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Parents' Observations about Berkeley Public Schools

Berkeley Parents Network > Reviews > K-12 Schools > Berkeley Public Schools > Parents' Observations about Berkeley Public Schools


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2013 - 2014 Discussions


Berkeley Public School for Well Behaved Shy Kid?

Jan 2014

Hi: I know there are always a lot of discussions on private vs public school, but I would to hear people's opinions regarding the berkeley public school for a certain personality type.

We are currently living in N oakland, and looking at either staying cheaply at our current cramped place that we own and sending our kids to private school (we are down the block from park day) or renting some place in Berkeley for public school. We have done quite a few school tours already, and I am getting a feel that Berkeley has done a great job at equalizing their schools and it seems they are all workable. I am not worried about our daughter in that environment, as she is very vocal about what she wants, and ain't nobody gonna pick on that little girl and get away with it. However, our son is very shy, other boys' rough play seem to scare him. Most birthday parties we attend, he's often seen sitting by himself. He doesn't usually speak up when picked up on, just withdraws more into himself. He's very ahead in both verbal and math, but I don't think on the gifted level. He isn't a trouble causer, great at following rules and plays by himself a lot. My husband and I are wondering if a personality like that is likely to get ignored in the berkeley classrooms/after school programs? We are wondering if some place with a class size smaller than 20 would be better for him? Fwiw, he plays well with all the kids at his preschool of 14 kids, mixed age group.

Did you have a child with a personality like this in berkeley public school? I would love to hear some personal experiences. And if you have suggestions on how to transition him better, I would love to hear that also. mom of shy kid


I work in a Berkeley public school kindergarten, and see a wide variety of personalities, including several like your son's, in all my classes. Yes, there are boisterous boys (and girls) who love team sports, rough-housing, and have no trouble speaking their mind. But yes, there are plenty of very quiet, thoughtful, careful boys (and girls) too, and plenty in between. Some of my favorite kids are the ones who sit back and don't say much until they're ready, and the teachers give them plenty of TLC and time to warm up at the beginning of the year. The friendships that develop are surprising; often loud, bold kids become best buddies with quiet, timid kids opposites do attract. I'd go for it, if Berkeley is where you'd like to live (and send your kids to good FREE schools!) BUSD employee
Hi! Your boy may surprise you. My shy eldest daughter cried through the first semester of kindergarten at our big, bustling Chabot elementary school, ate lunch in a corner by herself, and begged me not to leave her there at morning drop-off. It was pretty rough! But eventually, she figured it out and learned to thrive. In retrospect, I think it was good for her to face the challenge. She's off to Claremont Middle School next year and has grown into a confident, happy, successful student. Also - you may want to consider a third alternative: Keep your house and check out Emerson! It is a growing, thriving, up-and-coming community school with an active and enthusiastic PTA and you may find being a part of that community to be a really fulfilling and rewarding experience for your whole family! I had no idea how important and valuable the neighborhood school experience would be for us until we enrolled. I recommend attending a PTA meeting and talking with some of the parents there and with other parents of rising kindergarteners in your area. I'd be happy to put you in touch with people if you'd like. SA
I've got a shy kid too. He is now a [still shy] 7th grader who has been in BUSD since K. He certainly had a tough time with the transition into kindergarten, but that's just him: transitions and new people -- it was going to be tricky anywhere. The staff at the school was extremely patient with him, and really dealt with his emotional needs beautifully. We met with the Principal before school began to discuss his temperament, so she was aware of his needs from the beginning and was an essential part of his development there.

The school was small, and well-staffed for the most part, and there wasn't a lot of unnecessary roughness or teasing activity among the kids. My kid is pretty sensitive, but he was rarely bothered by the energy that can sometimes be overwhelming on playgrounds and in after school programs. He's not into sports at all, so he did a lot of art, science and games after school. It worked great for him.

His social group consisted of 5 boys who also had no interest in ball games, and there was always an opportunity at recess for them to play the way they wanted to. My son has a difficult time meeting people, but this small group discovered each other over the course of the kindergarten year, and has stayed close since.

The class sizes were fine for him, at 20 or fewer through 3rd grade, and mid-20's in 4th/5th grades. He's quiet and has a really hard time speaking up for himself, but his teachers all knew him and made efforts to engage him. It helped that we spoke with the teachers early on, and followed up regularly with them regarding his progress.

Finally, I think the most valuable tool for keeping our kid well-recognized in class was volunteering as often as possible. I work outside the home, but my schedule was flexible enough to allow me to help out one morning a week, and also be at most of the evening and weekend events. Because the teachers [and most of the rest of the staff] knew me, they also knew my son pretty well, and watched out for him. --a mom


BUSD - newly adopted 9yo doesn't speak English

July 2013

We brought home our 9 year old adopted daughter in July 2013. She speaks only russian. We are looking for answers on what BUSD NW zone provides in the way of language resources. We are prepared to supplement school with private classes and tutoring once school begins. Not now as she needs transition time.

We met with BUSD and they said resources are determined at the school level so we must wait for assignment before we can get answers. My big question is what happens on day one, week one when she is in class and doesn't understand anything? How do they keep her engaged?

One on one she is engaged and through charades, google translate, our basic russian, and common sense we and other children can communicate (lots of laughs in the process). I am concerned that in a classroom setting, in English that she will not be engaged and they will 'lose' her and catching up will make the transition more difficult

What is BUSD obligated to provide in the way of education for unique situations? We looked at private school and it is an option, but that will prohibit us from adding any supplemental resources and I am not convinced private school will have better results.

I would appreciate any advice regarding BUSD public schools, private schools and additional resources that could help her keep up. GK


I can't address any of the legalities you ask about, but my daughter went through Berkeley Arts Magnet (Central zone, but many northwest zone kids were assigned to it). Because so many students were children of UC visitors, my daughter had non-English speaking classmates most years. All of those I knew learned English quickly. They were assigned to regular classrooms but part of the day was spent in instruction in ESL classes at BAM. In some cases there was already a student whose native language and grade was the same as the non-English speaking student, and I believe the principal made a point of placing those students in the same classroom. Francesca
I teach elementary school in Oakland and in recent years have had a few kids who did not speak any English. I found the situation difficult since I got little support from the district. My students' parents were immigrants and did not speak much English either. I would have been happy to get some supplies, ideas, materials to work with from the parents. I think private school would be a waste of your money as those teachers probably have no more experience with newcomers than any public school teacher. All the kids eventually pick up English and your child will too, especially from you and tv. Remember it is challenging to cater to one student who needs so much attention when there are 20-30 other kids. Sit down with the teacher and together create a plan of action keeping in mind what is reasonable to expect. Good luck. Been there
I don't have direct experience with this, but non-English speaking kids are actually not that unique of a situation for BUSD teachers to deal with. In my child's BUSD elementary school, each year there would be kids in almost every grade whose parents were here on sabbatical and who had varying levels of English coming into the school year. Also in the last several years I've known more than one family with kids who were adopted from foreign countries (like your child) or who came as refugees with their families, and who arrived with little or no English (these latter circumstances I would definitely characterize as ''unique). But the non-English-ness of the kids was nonetheless familiar to administrative staff, teachers, families, and kids.

