Social Life at Berkeley Public Schools

Archived Q&A and Reviews

How do kids from different socieconomic and racial backgrounds interact?

December 2006

I am curious about how kids from different socieconomic and racial backgrounds interact together in the Berkeley elementary schools. My child is entering kindergarten next year and we would like to send him to one of the schools in our zone. We know that the schools are diverse and think that is great. But my question is do the kids mix socially? Do they stick with kids like them or are they color/income level blind? And what happens if your child wants to go to a playdate or a birthday party at someone's house in a neighborhood that you aren't comfortable with? How do parents handle this? Can the kids have rich social life in these settings? I assume so but would love to hear some personal experiences. Thanks
Wanting my child to go to Berkeley Public Schools

My experience after four years with a child in a BUSD elementary school is that the kids are more or less color blind when it comes to friendship. Our child has friends from every ethnic and economic group at the school, despite the fact that we live in the hills, are upper middle class and caucasian. The only non-color blind part we have experienced so far is the remarkable awareness of various cultures that is institutionalized at the school through celebrations, language, music, dance and art programs and assemblies, to list a few ways this happens. It never occured to us to worry about sending our child to play or to a birthday party in a different type of neighborhood than ours. My experience with older nieces and nephews that have and are currently attending Berkeley public schools is that when they start so young building friendships with kids from different backgrounds, they are very comfortable continuing and nurturing these friendships over the years. We have been very impressed with the entire system and are glad that our child is learning that all kids are cool.
BUSD Parent

You asked the very questions that I have been dealing with. I am so impressed with your thinking of these things before they are upon you. My boy is in 2nd grade now & here is how it has been for us: Kids make friends and ask for playdates. You then have to deal with the parents. Most parents work full time and are pretty stressed for free time.

Some can swing it and you see their house and think no way am I leaving my kid alone here. Some are just like you more or less and you can trade days to pick up each others kids and have tea at pick up time. Some families are lovely but live in a place too small to have visiters and they feel awkward having the play at your place always.....

What all that boils down to is that yes we have ended up doing regular playdates with people that are mostly like us and kids that are in aftercare together hook up and....well the diversity is there in class and on the yard but it is so hard to hook up kids when you can't speak the parents language..
The best intentions......

In regards to your concerns about your child's social life in Berkeley public schools, I felt like I had to chime in: I have two children and between them we have about 6 years of experience in the Berkeley Public Schools. Yes, the schools are economically and racially/ethnically diverse. Your child will meet children from all kinds of backgrounds. However, my childrens' social experiences are a bit disappointing to me. But then, I am an idealist, and a shy one at that! My children have made friends with a couple of children, who they perhaps could only have met in their public school environment. However, for the most part, their friends tend to be children who come from similar racial/ethnic backgrounds as themselves. The class (social) issue is a little bit more fluid, but I wonder about that as they age. Wander around the environs of Berkeley High a bit, and one tends to see groupings of kids from similar ethnicities. I used to think that was because the High School kids were teenagers, and that is what one does at that age, but I am now beginning to think that the discomfort of ''difference'' is not really overcome or coped with well at an early age. This is a deep social issue, and in my more charitable moments I can't really fault the schools for not making more inroads in promoting better social relations among kids of differing ethnicities. At other times, though, I wonder......
A Sincerely Disappointed Parent

My son has been at a Berkeley public school since kindergarten (now in third grade), and his social life has been great. He has a diverse group of school friends and acquaintances. Kids at the elementary school level are less conscious of race/socioeconomic differences. Though I do observe that many Spanish-speaking kids will have closer friendships among themselves, mainly because of their shared language; and I do also think it's just a fact of life that kids will gravitate toward others with whom they share mutual interests and experiences, and often, these others are also kids of the same cultural or economic background as their own. As for playdates and birthday parties in undesirable homes or neighborhoods, that hasn't been an issue for us. I really don't think there are any ''bad'' neighborhoods in Berkeley, although maybe some people think *my house* is in a ''bad'' neighborhood! Our family makes an effort to get to know the parents of the friends my son socializes with, so we are comfortable with our son going to his friends' houses for playdates. Parties often take place not in homes but indoors at facilities like the Berkeley Y, or at a playground. If I had a problem with a parent (like if he/she was a drug user or displayed serious parenting deficits or something), I wouldn't be sending my child over to their house for a playdate anyway, regardless of where they live. I think elementary school in Berkeley is a great time for children to develop friendships with kids of other ethnicities/cutures/socioeconomic status, because as they get older, kids do gravitate toward others more like themselves racially and economically. Just observe the groups of kids at Berkeley High at lunchtime--and read ''Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race'' by Beverly Daniel Tatum.


Gangsta culture, foul language at 3rd-grade son's school

Jan 2006

We have been having problems this year with our third-grade son, who attends a Berkeley public school. It seems that most of the kids in his class have adopted ''gangsta'' culture behaviors which include unbelievable profanity directed at anyone who tries to even carry on a conversation with them. For example, he tells us that when he tries to talk to other kids, their response is usually ''Get your f--ing a-- out of here.'' Kids are routinely called ''bi---'' and he has overheard other third-graders threaten to kill each other. The other day he used this language to resist my request that he do his homework. I was devastated, as he does not hear it at home. We do not let him watch any TV except PBS once a week. He has been in this school since kindergarten, and this is considered one of Berkeley's high- performing schools. We have tried to talk to the teachers about it, to no avail. I have been having a running argument with my husband about this issue now for over a week, as I think it is time to send him to a private school. He is worried about the Berkeley PC police. I would like some feedback/advice from other Berkeley parents, and in particular, I'd like to know if this stuff is present on private school campuses.
grossed-out Mom

