Cultural & Racial Diversity in Berkeley Public Schools

Parent Q&A

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  • Hello!

    My husband and I are an affluent African-american couple (Pharmacist and Googler) who currently own a home in the peninsula. We have a 1 and 2 year old toddler and do not wish to raise them here in the peninsula due to the lack of other affluent African- Americans in our community (and along the peninsula overall). We plan on staying here for the next 2 years before Kindergarten. Can anyone recommend any great neighborhoods for purchasing a home near or in Berkeley where my kids can walk to attend great public schools, and have a more diverse experience growing up and us not worry about crime, race, or meeting others like themselves? We are also looking for areas accessible to stores, shopping, and a great social scene if desired.

    Before you make the move, you should research how Berkeley assigns public schools, because this may mean that walking to school is not possible. I know people that are not able to attend the schools closest to them, but love how diverse in a socioeconomic way this makes them. If Oakland is also on your radar, Crocker Highlands is a great neighborhood with a great elementary school, not as diverse as we would like, but still lovely in other ways. There certainly are families of all colors in the same ish tax bracket. Piedmont might also be more inclusive than certain Peninsula cities, but still very white. It is also a very small city, so there is a real sense of neighborly connection there for better or worse. I agree it's not for everyone. People who live there do walk to school and it is very child/family focused.

    Parts of South Berkeley are considered "historically" African-American and now have are quite a mixture. However, as the Save Black Berkeley ( movement can surely attest to, many in these communities are selling their homes and leaving. That said, there are definitely upper middle class African Americans in Berkeley neighborhoods from all points west of Sacramento and Alcatraz to University. 

    Hi there.  I would recommend El Cerrito and a few neighborhoods in Richmond.  Fairmont and Harding are both good schools and their cachement areas are very walkable and diverse. If you're worried about the test scores you can move to the hills and send your kids to Madera, but it's mostly white and Asian up there, also you'll need to drive.  Richmond Hills families go to Mira Vista, which is a sweet little K-8 school in the hills, incredibly diverse in every way, with a strong parent community.  Depending on where you live your kids can walk there.  They have a good library, computer lab, band and glee club, and teachers from Richmond Art Center. The numbers aren't as good as Madera but families in the district still transfer their kids to MV because it's a good school. My kid has friends from the neighborhood and I feel safe letting them tear around on their bikes together.  I have friends who live up in Hilltop in some of the developments.  There are a lot of professional class AA families there, although I don't think they send their kids to the local school.  If you want more info you could contact Mocha Moms of West Contra Costa.  They're online and a great group.

    I'm a white mom in Berkeley.  As noted by a previous poster, BUSD assign schools very differently than other districts.  The city is divided into 3 diagonal zones. You are assigned to a zone based on your address.  Within the zone, you declare a preference of elementary schools.  And 2/3's of families get their 1st or 2nd pick, which means 1/3 gets their 3rd pick or not even!  This does result in a bit of schlepping around town, but the upside is... all of the schools are good, and all of the schools are diverse!  And pretty darned similar.  If you visit some of the schools, they will start to all look alike to you. Middle schools are assigned based on address.  Apart from one "magnet" middle school, although so far I haven't figured out what it's a magnet for?  Technology maybe? There's only one HS, so everybody goes there.  

    The affluent African American families that I know mostly live in the hills (a typically somewhat affluent area), although I can think of one family that lives near San Pablo Park (a typically middle class area.)  Of course, you own a house on the peninsula, so you can probably afford to buy or rent a house in Berk, and you know that a middle class house in Berk would buy you a mansion in most of the rest of the country.  

    If I had to guess, the most diverse area of Berkeley including affluent and not-so affluent folks of all colors would be around Berkeley Bowl.  But no matter what elementary school you attend, I think you will find a community including some affluent black and brown folks.  I would guess a better sense of community here than on the Peninsula.  School tours are starting soon if you want to come take a look.  Some schools require you to sign up for the tour, but many allow you to just show up.  

    ps I would guess Albany is a little whiter in general than Berkeley, and El Cerrito less affluent in general.  Also, you can search for the city of Berkeley crime map.  Crime is predictably centered around commercial streets like University, Shattuck, San Pablo & College, and also near UCB.  A little more in South Berk, a little less in the north.  Probably more than on the peninsula in general.  Hope this helps!

Parent Reviews

Experiences vary, but many of my BHS black students as well as the black children who were in my child’s cohort from middle class families did well, and attended UCs and excellent private colleges. It wasn’t always comfortable because some of the AP/Honors classes had few black students in them. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Berkeley schools with Latino/a students?