Universally, I think teachers and support within BUSD is very strong for non-English speakers. Though younger kids naturally have an easier time with language acquisition compared to older kids, I've known at least three kids older than 4th grade who arrived with no English and understood things very quickly, and spoke fluently within months. Their success, in my opinion, was due to a combination of caring staff and good resources within BUSD, plus supportive families, plus of course, the motivation of the kids and that motivation being well supported. This is one thing you probably don't need to worry about!


Hello, GK! As an American who speaks Russian (is married to a Russian!), and is mom to a 4-year-old, I just wanted to express my support and admiration, and wish your child a happy and smooth school experience. Lydia

2010 - 2012 Discussions


BUSD for kids from more conservative families?

Feb 2012

I'm hoping to hear from more politically conservative families who have their children in the Berkeley public schools. I hear quite a bit from people who are in step with Berkeley politically about how much they love the public schools. That's great, but we'd like to know how people with more conservative views rate the education, environment, and culture. We are also Christian and are curious to know how other Christian children do in the school. One of the reasons why we are considering the schools is because of the diversity. However, I do want to make certain that the schools are tolerant of children whose beliefs do not line up with the more liberal, secular environment of Berkeley. I'd also like to say that I am not bagging on Berkeley at all; I enjoy living in this town. I am only hoping to ascertain whether or not the environment would be OK for my children. I also don't want them to feel too fish-out-of-water-ish. Lastly, I would ask respectfully that I only receive replies from other conservative families. I'd really like to hear firsthand experiences. Thanks so much. -Anon


I'll start by saying I am not a conservative, but am a long-term BUSD parent. I don't know if you see conservative and Christian as two separate categories or as a single category. Many of the African American children in the Berkeley schools are from families active in protestant churches, and attend church on a weekly basis. There are also religious Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims, as well as many families who don't practice any religion, in the schools. Some families of recent immigrants have very strict expectations (as compared to most Americans) of their children in terms of behavior. In terms of political conservatism, that is less common in my experience, though each year there are a couple of students who say they are from families that are Republicans in the class. Just as it is a challenge to be from a liberal family in a conservative part of the country, I think it would be a challenge to be in the reverse situation. In general the teachers encourage the children to express their views and listen to each others' views. anon

Class Sizes in Berkeley Elementary Schools

Nov 2011

We are researching kindergartens for next year. Can someone please share with us the latest on class sizes in Berkeley elementary schools? Is it true that class sizes are lower in Berkeley because of a special tax? Will this last? We currently live in Oakland but are considering moving to Berkeley specifically for the schools. (Though I have noticed that the test scores in Berkeley schools are very similar to the higher scoring Oakland schools.) Can anyone share their experience between the two districts at the lower grade levels? Does class size play as much of a role in the likelihood of our shy child having a good experience as I think it does? Thank you for any insight!


Berkeley still is maintaining a 20:1 ratio of students to teacher for K through 3rd grade. And you are right, a major reason why BUSD has smaller class sizes than many districts (about 26:1 for 4th thru 8th and 28:1 on average for 8th-12th); still has music and art programs (including free instruments); still has school libraries open every day; a wide variety of classes at the secondary level and have schools that are well-maintained is through the generosity of Berkeley residents. Berkeley residents pay for 2 parcel taxes: 1 for class size reduction as its number 1 priority and in addition for extended courses; music/art; instructional materials; and program support, such as tutoring and the other tax is for facility maintenance (not custodial but replacing windows, getting rid of graffiti, landscaping, in other words upkeep). In addition, residents pay for a construction bond tax that covers systems replacements, such as new roofs, new gym floors, replacing HVAC systems, etc. as well as building new classrooms and science labs, etc.

SO, while what the State will do in terms of continuing to financially support class size reduction is anyone's guess, especially since fewer and fewer Districts are able to ''match'' funds to maintain the 20:1 ratio, Berkeley's parcel tax ensures that the District has funds to make small class size for all grades a priority. Karen Hemphill


berkeley K to 3rd are 20 students or less, measuered, i believe on an annual average. not sure if budget cuts will impact tnat or not,but berkeley tax payers vote for higher taxes ( or whatever the technical term is) in part to maintain that small class size.

The 3 middle schools are great. My high schooler loved King. My 6th grader does too. Don't let the large size deceive you. Staff works hard to ensure that 6th graders, especially, have small groups and are looked after. Counseling staff and principal are excellent. strong after school sports program. other enrichment is very easy to acces like music, drama, crafts. Edible school yard (garden and kitchen) are great. Easy to find like-minded kids to make new friends with. bUSD parent


Outlook for Berkeley schools - funding, testing, curriculum

June 2011

Is your Berkeley public elementary school going to hell in a hand basket?

In the six years that my children have so far attended Berkeley public schools, I have seen cuts to our elementary school's music program and science program and cuts to weekly assemblies. Attempts to start garden and cooking programs have been thwarted. The bicultural program - once a mainstay of the school - is being phased out. A popular after-school enrichment class was cut in order to turn the tiny room that was used into a reading recovery center.

All these cuts have been made while PTA fund raising has increased, even soared. Site funds cover remedial language arts and math education, and a large chunk of PTA funds (raised through the never ending dollar drives, etc) are being used to fund an "unfunded mandate" to teach English to ELL students.

When tests are about a month away, the teaching focuses almost exclusively on test prep. Teachers tell me they have no time to teach Shakespeare; they must prep the kids for the test. Kids who score well on tests generally can find themselves in remediation if they score poorly on one test. We have had 2 different math programs and 2-3 different language arts programs (changed based on test scores - everyone is looking for that silver bullet that will magically transform the test scores of some). The curriculum seems centered around test scores, and why not? The school has even gotten an award based on test scores. While I agree that equity needs to be addressed, it seems that the narrowing of the curriculum hampers the education of all and that this narrowing is coming as a result of the tests. Don't all kids need more music? Foreign language? Science? Doesn't having a broad arts education actually improve English and math ability for all?

