berkeley, Berkeley public schools are better funded, so they have lower teacher-student ratios (20-1, plus teacher's aides) and more money for all the extras (libraries, music, gardening, cooking, PE, theater, etc etc). You'd be in the Berkeley SE zone which has three fantastic schools and one good school (with a fantastic principal so it's probably on its way to becoming a great school). Good luck with whatever you decide. BUSD fan

If I were you, I'd go with Kaiser. In Oakland, most kids get to go to their neighborhood school, which means kids can walk to school together, have playdates after school with kids in the neighborhood, and hang out at their school's playground outside of school hours. In Berkeley, there are no neighborhood schools except for the very lucky or the very persistent.

I live in the Southeast Zone just down the street from John Muir, a one minute walk from our house. Emerson is 15 minutes away on foot. We were assigned to Le Conte, which is a 35 minute walk from our house. We never met any kids at Le Conte that were from our side of town. Every playdate we had, we were driving to the other side of town (or to Oakland - lots of kids from Oakland in our child's class for whatever reason). This might not be a big deal for you, but for us, it was a pretty big disruption. I don't know any families in Elmwood or Claremont who were assigned to the schools in Elmwood or Claremont. Many of the families ended up not staying with public school. It sounds like you live in this area, so the odds are that your kid will NOT be assigned to the two schools you mentioned. But you can always wait to see what you get in the lottery. OTOH Kaiser has an excellent reputation, and there are so many benefits to being in a neighborhood school, that I would go with Kaiser.


June 2008

We are interested in moving to Oakland or Berkeley and want to know which school district is better overall. From what I understand, OUSD has good elementary schools if you can afford to live in one of the more affluent neighborhoods, but then the middle schools and especially high schools are pretty challenging. From what I have heard about BUSD, the elementary schools vary widely and the kids from the neighborhood don't all go to the same school because of the different zones (how does that translate as far as neighborhood cohesiveness, kids playing together, etc.?). I have heard the middle schools are okay depending on where you go and Berkeley High is good if you are the right kind of student. So, the question is, as a parent, is it better to move to Oakland or Berkeley for the best education for my kids? what to do?

As an Oakland parent, I'd have to say BUSD is preferable hands down. Yes, there are some ''good'' (it's all relative) schools in Oakland, but those schools are more and more crowded and now many of them cannot accommodate all their neighborhood children, who are then redirected to other schools. But, the main issue as far as I can see is that OUSD's curricular choices are much more uninspiring than BUSD's. In Oakland, you have a lot of No Child Left Behind pressures behind the curriculum choices. This has led to pushing reading instruction down into kindergarten where 2/3 of children are not developmentally ready to read. As a result, the teachers spend an INORDINATE amount of time on scripted phonics lessons, drills, and totally boring, uninspired tasks. There are great teachers in both systems, but I believe the Oakland schools' teachers' hands are more tied by the curriculum than in Berkeley. Then, the middle school and high school choices in Oakland seem more limited and iffy than the Berkeley choices. If you have the money to choose where to live, you might consider Piedmont (where they have retained developmental kindergartens) or possibly Lamorinda. Just my two cents . . .

''Better'' is totally subjective, and depends on a lot of factors. For a slightly objective criteria, you could consider that Berkeley has a substantial parcel tax that it dedicates to its schools, allowing for a lot of ''extras'' that don't have to be fund-raised year after year. Oakland doesn't. I can tell you what we did. We lived in one of the best areas of Oakland for elementary, but chose to send our child to a charter school in Oakland, whcih drew kids from all over. A very tight community, probably tighter than ''neighborhood'' schools. When our child was in 5th grade we moved to Berkeley for the middle and high school and are now considering whether to stick with the charter school for our youngest or send her to a Berkeley elementary. anon

We have 3 kids in OUSD elementary school and if we had it to do over again, we'd probably buy in Berkeley instead. What you've heard about the 2 districts is essentially correct. OUSD has about 4 good elementary schools and about 3 more that are ''getting better'' due to heavy parental involvement and fundraising. I don't know much about the middle schools but what I've been told is that there is 1 good one, and 3 or so that are ''getting better''. If you have a budding engineer then Oakland Tech's tracked engineering program will send your kid off to the top ivys, but otherwise ''challenging'' is a kind way of describing the general HS options in Oaklan. Another thing to keep in mind about OUSD elementary schools is that the after school care is pretty weak and doesn't even come close to meeting demand (if you don't get your application in the 1st day then you're on the waiting list forever). It's also very expensive for what you get (monitored playground time).

A close friend of mine with kids the same age has her daughter in Emerson in Berkeley and they do a MUCH better job of tailoring the work to more advanced students. At OUSD they do little to no tracking of kids - everyone gets the same work and the same assignments regardless of their level. It's been extremely frustrating for one of my 1st graders who is bored stiff and we have taken to ignoring the homework that is sent home and are giving her more advanced work to do.

I'll let the BUSD parents talk about their district but I will say that I'd beg, borrow and steal to get my kids into Berkeley High (tracked program or IB program) before I'd ever put them into an Oakland high school the way things stand today. Depressed OUSD mom