May 2011

We are looking for a good public elementary schoool in Berkeley which has a good number of Latino/a students. Any suggestions or recommendations? Thank you very much. Lara

There are two Spanish/English dual immersion schools in Berkeley: Cragmont and Le Conte. We attended Le Conte last year, and many of the kids in the dual immersion track were Latino/Latina. But many of them also did not live in Berkeley, so be prepared for play dates in Richmond and Oakland. There are also a number of schools in Oakland that have a lot of Latino/a kids, including charter schools, which are open to all kids regardless of where they live, so you might want to look in to that too. Berkeley mom

My kids are both latino and they will both be attending kindergarten this fall at Cragmont, at least one in dual immersion Spanish/English, and we do live in Berkeley. We do know of a few other latino kids from Berkeley who will also be attending Cragmont this coming school year. Dorian

White flight from public schools by 4th and 5th grade?

Jan 2007

I have been making the tours of the Berkeley public schools in my zone and I was wondering if anyone else has noticed the disturbing trend of fewer and fewer white kids as the grades progress? In one school, for example, there were five white kids in 3rd grade, two in 4th and none in the 5th grade classroom. Where are these kids? And why are they leaving???? anon

In my younger son's North Oakland public school, the upper grades lean much more to poorer minority kids. In the 4th and 5th grades there are hardly any ''white'' kids, but in kindergarten it's mostly white with a few chinese, indian, and mixed race families. It's obvious to me that every year less and less working class people live in the neighborhood. And somehow the people who had to pay 750,000 for a two bedroom house decide that this public school is okay with them. I don't mean to be so cynical, because it's not really anyone's fault (although it is everyone's fault) and my shy little white boy gets the best of both worlds, but I do like a bit of socioeconomic diversity! Part of the problem, I guess.

The same thing happens in Oakland, and probably in many California public schools, I'm afraid. They're going to private school for the last year or two of elementary so they'll be better equipped to 1) get into private junior and/or high schools; and 2) to deal with the workload at private upper schools. -Typical for the Bay Area.

''White Flight'' is a phrase with many assumptions. Do you have enough multi-year data to see a true trend for your zone or for the one specific shool you provided an example for, or is this just your hunch? Do you know that the classes were actually more diverse in previous years and that they changed? (Has 4th and 5th always been less diverse or is it those two groups of kids that became less diverse as they progressed through the school?). Did the kids leave BUSD or did they transfer to another BUSD school? Do you really know the racial backgrounds of each of the children you observed, or the racial backgrounds of their parents (were they adopted?). There are many mixed race children and many mixed race families in Berkeley. When kids do leave a school, then there is a specific reason for each kid leaving. If you, in fact, have enough multi-year information to see a true trend, then you should consider if conditions have changed and indeed improved at the schools you were observing. Was there a change in administration? Was there an issue with school morale or environment previously? If there was an issue, has it been addressed and are conditions improving? Do current 2nd and 3rd grade families plan to move out of the schools you were at, or not? The only way you can find true answers is to ask individuals who left or trnasfered within BUSD schools before 4th or 5th grade and ask them why. You can get second-hand information from going to the kindergarten fairs where you can speak with parents of current students. From my personal current experience at one berkeley public elementary school, and thinking of my frends with elementary school age kids elsewhere in Berkeley, I do not see attrition of ''white'' kids. I see that kids (of any race) in BUSD elementary schools are for the most part staying there, and kids in private elementary schools are staying there. I see that a few, but not many, BUSD kids switch to private school for junior high, and that many of those go on to the challenged but very good Berkeley High. They are joined there by other kids who have been in private school since K. Most of the parents of ''white'' kids are glad to be in Berkeley's diverse schools. And the information I have heard from folks who track population trends in Berkeley is that the city (and therefore its schools) are becoming less diverse and more ''white''. So looking at Berkeley as a whole, there actually is not ''white flight'', but rather gentrification. I am one ''white'' chick (probably among many) who does not consider this to be good news. BUSD Mom

This is not unique to Berkeley and I'm not sure I would call it ''white flight'', maybe more accurate to say ''middle class flight''. I hear lots of African-American and Latino parents saying they have doubts about the upper grades in elementary schools and about enrolling in public middle school.

I think the kind of migration you are observing happens for 2 reasons:

(1) Many families who have attended a small elementary school are reluctant to enroll in a large middle schools and some of them drift away beginning in 4th grade. I have a mixed race fourth grader and most of the kids in his classroom are the same ones he started out with. His cohort has stayed together pretty well but now that we are all approaching middle school, I see parent looking at other options--charter, private, other public schools, etc. I'm not sure how many will end up with him at our local middle school.

(2) Most parents feel that the best thing about public school is reduced class size. Unfortunately, our legislature stopped at 3rd grade so parents often hit larger sized classrooms and decide that they want to bail on public schools.

Most of them end up returning to public schools in high school so I wish middle class parents would consider staying in the public middle schools (and work to make them better). Also, it would be helpful if the inflexible bureacrats who run school districts could think outside the box for a change--maybe consider offering a few more options for worried parents--i.e., K-8, 7-12, smaller middle schools, etc.

How do kids from different socioeconomic 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