While state/federal funding is decreasing and teachers and principals are being pressured to raise the scores of some kids in 2 subject areas, it seems inevitable that the curriculum for all will narrow still further and that the pressure on the kids to do well on those tests will increase. (I say inevitable because none of the parents I know is in any way able or interested in changing the status quo.)

What is the situation at your elementary school? How has it changed over the years? Has it expanded its curriculum or narrowed it? Do you receive enough Title I funds to cover remedial math/language arts? Does your PTA pay large sums for unfunded mandates? Are you happy with the state tests and do your teachers teach to the test? Have they changed their teaching as a result of the tests?
-Would like to know what's happening city-wide


My kids are in a public school but it's not in Berkeley. Our kids attend elementary and middle school in WCCUSD.

Our elementary PTA spends most of it's funds on enrichment to broaden the curriculum, not on unfunded mandates. The enrichment is both during the regular school day and after school. We sponsor a vocal music teacher for the lower grades and worked with the local rec dept. to sponsor an after school instrumental music class for the upper grade students. In addition, we pay for field trips, classroom supplies, assemblies, and have sponsored hands-on science enrichment/instruction in the classrooms. We are not Title 1 but the school does have many students with special needs and/or kids who qualify for reduced school lunch. The only funds spent on testing or test prep would be a small allotment on snacks for testing--granola bars, etc. during the 2 weeks of testing.

The middle school PTA funds academic department grants, lunchtime crafts/sports activities, library materials, and parent ed programs. We are also willing to buy an overhead projector or printer for any teacher or administrator who requests one. We understand supply budgets are tight now.

Yes, the fundraising burden is significant but, on the other hand, what most parents contribute is probably equal to one month's tuition at a private school. And in our community, private school enrollment is decreasing due to the economy. Most families understand they need to step up and support the public school so they are happy to contribute. It's strictly voluntary.

Our after school enrichment program offers video production, gardening, Shakespeare's dramas, science, tennis, dance, etc. Some classes are taught by parents, others by instructors who get a percentage of student fees.

One bonus to PTA-sponsored enrichment: Most public school teachers are fabulous. A very few are not so great. If the PTA sponsors an instructor or activity leader and they don't connect with the kids, the PTA can find someone who does so we have some terrific PTA-sponsored contractors.

Even with all the fiscal challenges California is facing, I think a good K-12 public school supported by caring parents and staff offers a fine education. --public school mom


I think the focus on testing in the Berkeley Schools has increased in the last 10 years. I would really encourage you to add your voice to the political process by getting involved in the school board and public hearings about testing. If the people who speak out are primarily concerned about improving Berkeley's test scores among groups of children with lower test scores, the curriculum is going to devote more time to test prep, and to matching the state curriculum guides in language arts and math (which as best I can tell focus on details but not on overall thinking or understanding of ideas.) There is so much more to education for all of our learners than scores on a very limited test. So, speak up at public meetings as well as on BPN. a BUSD parent and teacher
You ask a lot of very specific questions, and I'll try to address them from our family's perspective. We are ending year 5 of the BUSD elem. system, and, while there definitely have been some things I would have changed, for the most part it's been a very positive experience.

The school we're at has mostly improved during our stay. We do get Title 1 funding, mainly because we have a principal who will go personally to each family to get the forms in. That helps considerably with funding, as you know. Our PTA donates the typical large Berkeley amount, and our school's site committee determines what to fund, in large part based on an annual parent survey. That money, combined with the BPEF funds deposited for our school, tends to take care of many of the enrichment and academic assistance programs that our school's admin knows are essential for good student outcomes.

We no longer have a staff gardening teacher, but we have a very well-qualified community volunteer and several parents who have taken on the job, so our younger kids still get some quality garden instruction each week. I wish we had more art and PE, and maybe a foreign language, but we've never had a lot of that, so it's not like that's fallen back. There's still science and music 2X weekly, lots of field trips [that kind of depends on the teacher -- our boy has had a ton of exceptional trips this year], and a decent number of performance-based activities at our weekly assemblies. There's enrichment every day in the afterschool program.

As for testing, it's certainly a drag, but it does take up less time than I originally thought it might. The teachers begin some test prep in mid-April for the early May tests, and in my kid's 4th grade class at least, it was about an hour a day. The test prep seemed to consist of the class reviewing stuff they'd been learning all year, and then a few sample tests. And from what I saw, it wasn't stuff that was so bad for them to be tested on. I mean, they should know certain math concepts, grammar, and language arts, right? The test prep and the tests are one way of finding out where some students have weak areas. Anyway, our scores have gone up across the board, among all sub-groups, and that's a good thing. [actually in-class work and assessments have also improved.] We've not experienced teachers ''teaching to the test'', although that might largely be an individual thing. I can honestly say that the testing has not impacted my son or his friends in a negative way. They seem to be pretty blase about it all, in fact. To them, it's just a test.

I know that not all schools are like this. I think it would be incredibly demoralizing to be at a school where you felt so out of control regarding something so integral. I wonder if middle school will present a better experience for your family? I hope so. I also hope the state begins funding schools again at a rate that can sustain the programs that help all children succeed. -not hell in a hand basket... yet


Our BUSD elementary school is managing to sustain art, dance, garden and science; as well as field trips; in the midst of challenging finacial times.

Donations to PTA are down campared to previous years. Although some elemenatry schools in nearby towns and in Berkeleley seem to be doing better than other years. not sure why. Some of these programs do depend on PTA funds. Each school site in Berkeley finds it own balance of funding between ''district'' funds, Site Governance Council funds, PTA funds, grant funds and other funds. The principals can be quite skilled in making it all work - it is quite a challenge and appreciated nearly enough. If any of these funding sources decrease, something has to give. The same is true if salaries or other costs increase. If you'd like to get more involved in dollar decisions at your school site, I suggest youmake time to sit on the SGC or at least go to the SGC meetings at your site. From what I know, BUSD schools do not teach as much to the test as schools elsewhere in the state or country. We are quite fortunate in this. If they focus a lot on the test for one month only, then we are doing well. If the district is looking for the best programs to address challenged students' needs, then that is a good thing. Although changing course too often is challenging, too.

