This year marks the anniversary of a landmark achievement for the Berkeley Unified School District and for racial equity in education nationwide. It was 50 years ago, in 1968, that Berkeley made headlines for its pioneering busing plan to fully integrate the city’s public schools.
Though the achievement may seem emblematic of Berkeley’s progressive leadership, it was by no means certain at the time. It was adopted only after intense community debate, protests and even a recall election against the School Board members who supported desegregation.
Although some other school districts across the country had earlier fostered integration efforts to varying degrees before 1968, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, Berkeley was generally recognized as the first sizeable city with a substantial proportion of black students to do so voluntarily in all schools with two-way busing, which meant not only busing black kids to what had been predominantly white schools in the hills but also busing white kids to what had been predominantly black schools in the flats.
It was “the boldest desegregation plan yet devised in a city exceeding 100,000 population,” according to a 1968 study by UC Riverside and the Riverside Unified School District.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Berkeley African-American Leaders
A year before the BUSD buses started rolling, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lamented in September 1967, just months before he was assassinated, that his dream of little black boys and girls and little white boys and girls learning side by side “had grown dim, as had many of my dreams of racial equality.” But then, he said, he learned about the bold Berkeley integration plan that was to begin in September 1968.
“Hope returned to my soul and spirit,” he wrote in the foreword to the book, Now Is the Time: Integration in the Berkeley Schools, authored by BUSD’s Superintendent in 1968, Neil Sullivan.
Multiple tributaries of influence flowed into Berkeley’s accomplishment in 1968, but locally it can be traced to African-American leaders in the late 1950s who raised their voices about segregation in the city. The NAACP under the leadership of Rev. Roy Nichols pushed for change and issued their “Statement of the Committee on the Berkeley Schools and the Berkeley NAACP.” Although initially unresponsive, the School Board agreed six months later, in June 1958, to study the issue and appointed The Advisory Committee to Study Certain Racial Problems in the Berkeley Schools and Their Effect on the Community.
Stark Segregation – Studies, Proposals, Community Battles, 1959-1968
A key step came with the committee’s report – informally called the Staats Report after its chairman, Judge Redmond Staats, and officially titled, “Interracial Problems and Their Effect on Education in the Public Schools of Berkeley, California,” dated Oct. 19, 1959. The report exposed what former BUSD Superintendent Sullivan called “the inequities of Berkeley’s Little Rock.”
The report documented the city’s segregated housing patterns, with whites in the hills and blacks in the flats, as well as the poor quality of schools serving black students.
By the spring of 1962, frustrated members of the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) demanded action and were invited to make a presentation to the School Board, which the year before had seen a liberal majority oust the longstanding conservative hold on the Board. Agreeing with CORE’s request for a new, more comprehensive study, the Board established the 36-member Citizens’ Committee on De Facto Segregation.
“I am proud to know that it is my fellow Negroes who have pressed hardest for this victory supported by committed white parents,” Dr. King wrote in his 1967 forward about the ultimate outcome of the local African-American activism.
The NAACP and CORE actions set in motion the forces that led to a major eruption of public reaction in 1963. The report of the new committee – called the Hadsell committee after its chairman, minister John Hadsell – “struck the community like a bombshell,” Sullivan wrote in his book. The 112-page report, dated November 19, 1963, and titled “De Facto Segregation Study Committee Report,” reported data showing de facto segregation in 14 of the district’s 17 elementary schools and 2 of the 3 junior high schools.
The committee recommended desegregating the junior high schools by re-assigning some white students and black students to achieve greater racial balance. The ensuing debates galvanized Berkeley residents with community meetings drawing thousands of people. Record numbers crowded PTA meetings.
Junior High Desegregation Approved, School Board Recall Election, 1964
A “landmark in the history of Berkeley schools” was reached on May 19, 1964, when the School Board – in front of an audience of more than 2,000 people – approved the “Ramsey Plan,” a junior high desegregation measure named after the junior high teacher who recommended it. It called for converting the predominantly black Burbank Junior High into an all-city 9th grade school and dividing 7th and 8th graders between the other two junior highs.
The Board took the action despite a threat from a citizens’ group, the Parents Association for Neighborhood Schools, to hold a recall election if the Board approved a desegregation plan. It was not an empty threat.
With enough signatures gathered in a recall petition drive, the election was set for Oct. 6, with strong editorial support from the Berkeley Daily Gazette. “Move the School Board to Russia,” wrote one property owner in a local survey. The electorate, however, vindicated the School Board decision, beating back the recall effort with a 61% “no” vote.
Berkeley High, as the city’s only high school, was already integrated, and although the junior highs were now also integrated, the road to elementary desegregation – and thus complete district integration – still faced formidable opposition. “Busing” was still an unwelcome word in Berkeley. In 1964, when the School Board approved junior high desegregation, the Board tabled indefinitely a proposed elementary desegregation plan that would have required busing.