I think you're absolutely right to worry, even if it's not PC to say so. The fact is it's going to get worse, not better. The gangsta culture in public middle schools is pervasive - and middle school kids need & want to fit in -which means conforming to the group ethos. Although the attractiveness of 'ghetto'' - now an adjective meaning great btw. - is inescapable in our current culture - it is not embraced and glorified to the same extent in independent schools. My advice is to pull your son NOW. Give your son as many years as possible in an environment where he is allowed to develop without feeling compelled to emulate ghetto behavior in order to be cool and accepted. You do not have to accept 'ghetto' as 'great' even if you do live in Berkeley.
been there

I know there are some very good public schools in BUSD (as evidenced by many of the positive posts I have read about schools) and if what you described is true, I would be camping out in the school district offices asking for a transfer into one of them. I wouldn't wast my time agonizing over whether I should have chosen a private school. I would act quickly in my child's interest.

Whether a school is public, parochial, charter, or private, a consistent discipline policy is important. Our local public school (Harding in El Cerrito) is very diverse. We have a high percentage of African-American and Latino children but most are hard-working motivated students and I have not observed any of the behaviors you describe. We also have a somewhat vulnerable population of students (we are the hearing impaired elementary site for our district) so it is imprerative that everyone be treated respectfully. From what I can see, there are clear consequences for unacceptable behavior. I have spent a good amo unt of time in all my child's classrooms and almost all of the teachers are excellent classroom managers. All of our upper grade students receive training in conflict mediation, and they are encouraged to develop their leadership skills by mentoring younger students, serving as hall monitors, and becoming rainy day monitors.

In my child's third grade classroom, every student turns in their homework every day. A majority of the parents show up to help out with school events and many volunteer in the classrooms. This is typical of the best public school classrooms in OUSD, West County, BUSD, Alameda, and Albany. --tired of all the venting about BUSD

Both of my children went to Montessori Family School through the 3rd grade. The school places a strong emphasis on treating others with politeness, dignity and respect. The type of 'gangsta' behavior you describe was not present, and certainly would not be tolerated if brought to the faculty's attention. The same is true in the Albany public elementary school my daughter currently attends. My son says that some of this behavior occurs at the Albany public middle school. Still, I have not seen anything like the attitude you have described from my son or any of his friends or schoolmates. I am a bit puzzled, though, by the ''Berkeley PC police'' your husband is so concerned about: Who are they, and why do they hold such power over your child's education?

My son is a third grader at one of BUSD schools that is not typically considered a ''top'' choice and I am also a teacher in a BUSD middle school. I have been pleasantly surprised that in four years, my gentle, no TV son has not brought home this attitude you describe, other than typical Star Wars type light-saber battle language and antics, which I think are developmentally acceptable. I think you are right to be concerned and should continue to press this issue with the teachers, administration and other parents (probably the parents need to work together on this). Some of it is likely just developmental experimentation, but after a certain point, if the school and parents allow it to go unchecked, I believe that it can lead to a menacing environment and an unsafe, disrespectful emotional setting. I suggest you draw a really hard line at home regarding this kind of language and actively follow-up at the school. Good luck. At my middle school, although we do not always catch the playground banter, we teachers try to be very strict in the classrooms and the hallways about addressing this kind of threateni ng and bullying use of language. Mary

Yes, I saw this in the BUSD though not till the 4th grade. My experience is a few years old. I guess I was not so much bothered by the bad language as by the acceptance of rudeness toward others that was widely accepted and tolerated. I don't think it made my kids into rude obnoxious kids - seeing others behave badly didn't override what they learned at home. But it did engender a certain amount of acceptance of rude behavior. This is not good. I don't blame you for being concerned and I think it's reasonable to consider alternatives. a BUSD mom

I was shocked to read your posting- that kind of language in 3rd grade??! And the teacher shrugging it off? We live in Berkeley, and chose to send both of our kids to private school (now in 4th and 7th grade) for a variety of reasons. I can't imagine this kind of talk being tolerated at either of the schools they attend. Maybe someone would test it out, but if any adult in the community heard it, s/he would speak to the child about it immediately. If a parent brought this concern to the teachers, I think the staff would initiate a conversation with the child, parents and probably the whole class. In both schools we are in, there is a circle time at some point in the day where any classroom business is brought up and any issues about class relationships, classroom rules and respect, etc.. can be discussed- teasing, any excluding of people, disrespect of people or materials... Ground rules are set up early in the year, with input from the kids, and are refered back to throughout the year. I think we can expect kids to try out swearing language quietly amongst their peers, but to hear that this is being directed at adul ts (OK, maybe later when he's 15 would be understandandable) is just awful.
grossed out with you

This type of language at any school, public or private, should not be tolerated. My son is in the 4th grade at a Berkeley public school also. I would not start at looking at changing schools but at speaking with other parents, talking to his teachers, staff and principal, and addressing this with the PTA. Kids sometimes think that they are being cool when they are imitating what they see. Don't let this pass but also help your son's classmates and school. Kristine

I cannot speak for other Berkeley schools, but you are very right to be alarmed by what your son is hearing and repeating at home. If you haven't yet spoken to the princ ipal, you should, and if you still don't get a response, take it higher up to the district or a school board member. You deserve to have the school staff at the very least looking into and addressing the problem. If you are still unsatisfied, by all means, look into other options, even if they aren't PC. Your son's well being is more important than any perceptions about your decisions. Good Luck

I am worried that the teacher did not respond to your concerns, because this is a real concern. Maybe you could contact the principal? It worries me that very often people will excuse this behavior and downplay its potency. However, children need to be corrected and taught that this language is not appropriate for school, their age, or others to hear. Good Luck anon