At my child's elementary school, i have not seen curriculum narrowing over the 10 plus years we have been at the school. What I see is experienced and skilled teachers drawing on their tried,true and rich units, projects and lessons to bring a range of topics to their students. With enough vounteers in the classroom, they can present great projects that still get the content across. And with enough volunteers, they can reach students with a range of challenges and skills. Level of Title I funds depends on the flux in the number of Title I kids from year to year. Some years we have it, but not all. Who is happy with the state test? But testing is reality in our society and our teachers and kids do great with it, considering. All in all, we are happy with BUSD and grateful for teachers, staff, administrators, volunteers and families who all do their best every day. a BUSD Mom


I hear the frustration in your message, and much of what you describe is not related to decisions made at a particular elementary school but to the fundamental root cause: lack of funding and continued cuts to public education. I have also wondered why we're not ''taking it to streets'', calling general strikes and pushing for the needed tax reform that would adequately fund schools. This lack of funding, coupled with increased emphasis on testing (No Child Left Behind..etc.) are major contributors.

That said - I am taken aback by your description that the school is ''going to hell in a hand basket.'' My kids attend this same school and I am continually impressed by the teaching staff and principal - we have a lot to be proud of at this school! Whether it's what kids are learning, the tremendous progress in yard/recess/social climate over the years, and just an overall positive, fun energy at the school - I feel fortunate to be there. I feel like my kids are learning, happy at school and engaged. Yes, I have to supplement to have more art, music lessons - etc. I recognize that there has been a greater emphasis placed on reading/writing/math over the years. However, my experience has not been of a school solely focused on testing and language arts/math. Though I doubt anyone will respond that they are happy with the state testing system, I have never experienced a teacher doing only test prep for a month before testing, or assigning kids to remedial programs for doing poorly on only one test, and if that was your experience I encourage you to talk to the principal about it.

PTA fundraising has soared while budgets have been slashed by cuts. The PTA, instead of being more on the sideline, is integral to school programs. By the way, most of the PTA budget goes to support school-wide programs, whether it's PE, yard supervision, reading programs (books etc. for all classes), field trips, etc. But given the budget crisis can we fault the professionals whose mission is to ensure that all kids in our school community learn and are at grade level, who are committed to fulfilling the Berkeley Vision 2020 goals of closing the achievement gap -- and therefore ask the PTA to also fund some core academic support programs?

In Berkeley we've been sheltered from the more drastic impacts felt by neighboring districts: closing schools and soaring class sizes (30 and above). I commend our staff for continuing to offer a great education given the much reduced funding. We are also a smaller school, so we don't get as much BSEP money or Title 1 money (for instance that funds the gardening/cooking programs at other schools).

But in short (ha ha) my answer to your original question even given all these factors is actually - yes. Our public school has gotten better over the years - maybe because of everything that has been strengthened and the proactive approach of principal and staff. It is good to have a dialogue about these issues, to reflect on what we need to do as a society to adequately fund public education and achievement for all students, and to explore additional funding sources -- I have heard that some other schools do have a chunk of money from grants, that is something that needs parent support and involvement. anon


A big issue was not mentioned: overcrowding. Many parents have been complaining - mostly privately - about the construction and planned overcrowding of the school. The charm of the school was its small size. The school added one additional class this year and another will be added next year. In the next few years 6-8 more classes are planned. The district needs to open another school, not destroy a good one by turning it into a mega-school that doesn't have the yard space or cafeteria space to accommodate such an increase in bodies, so, yes, the school is on its merry way to that non-heaven just in the sheer number of kids in a small space. With the one additional class, I can tell you that drop-off has gotten noticeably more difficult with the increased cars (and decreased bus service). Parking was difficult for open house. Interestingly, involvement in the PTA and fund-raising have not increased proportionately with the increase in students. The after-school program has made some improvements (and suffered some losses), but the "improvements" have come with a 2x cost increase - maybe another reason why fund-raising hasn't seen a proportional jump. And the cost increase has been a burden and source of complaint for many parents who are on the edge of being able to afford that. On another note, Berkeley, despite having a so-called vision, is not immune from the test-taking frenzy and "accountability" b.s. that has infected our nation. Their "vision," without a major increase in funding, is myopic at best and if they measure success via the tests, then they are blind. I think a poster in the Advice section mentioned how the PTA gives out snacks during test week - so true! Is that money well spent? We as a people need to ask, "What are we measuring on that one day in the year when the child takes that test?" What is that a reflection of? The kid's morning breakfast? How well the teacher prepped them? Whether their father is incarcerated? I'll tell you what it is NOT a measure of: the child's education. BTW, testing costs CA up to 2 billion. You choose California: to test or to teach. Those good intentions pave the road

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

Violence in Berkeley Schools

April 2011

I am distressed reading the reports of students and non-students bringing guns to the campus of Berkeley High. No child should fear for their safety, especially at school. My husband and I live in Berkeley and have a four year old son. Is violence present in the Berkeley elementary schools? -everyone is a concerned parent


I am a parent of an elementary school student in Berkeley, which happens to be located right near BHS, and violence is unheard of at my son's school. For one thing, every visitor checks in, and the principal and staff know everyone at school. But for another, the kids are well supervised, and even small incidences of teasing get addressed. Recently the school gave out a survey to both kids and parents, and one question for the kids was, how safe to you feel at school? I noticed that every kindergartener answered, ''very safe'' or ''safe.'' I am guessing my son' school is similar to others in Berkeley - I've never heard of a violent incident from friends at various schools. understand your concern
As a long-time parent of Berkeley public school students, and as one who listens to national and state-wide news, here is what I know. Violence at some level is present at most every school; and this is not new...(how was your elementary school?) Whether it is verbal psychological bullying by 3rd grade girls, physical bullying by 1st grade boys, a pellet gun brought to school to show off to fellow students, or excluding others on the playground... Every school has something, and not just in Berkeeley, and not just public schools. I have seen Berkeley public schools work hard to stay on top of all of these issues. School teachers, counselors and principals work with individual students and their families (if the families will cooperate), groups of students, and the whole school community to address teasing, bullying, exclusion, physical confrontations and more scary stuff. Students are suspended when they step over the line, and are expelled for more serious offenses.

Violence is taken very seriously at Berkeley schools. Most students feel very safe at elemenatry schools in Berkeley, and the staff and parent community all work together to provide positive behavior support for everyone. The teachers, counselors and other staff work with those students (and their families) who need extra behavior support, so that that student and the whole school community, benefit.

Regarding your distress, the Berkeley High issue is a real concern, and it appears that it is being taken seriously by the students, the Principal and the Superintendant. My students feel safe at elementary and middle school. Any concerns are addressed as they arise. I fully intend to send my students to Berkeley High and my students are excited to attend. anonymous


Best Berkeley Schools and Zones

Aug 2010

Hello, We want our kids in public school all the way through high school (also, can't afford private), and currently reside in a neighborhood with a very bad school. So, we are thinking of moving to Berkeley from Oakland. Can anyone comment upon which zone has the best elementary schools or, conversely, which has the worst? Also, if anyone has experience with the middle schools and can comment upon which are the best/worst that would be appreciated too. We value diversity, the arts, and good solid teaching tailored to the children above mere standardized test scores (although I know this differs from the State's approach to public schools). Thank you!