Fierce community debate flared again in late in 1965, along with almost nightly emotion-filled public meetings, after District staff proposed a pilot test of busing that would transfer 238 black students from overcrowded elementary schools in south and west Berkeley to primarily white schools in the middle and hills sections of the city where there was more space. The School Board approved it, and on Feb. 1, 1966, Berkeley embarked on a test ride of busing for integration.
The pilot was generally considered a success, except for the fact that it affected only a small percentage of students. Calls for full integration grew more insistent, triggering a new round of intense community debate.
Full integration, 1968
Finally, on Jan. 15, 1968, the School Board voted unanimously to desegregate all 14 of the District’s elementary schools the following September. The plan called for busing 3,500 of the District’s nearly 9,000 students, and its most striking feature perhaps was that, unlike other cities where busing occurred, both black and white students would be boarding buses in order to balance school populations.
The school integration plan divided the elementary schools into two groups, one for grades K-3 and one for 4-6. The K-3 schools would be those in the predominantly white hill and middle-Berkeley areas, while the 4-6 schools would be those that had large black student populations in the flatlands. The result was many black students rode a bus to attend grades K-3 and many white students rode a bus to attend grades 4-6. Students who lived close to their assigned schools were expected to walk or be transported by their families.
On Sept. 10. 1968, 30 new school buses rolled into the history books as they began the elementary school desegregation plan. The goal: integration in each school for a district whose student population at the time was listed as “50 percent Caucasian, 41 percent Negro and 9 percent Asian and other groups.”
Accompanying the change in demographics was an educational plan to implement the District’s goals, “An integrated school environment that lessens prejudice and discrimination. Each class heterogeneous, reflecting the community’s racial, socio-economic and intellectual diversity.”
|White & Black Composition of Berkeley Elementary Schools*, 1963 and 1969|
|Columbus||185 (23.7%)||566 (72.6%)||387 (57.3%)||247 (36.5%)|
|Cragmont||728 (92.6%)||12 (1.5%)||362 (54.4%)||273 (41.0%)|
|Emerson||301 (95.6%)||2 (0.6%)||173 (49.4%)||163 (46.6%)|
|Franklin||262 (26.1%)||639 (63.8%)||440 (47.4%)||375 (40.4%)|
|Grizzly Peak||93 (58.9%)||59 (37.3%)|
|Hillside||561 (96.6%)||3 (0.5%)||180 (60.0%)||153 (44.1%)|
|Jefferson||437 (58.9%)||96 (13.2%)||311 (46.5%)||243 (36.3%)|
|John Muir||400 (97.3%)||7 (1.7%)||229 (50.2%)||218 (47.8%)|
|LeConte||254 (52.4%)||181 (37.3%)||171 (44.5%)||175 (45.6%)|
|Lincoln||7 (0.9%)||750 (96.8%)||359 (47.9%)||342 (45.6%)|
|Longfellow||64 (6.9%)||830 (89.0%)||441 (42.1%)||541 (51.6%)|
|Oxford||310 (93.4%)||2 (0.6%)||176 (58.7%)||109 (36.3%)|
|Thousand Oaks||561 (95.1%)||15 (2.5%)||336 (53.4%)||253 (40.2%)|
|Tilden||75 (60.9%)||36 (29.3%)|
|Washington||287 (46.6%)||185 (30.0%)||252 (44.8%)||255 (45.4%)|
|Whittier||394 (85.1%)||21 (4.5%)||226 (46.0%)||201 (40.9%)|
|*Note that several schools changed names or closed since 1969
**”Caucasian” and “Negro” were the race category names used in BUSD records in the 1960s. “Caucasian” included students with Spanish surnames.
Fate of the Busing Plan
The racial makeup of Berkeley’s elementary schools changed dramatically overnight. But with ensuing population shifts and some “white flight” by families leaving the district, integration progress continued to face difficulties.
“By the early 1980s, 7 out of 12 elementary schools were racially imbalanced with African-Americans constituting over 53% of total enrollment at four of these schools.” according to a 2009 report by Lisa Chavez of the UC Berkeley Law School’s Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity and by Erica Frankenberg of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.
In 1994, the Berkeley School Board voted to phase out the 1968 plan and replace it with a new plan that still fostered integration and used buses but also allowed for family choice. A revision of that plan was approved in 2004 and remains the school-assignment system that BUSD uses today.
The current assignment system for elementary schools is intended to promote racial and socio-economic diversity in the schools. Broadly speaking, it divides the city into three attendance zones and allows families to request their top three preferences for elementary schools in their zone. (One choice for any zone can be the Spanish-English two-way immersion school, Sylvia Mendez Elementary.)
