Berkeley Parent Tells How School Integration Plan Got Done: It Was Like 'Civil War'

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Berkeley High School 2013 graduating class. (Berkeley Unified School District/Flickr)

When Bruce Wicinas' daughter was about to enter kindergarten, he went to visit his neighborhood elementary school in Berkeley. "It was culture shock," he said.

This was Berkeley in 1990, decades after the city had first integrated its schools in 1968.  Many white parents had left for private schools.

"I had attended all-white suburban schools near Pittsburgh where kids were pretty submissive," said Wicinas. He worried about whether to send his daughter: "Our oldest daughter seemed to us fragile. We worried how she would fare in an environment containing lots of kids who had already seen a rough side of life. And I said to my wife, 'I think we should send her to private school.' "

But his wife was a foreign national who had grown up in schools all over the world. She told him, no way. So Wicinas decided to start participating at the school, LeConte Elementary, to learn more about what was going on and to meet other parents. It was a pivotal moment. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 had propelled Berkeley into raising more money to shore up schools, and there were calls to rethink how schools were integrated. By 1992, parents and the district were deep into an attempt to make schools more equitable across the district. But the process quickly became a personal and political nightmare, Wicinas said.

"By the beginning of 1993, Berkeley was completely balkanized. There was almost a local war," he said. "The district tried to handle this themselves, but it was beyond them. The whole city became so divisive. The hills and the north had one idea of what was going to happen and the south, the flatlands, where I live, had another idea. Basically, a number of our schools were naturally integrated so we couldn’t even understand why the district wanted to explode the whole thing in order to improve integration. And we liked our schools the way they were. So it was on the verge of civil war."

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Wicinas started attending meetings, and he could see the district needed help. The district administrator found out he had computer skills and drafted him to write  computer code for the district's archaic software. But he says it took outside facilitators and years of dogged meetings between delegates from each of the district's elementary schools to hash out how the new enrollment system would work.

Their first attempt, which took three years to agree upon, was to control for three racial populations: white, black and "other."

The initial results were startling. "When we first ran the program in 1995, an astonishingly large number of people got their first choices. But that outcome was the result of a lot of back work," Wicinas said. "Because if everyone chooses the same school as their first choice, it’s not going to happen. You have to make sure as many schools as possible are magnetic and have something to offer, so parents will make different choices."

Wicinas said district enrollment went up, defying expectations. Families who had left the district for private schools seemed to be returning. But in 1996,  California passed Proposition 209, and the Berkeley district began to worry it would be sued for using race as a criterion for enrollment assignments. The superintendent asked residents to return in 1999 and retool the system to rely mostly on income and education levels. Wicinas was part of that effort, too, which was completed in 2003.

That plan, still in effect today, took the step of dividing the district into three socioeconomic levels. The team carved up the city into 445 little chunks and assigned each location a rating based on census information about parents' income level, education level and "percent nonwhite," the latter being weighted less in the formula. Parents were given three choices for schools and the assignment process was managed centrally, using the software. No one could drop into the central office and lobby to have their child placed in their favorite school, Wicinas said. Gaming the system was something that had often happened in the past.

The district's new integration plans survived several lawsuits over the years. It was sued over its initial plan after Proposition 209 passed, and then the revised plan also overcame lawsuits in 2007 and 2009. The courts eventually allowed the retooled assignment formula to stand. Though race was a component, the courts decided the district was not looking at individual student's racial identity, but rather the racial makeup of the district's small geographical areas. Berkeley's integration plan is now seen as a national model for districts that want to attempt socioeconomic integration.

Can Oakland and Other Districts Do the Same?

Wicinas believes it would be harder to involve a larger citizenry in this kind of process. But not impossible.

"To do integration in the community you need people’s buy-in because if they don’t buy in, they will exit. Those who can will," he said. "Then you have schools with much more of the population's proportion of poor and nonwhite people. The people have to have lots of authorship and ownership of the process. It can't be imposed."

It's a tough process, but Wicinas says choosing to integrate the way Berkeley did is a question that comes down to your basic personal values and what you think is important in life.  There is evidence that there are long-term positive impacts for African-American kids in desegregated schools, and benefits for white kids. Some researchers say it's necessary to close the achievement gap.  There is still an achievement gap in Berkeley.

Wicinas isn't convinced desegregating schools by race and class alone closes the achievement gap. And the district itself acknowledged the ongoing issue with its 2020Vision plan. But he said, "When you integrate schools, you are basically minting a different type of person." Kids who attend integrated schools have a different view of the world, he says, one that is needed in a country as diverse as ours.

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"People who have gone to all pretty much segregated schools, like some of my relatives, and people I grew up with, they fashion a life for themselves that looks like that in the future, and that’s not where America is going," Wicinas said. "I don’t think it’s really good for any of us."