No matter what you hear, you will find more similarities across Berkeley schools than you will differences. They all have the same budget, the same school board, the same number of special needs children, the same bus program. You will find small differences maybe in their art program or music program, but for the most part, they are the same. The big thing is the teacher. So no matter what school you go to, some years there will be a good teacher and some years not so good (true in private schools too). A smaller school might have an easier to manage playground and more supervision while one of the larger schools might have less supervision on the playground. They are all underfunded. They are all managing a lot of diversity without the resources to do so (ie. special needs kids in the class without the support they need). Most teachers try their best to address individual children needs, but since they are understaffed, its almost impossible for them to do so all the time. But they try their best.

So don't worry about the zone, just go with your local zone. The berkeley public schools are not perfect. But they are free! Use the money you save to supplement your kids with art and music outside school. anon


Don't move to Berkeley. Schools are assigned by lottery. We, like dozens of other families I know, live in a nice neighborhood with good schools (Cragmont and Oxford) and aren't able to send our kids to these neighborhood schools. You MAY end up with a good school if you live in Berkeley, but you very well may not and it is totally out of your hands.
All of the schools and zones in Berkeley are ''the best'', supported by generous taxes and involved parents throughout the city. Of course, each school has its own personality--some are bigger and some are smaller, and most have different schedules of enrichment (e.g. gardening, music, cooking). There is plenty of information in the BPN archives: http://parents.berkeley.edu/recommend/schools/berkeley/ --Happy BUSD family
I see this question a lot in the newsletter - which Berkeley school is best? Here's the scoop: There are 3 zones in Berkeley. Each zone has good schools and not-so-good schools. Once you land in one of the 3 zones, it's really the luck of the draw whether you get a good school or a not-so-good school in that zone. So it really does not matter that much where in Berkeley you live.

You can check GreatSchools.org to see which schools are rated the highest, test-score-wise. Of course, test scores basically reflect the socio-economic make-up of the school more than anything else, but that still tells you something. Namely, you are likely to find more motivated parents at the higher ranked schools, because motivated parents gravitate to higher ranked schools. If you read past discussions on the BPN website about school choice in BUSD you will see that motivated parents are very persistent in getting their kids into one of the higher ranked schools. It seems to me that the more motivated parents there are at the school, the better the school.

So, find a neighborhood you like in Berkeley, make your school request, and then if you don't get what you want, be persistent. BUSD veteran


2007 - 2009 Discussions


Busing, after-school, registration

May 2008

I heard that BUSD provides school bus for kids within the zone, but live more than 2 miles? away from the school. Where is the bus stop? What about after-school, as in 5pm? How safe is it? Also, we are assigned to School A that we don't plan to have our child to attend, but were told that we have to register with the school anyway just to be on the waiting lists for other schools. Our spot at School A is therefore not open for others to take. It doesn't seem to make any sense. Of course, when I called to check on the waiting list positions, ours are virtually unchanged. clueless and confused


BUSD Transportation: School buses provide transportation for kids 2 miles away from school but not less than 2 miles from school. The route and bus stops are put together depending on who needs the transportation and where they live. The assigned bus stop is usually a block or so from your home and will be sent to you in the mail with all the information needed.

Registration: If you don't register at the school you are assigned to and are on the waiting list for another school then you will lose your spot for your assigned school. If your child does not attend the wait listed school then you will not have a back up school to attend. That is why you must register your child in the assigned school. I don't know how the BUSD wait list works so I would call the district office to find out specifics. Good Luck! Kristine


Discouraged by Berkeley Public Schools

Feb 2008

I'm becoming discouraged with BUSD. We have two children enrolled at a top performing BUSD public school and I'm worried that their academic needs are overshadowed by the constant struggle of the school staff and teachers to secure funds, meet the needs of the more challenged students, the learning disabled students, etc. Though I have been proud of my children's empathy for others, their patience and understanding waiting for their teachers who are handling behavioral issues in the classroom and their overall commitment to school, I am beginning to see my older child lose interest academically and become bored with school and make statements such as ''I like my school, but we don't have enough math and the other work is pretty easy''. And, no, I don't think my children are gifted, I think they're average kids who are not being challenged in the classroom. I have also seen friends' children reach a certain grade level, usually around 3rd, when social problems ensue with little or no guidance by overburdened staff and teachers through what are most likely the natural developmental and social issues expected at this age. And now we're facing huge budget cuts at the hands of our current governor which will increase the class sizes again, lead to lay-offs of qualified teachers, and put severe financial pressure on the schools. I find myself day-dreaming about moving to a State that values education and invests in our children. Are others feeling discouraged by BUSD? Feeling Defeated


I just wanted to post a quick message of support for you, since we seem to live in a place where it is not PC to criticise BUSD. What you're seeing is real, and unfortunately I think is an issue in all public school districts. Having moved a bunch and having consider moving yet again for schools, I'm doubtful now that there is an ideal situation anywhere. Public school is a flawed and limited system to begin with, and my feeling is that for what it is BUSD does pretty well in most areas. Still, after having moved to Berkeley specifically for the schools and paying a ton of rent to be here, we were completely disappointed with what we saw and instead - much to our surprise - are now happily homeschooling. Suits my kids, meets them where they are at academically, socially and emotionally, and has enriched our lives tremendously. Good luck with finding the right situation for your children to thrive in. happy homeschooler
I concur with everything you have said. My daughter is in a very good Berkeley elementary school (k), and routinely tells me ''I don't want to go to school,'' ''I don't like kindergarten,'' etc. I have observed that her teacher is overwhelmed with all the responsibilities you mentioned, particularly with a large number of children who cannot, or do not know how to behave in a classroom setting. My child is, by all accounts, intelligent, polite, respectful, and eager to learn, and I am increasingly concerned about her lack of interest in school. She is the type of kid who you'd think would love school - yet she's telling me she hates it. She actually says she likes the afterschool program better - I think she gets more individualized attention from the teachers there. I cannot afford private school, but am worried about my daughter continuing in B.U.S.D. in the same boat
Oh how I feel your pain. Our kids are in one of the top performing elementary schools in OUSD and I'm seeing the same problems. For one of my children, school is just not interesting both because of the teacher's strict adherence to the Open Court program (yawn inducing) and her having to deal with the more learning challenged kids in the classroom. Our other child has a great teacher who largely ignores Open Court and is very adept at handling the kids who are more disruptive. It really comes down to the quality of the teachers more than anything else. A new study that just came out reaffirmed what other studies have shown - that class size doesn't really have much impact on student performance or learning. It's all about teacher quality I'm afraid. Unfortunately budget cuts are probably going to hit teacher training and recruitment as well which is a much bigger problem in my book. Heading for Private for middle school
The school system does often seem discouraging. Nevertheless, lots of kids emerge from it with a fine education. I think you are very wise to appreciate the other excellent things your children are learning (patience, understanding of others) that are not necessarily valued. In terms of the boredom with the basic elementary curriculum, someone suggested to me when my daughter was this age, that late elementary is a great time to focus on an instrument, sport, or other hobby outside school because the bright kids (whether in public or private school) have the mental space to do it at this point. Fiona