The BUSD assignment system incorporates a diversity profile of the family’s neighborhood as a factor in determining assignments. The city is divided into 445 micro-neighborhoods known as “planning areas,” each consisting of 4-8 blocks and tagged with three elements:
- Average household income
- Average parent/guardian educational level
- Percentage of students of color
These three elements are included so that students from differing neighborhoods can be assigned proportionally to schools. This system no longer uses the race of any individual student to make assignments but instead seeks to assure integration by an equitable distribution of students according to socio-economic and racial characteristics of the micro-neighborhood where the student resides. This change has been critical, enabling BUSD’s integration plan – unlike those of many other districts and schools in California and across the nation – to withstand California’s 1996 Prop 209, which banned preferential use of race in education, and court rulings that limited voluntary school desegregation plans.
“The Berkeley plan is a proven success that has been very well received by the courts,” according to the Chavez and Frankenburg report.
The Work Continues
Over the past 50 years, BUSD has continued its efforts to go beyond desegregation to achieve true integration and equity. Many of these activities and programs led to the 2020 Vision for Berkeley’s Children and Youth, often referred to simply as the “2020 Vision.” Initiated in 2008 and serving as a city-wide partnership involving BUSD, the City of Berkeley, UC Berkeley and Berkeley City College, the 2020 Vision was established with the goal of eliminating the racial predictability of academic and health outcomes for Berkeley’s youth.
The commitments and partnerships laid out as part of the 2020 Vision have paved the way for many of the priorities and programs that are funded as part of Berkeley’s Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). The Plan determines how BUSD allocates supplemental state funding that Berkeley Unified School District receives to serve the high need students in Berkeley’s public schools. (The state defines “high need” as those who are low income, English learners, and foster youth.).
As the school district continues to interrogate the underpinnings of educational excellence and equity, notable initiatives introduced in the current school year include the adoption of a new phonics curriculum as part of a balanced literacy program in grades K-3, and a new position designed to help African-American students in middle and high school who may be in need of extra academic support – the African-American Success Project Manager.
In addition, the newly inaugurated Superintendent’s Speaker Series, “Onward and Upward,” focuses on current challenges in addressing equity and excellence in education with speakers affiliated with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education (GSE). In November, “Talent Development for All Students” was the theme of a talk by Professor Frank Worrell, and in December, Dean of the GSE, Dr. Prudence Carter spoke on “Why Diversity is not Integration.” Two future speakers are:
- Professor Jabari Mahiri, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, on “Multicultural Education Beyond the Color-Bind,” Jan. 31, 7 p.m. Longfellow Middle School
- Richard Rothstein, Distinguished Fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America, March 5, 4:30 p.m., Berkeley High School Florence Schwimley Little Theater, 1980 Allston Way
The Superintendent’s Speaker Series was timed to coincide not only with the 50th anniversary of full integration in BUSD but also with the 50th anniversary of the birth of what became the African-American Studies Department at Berkeley High School, which as far as we know is the first and only such department in the nation. In the fall of 1968, following demands from the Black Student Union, a member of the school’s history staff, Clarence Hampton, was assigned to create a Black Studies curriculum, which began the following February. A year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary has included speakers, performances and a celebration dinner on December 15.
At the Berkeley Unified School District, we take pride in our diversity, and we pursue educational equity as a top priority. And while we celebrate our achievements over the past 50 years, we are keenly aware of the equity shortcomings that remain to be addressed. We are thankful for the continuing commitment of our students, families, staff and community partners as we pursue the fulfillment of our mission to enable and inspire our diverse student body to achieve academic excellence and make positive contributions to our world.
- Now Is the Time: Integration in the Berkeley Schools by Neil Sullivan with Evelyn Stewart, forward by Martin Luther King, Jr., Indiana University Press, 1969 (at Berkeley Public Library)
- “Integration Defended: Berkeley Unified’s Strategy to Maintain School Diversity” by Lisa Chavez and Erica Frankenberg, UC Berkeley Berkeley Law School Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity and UCLA Civil Rights Project, Sept. 2009
- “Berkeley’s Public Schools,” The Berkeley Revolution online archive
- “School Desegregation in Berkeley, California,” United States Commission on Civil Rights, Aug. 1977
- “Desegregation” (“Coming of Age in the Civil Rights Era: Experiencing Berkeley Public School Desegregation 1964-68”), Berkeley Public Library online video interviews
- “A radical decision, an unfinished legacy,” first installment of a three-part “Beyond the Buses” series by Berkeleyside, Oct. 16, 2018
- “Berkeley Parent Tells How School Integration Plan Got Done: It Was Like ‘Civil War’,” KQED, Sept. 10, 2016
- “Understanding the Elementary Assignment System,” BUSD website
- “Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), BUSD website
- “Update on the Berkeley 2020 Vision Collective Impact,” presentation to Berkeley School Board, Dec. 12, 2018, item 14 in Board’s online agenda packet; presentation and Board discussion begins at 1:23:54 on YouTube video.
- “Update on the African-American Success Project,” presentation to Berkeley School Board, Oct. 10, 2018, item 13 in Board’s online agenda packet; presentation and Board discussion begins at 1:36:59 on YouTube video.