Berkeley Schools and No Child Left Behind

Nov 2007

Does anybody know how the Berkeley Schools are handling the fallout from the No Child Left Behind Act? If a school is rated as not making adequate yearly progress (such as Rosa Parks), how is the transfer process going to work? Can you transfer to only schools within your zone? What if you are enrolling for the first time? concerned parent


My understanding is that children who are scoring below basic or far below basic on the standardized tests get first priority in transferring out. Those families can request a transfer and will be moved to another school if there is space in that school. So unless your child is really suffering academically in a lfailingn school, your chances of transferring because of NCLB scores are slim.

Itms better to look beyond the strict measures of No Child Left Behind and see how a school is really performing, and how it performs for children in your demographic. If you are really concerned about test scores, you should see how children like yours are doing on the tests. There are many resources on the web where you can look at disaggregated data for a particular school, and that will give you a better picture of how your child will do ON THE TEST. But it is not a measure of how well your child will thrive in a school (like Rosa Parks). BUSD parent


Don't get too worried about the NCLB stuff. You have to look at the individual school and find out exactly why they're dinged. There are many parameters besides overall test score that count towards rating a school as ''Program Improvement'' (PI).

A school's test scores could be spiraling down, but if a number of other parameters measure well, they will not be considered PI. On the other hand, a school's test scores may be doing great, but they get dinged as a PI school if the number of kids who showed up to be tested was just under the mimimum requirement of 95%.

One school's test scores may seem low but it turns out they're on a clear upward trend; whereas, a school with higher test scores may be on a downward trend and may even have gotten their first PI ding for some reason - but you have to be dinged two years in a row to rate as a PI school, so you have to ask to find out.

Families at a PI school can transfer to another ''non-PI'' school in the same zone. (So if you want to use this as an excuse to transfer to the school closest to your house, it'll only work if it's a non-PI school in the same zone.) Free tutoring is also offered for students at Year 2 or higher PI schools, I think. Priority for all the above is given to lower achieving students, or lower socio-economic students.

If you are enrolling for the first time, the district lottery works the same way regardless of the PI status of any given school. No extra preferences are granted.

If you have more questions, the two best people to talk to are: Admissions and Attendance Office - Francisco Martinez at 644-6504 State and Federal Funding - Christina Faulkner at ???

They're both very approachable and knowledgeable. Good luck, and again, don't get too worried about the PI stuff. All the schools in Berkeley are very good with comparable strengths and weaknesses. Look at NCLB mainly as a tool to motivate people to keep getting better.


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.


Academics in Berkeley public schools

Dec 2005

My wife and I are strongly considering moving from Berkeley to another region in California universally considered to have a very good public school system. I realize that this topic has been discussed frequently but after reading previous posts on this topic, I realized that a couple of relevant issues have been relatively overlooked. Most prior positive reviews of the Berkeley school system cite the presence of diversity in the student body, sense of community and preservation of extra- curricular activities. While I recognize the importance of these factors, I would like to get feedback from like-minded parents with children in Berkeley public schools on what I would consider the single most important component of a quality school--how well is the student educated. In the elementary school level, how well are the students taught to write and do math? Are academics highly emphasized by the teachers and appreciated by the students. I am particularly concerned about this issue after I read an insightlful post in which a parent sadly admitted that an anti-intellectual or academic culture seems to be pervasive, at least, in late elementary school and junior high school levels. This post also speculated that part of this problem may be due to the fact that many students in the Berkeley school system come from imporverished/unstable families. This fact is supported by statistics showing a very high percentage of families receiving free or reduced lunches in Berkeley schools, 40-50%. I'm all for exposure to diversity in all dimensions, but I do not consider this high a percentage of children from impoverished families, necessarily conducive for building an academic environment. Before I get innundated by thoughtless response on this matter, I grew up in a poor family and I know first hand that it is very difficult for a child to focus on academics when the parents are worried about paying the bills.


I found your post to be very interesting and would like to respond. I am a public high school teacher in the East Bay. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Illinois and compare what I see in my classroom with my own experience. I have to disagree with you on the topic that low-income and a challenging family life is the primary issue, for I have known students who overcame these obstacles and achieved academic success. What I do see is a pervasive peer culture that can often override the foundations many parents instill in their children. If I had a child in public school I would make sure that the school had active parental involvement, a magnet program and enrichment programs such as art, music and college prep. It is very important for youth to be surrounded by peers who are motivated and focused. If the culture is one where the kids don't care about school, there exists the possibility of bringing your child down. Very often I have seen children subjected to classroom situations where some kids, who don't want to learn, make the learning environment unbearable for others; and unfortunately, unlike my experience in Illinois, these children remain in the classroom. Also, I think some teachers make things easy-worksheets, notes on tests, no homework- just to cope with disruptive or unmotivated children. Also, my biggest gripe is the lack of funding for public schools and the exhorbitant salaries paid to distict administration and so-called educational consultants. Bottom line, I think teachers, administrators, parents and students should look at academic culture and discipline as the primary tenent for school success. Also, because so many families left the public school system, many children who do create that positive peer culture are gone or in the minority at many public schools. It's sad and it's strange, and I'm surprised that people accept this. Something needs to change!!! anon
My personal experience is that my children and their elementary school friends (from a variety of ethnic backgrounds) do value acadmeics. They like to do well on homework and on tests. They like to understand what is being taught. They are proud of themselves when they succeed academically. The math and reading programs work well for my children. This also goes for my kids' friends from families that do not have as much income as ours. A very small percentage of kids (far less than the percentage that have subsidzed lunch) are not as well supported at home and struggle, perhaps, because of that. Another small percentage of kids struggle with enjoying acaemics for toehr reasons.

If you want to get into the details of test scores and who scores at what level, you can find a lot of detailed data on the California Department of Education web site.

You should know that in this geographic area, given the high cost of real estate, most folks are struggling financially, not just the low income folks. Cost of housing (rent or mortgage) eats up a huge percentage of our incomes.

If you find after considering everything, that you'd like to have your kids in Berkeley Public Schools, then fantastic! We'll welcome you and your family with open arms and will be glad to have your participation at your new school. Berkeley Mom


Dear Parent,
I think you're right on with your observation about problems in the higher grades in the Berkeley schools. It's one of those taboo topics, meaning very few people talk about this issue for fear of being branded a racist. (note that I didn't sign by my name).

I feel the schools are fine until 3rd grade since the class size is limited to 20. After that, the discrepancy in learning levels really kicks in. My child was identified as a gifted child, but very, very little is done to cater to their needs for more challenging instruction. We are currently applying for a private school for 6th grade for that reason.

We're certainly not the only parents concerned about this. It's been with great regret that we've watched many involved parents pull their child out of the public school my child attended and either move to Lafayette or enroll their child in a private school. (It was particularly disheartening to witness two of our school's PTA presidents do just that.) When the kids start out in KG, the classes are indeed very diverse. By 5th grade, it seems to me that minority kids make up most of the class. Many, many families -- in my experience mostly white -- have opted out of the system.

I think this is a very sad, regretable development. And I'm not sure how to address the problem.
Parent of kid about to Leave Public School


There are plenty of bright, motivated children who do well in the Berkeley schools. I volunteer in my child's classroom once a week, and have seen a wide range of student work. Some kids are struggling, and others are working significantly above grade level. Most of the Berkeley teachers I've seen have been able to provide work that is interesting to the full range of abilities. In my family's case that has meant providing extra/more challenging work when needed, and working with older kids in some subject areas. Our school also has a number of enrichment activities, some funded by the PTA, and some through various CAL volunteer programs.

That said, I don't consider school the only place where my child is learning. We go to museums and cultural events, and have enrolled our child in language, math and science classes outside of the school day/school year. My child also independently reads and writes for pleasure which I suspect will have an academic pay-off in the long run.

If you are going by test scores alone, you can look at the more detailed breakdowns, and you will see that Berkeley children of college-educated parents do as well as, or better than their peers over the hill. On the other hand, if your children aren't self-motivated, they could get lost, particularly in the middle school years, and if they are looking for trouble, it isn't hard to find as the children get older. (Though I remember plenty of drug culture in the suburban high I attended. I also remember feeling bored and alienated at that highly rated school.)

These decisions are really hard, and in the end there is no other way to make them than to jump in the pool and be ready to play lifeguard if it isn't working out. anon


Our daughter started kindergarten at Emerson Elementary School last fall, and we are very pleased with the teachers, the students, and the curriculum. The staff make it a priority to know children not only in their classes, but in different classes at all levels. I volunteer in the classroom once a week and see the progress, the behaviors, etc., and it's a good learning environment. Keep in mind that the public schools adhere to the state's curriculum requirements, as opposed to the private schools, which can teach whatever they choose. Our view is, at this age, what's important is that the children are learning and covering the bases of the basics. We are taking public school one year at a time, and if the social issues become an obstacle to the academics, we will go a different route. But our little girl is thriving, due to the classroom program, and to the offerings from extracurricular classes, and the greatly diverse student body. My husband and I are products of public schools and ivy league colleges and graduate schools, by the way. A believer in public schools
I wanted to extend my support and thank you for bringing up a politically incorrect subject that will no doubt produce many heated responses. I'm even more extreme: diversity is not a deciding factor for me, nor is the school community or the PTA, and the extra-curricular activities are easily supplemented outside of school. The bottom line is 'how are the academics'? That's why I send my kids to school. It seems that for some in Berkeley 'academics' is a code word for 'white and rich'. That's not my view, it's excellence in education and shouldn't be limited by racial or socio-economic background. It's a highly competitive world out there, and every child needs an excellent academic education to make their way. Yes I want my kids to 'be happy' but more importantly I want them to have an education that will allow them to have choices in their lives. I don't want them to be limited by a mediocre educational experience. So I don't have an answer for you about Berkeley Public Schools. My kids are in academic private schools, both really like their schools and I think the schools are a good fit for them. I don't think the academics you're looking for are on the California public school agenda. I'm not willing to gamble my kids' education on trying to turn around Berkeley public schools, as I feel my educational views are very much in the minority in Berkeley. If you're considering a move for public school academics you might read 'School of Dreams' by Edward Humes. It's about an academic public high school in Cerritos, Ca. Apparently, people move to the area from overseas to get their kids into this high school. annon
This is a great question. My kids went all the way through the BUSD K-12. My experience was that academic achievement is not a top concern of the Berkeley school district, nor for that matter is it a top concern of the citizens of Berkeley with regard to their public school system. There are other issues that take priority and get more resources. Maybe these other issues are more important than academics, I don't know. But the result is that many Berkeley kids are not getting the education they should because the BUSD is too busy addressing social ills to pay attention to educating kids.

Here is my experience: by 4th grade my kids were in a classroom culture where most of the kids were not into learning. It was not cool to be engaged academically and this was even more true in middle schools and high school. Not to say that smart students cannot succeed in BUSD - they can, and some of my kids' BUSD schoolmates went to top colleges, well prepared. But these kids succeeded in spite of a pervasive anti-intellectual culture. I don't believe their success can be credited to the BUSD. What I saw was either a very driven kid or very driven parents. If you or your kid are not driven, your kid is at risk academically the longer he/she is in the BUSD. That's my opinion.

I don't want to give the impression that BUSD does not have the resources to provide a rich learning environment. My kids had talented teachers, and a wealth of enrichment and extras and field trips that rival local private schools. However, I did not find a culture of learning in Berkeley public schools. In my experience, academic expectations were low for all but the most motivated kids. In higher grades, as the motivated students moved in to advanced classes, many other kids (like mine) were stuck in a dumbed-down curriculum with few challenges and no expectations that homework would be turned in, tests would be studied for, or anything would be learned. My kids had so many assignments that were seemingly tuned to the lowest common denominator - rote, brain-dead busywork or drawing and coloring projects more suitable for much younger kids. After a few years of this a kid will lose interest in all schoolwork, may start to hate school and resent the time wasted in meaningless activities. Mine did. But it was left up to individual children and parents to figure out how to make their way through this and end up with an education, because the schools really were not focused on academic achievement for every student.

I heard administrators say more than once that the school's main responsibility was to the less advantaged kids who did not have books at home and afterschool classes and other kinds of enrichment. The theory was that the kids who are better off will succeed anyway, so they do not need any particular attention from the BUSD. At the time it made some sense to me but now I just think it's really cynical. No one wins except the kids who are going to win anyway no matter what school they're in. And too many of those high achieving kids are no longer in the public schools anyway, having realized that BUSD doesn't care much how they fare in school and will devote few resources to their educations. This leaves a much larger and ever growing proportion of kids who need extra help, so it's a vicious circle. The BUSD seems really unconcerned about this, as if it is not a problem.

Another problem: a kind of resigned acceptance of bad behavior. The BUSD provides all sorts of wonderful opportunities for kids and then sabotages them by allowing disinterested students to undermine the experience for the interested ones. Rude and disruptive behavior was commonplace in the classroom, on the playground, on field trips, at graduation ceremonies. I helped out in the classroom a lot. My kids had classes where the teacher was lucky to get 10 minutes of real knowledge imparted in a day because so much time had to be spent disciplining misbehaving students and repeating instructions for slower students. These teachers are so dedicated and it was heartbreaking sometimes to be in a classroom where half the kids would rather be anywhere else but here, and are making sure everyone knows it. I went on field trips where kids basically made their own rules for behavior, running around out of control, talking and cutting up during performances, completely missing out on a cultural event or a day in nature, preventing everyone else from getting anything out of it and ridiculing anyone who did. I went to middle school graduation ceremonies where parents screamed and carried on to the point where you couldn't hear your kid's name when it was called, and no school official ever stood up to ask for peace.

Being in an environment like this year after year can be very defeating for a child who starts out wanting to learn. By middle school all but the most dedicated students just stop trying. When disruption and rudeness and inconsideration are tolerated by their teachers and principals, children get the message loud and clear that this is acceptable, that the school tolerates a non-learning environment. And this was the message my kids got: we are not here to learn. We are here to have fun, be in a diverse group, learn about other cultures. If an academic experience is wanted, you're on your own. I feel like my kids really got a raw deal and in retrospect I am sorry I didn't figure out some way to get them into a school where learning could happen. Anon


I always studied in a private school and was always the best student in my class. Some years I had the best final grade out of all classrooms/years in high school. I had a grant to be able to go to that school. Most of my classmates traveled more, lived in mansions, bought more and more expensive clothes, had many cars (many times we had to walk to school because our old and only car did not start at the last minute), etc. but I had the best grades. I stopped being the best student when I entered into a public University where the 2-3 students always ahead came from a public school system: ''poorer'' than me, unbeatable! This happened in a foreign country. I am surprise to hear that here it is different and to be ''poor'' means to be unable to do well/good at school. Are always ''rich'' students the best ones? Maybe the factors are other??? I am now here (East Bay) -considered a low income-, with 2 young children (3 & 10ms.)getting them ready to be very good students!
super educated poor
I agree with you completely that academics are not a priority in the BUSD and that a high level of impoverished families does not, in the BUSD system at least, lend itself to an academic environment. My sibling and I attended BUSD schools for 12 years each and my child is there now. A high level of poor families tends to result in a high level of under-performing children who often have behavioral issues. What limited resources there are in the schools are spent trying to get the under-performing children up to grade level (so that they can show improvement on state/federal tests) and trying to keep order in over-crowded classes full of kids with behavioral issues. The result is that the high-performing, well-behaved kids who are interested in academics get minimal attention. In my experience, this gets better at the junior high and high school levels because at that point the kids are split up into remedial, standard, and advanced classes for most subjects.

I donít think that poverty per se is the issue. The problem is that some families do not consider getting an education to be of utmost importance, do not teach their children discipline, do not stress academics at home, and do not participate in the schools (PTA, classroom volunteering, etc. ). And the BUSD exacerbates these problems by focusing its resources on promoting ''diversity'' rather than on promoting academics. I think that Berkeley children would be much better served if the BUSD were to stop stressing diversity above all (e.g. by not spending its scarce resources on programs such as the diversity- enforcing school assignment process) and start promoting academic achievement above all. This could be done, in part, by dividing the resources equally among all of the children regardless of their background or level of performance rather than devoting the lion's share of the resources to the under- performing kids.
BUSD alumnus and parent


I see the following at BUSD:

1. Many teachers providing high level academic experiences - 5- paragraph essays in 2nd grade, 10 chapter novels (first outlined for structure) in 5th grade, 7-10 page analytical (not just narrative) research papers in 9th grade, major research writing projects in 11th/12th grade as well as analytical based mathematics (not just rote drills), and great academic enrichment through field trips and guest presenters and secondary school internships. However, while the district must follow state curriculum guidelines, there are few standards of how curriculum is taught, so that academic standards can vary dramatically from teacher to teacher. Few principals have had the leadership to insist upon comparable quality among teachers, intra and inter-grade communications, and data driven assessments for continual improvement and the District is struggling to instill such standards systemwide.

2. Low expectations about the performance of students of color - especially in secondary school: I've seen many, many students of color that performed close to or average to beyond grade level in elementary school that ended up turned off and close to failing sometime during middle/high school. Assumptions that students/families of color and lower income students/families don't care about academics are rampant in the District and these assumptions reinforce the media driven peer pressures (and basic adolescent laziness) to dumb down. Its common to see differential discipline for the same offense between white and students of color, seen teachers profile students the first day of class by directing black kids wearing urban wear to sit in the back of the class (and I knew they were honor roll students), and heard staff and teachers tell students and parents of color that they shouldn't be so concerned if their kids were making at least B's and C's and routinely assume that families of color didn't expect their students to attend 4-year college.

3. The District's liberalism tends to be not so much about diversity as it is about academic choice, personal freedom and is arrogance based. This has been disastrous for many students that need structure to succeed (both white and of color) and many Berkeley liberals (ie. white liberals) seem to think they ''know'' why many kids of color aren't succeeding in the district (and blame it purely on socio-economics and culture) without even talking to families of color. Virtually all of families of color I know (and I'm of color too) routinely say that they wish that teachers were MORE rigorous in their expectations, MORE strict, focused MORE on academic and study skills - they want the high school campus CLOSED, LESS academic choice, MANDATORY tutorials, teacher accountability (especially! in giving progress feedback) and high achievement publicly recognized and rewarded.

4. Academic success is often correlated with family involvement and in the secondary school, many teachers prefer having an ''adult'' one on one relationship with students (university teaching). Its VERY difficult to obtain syllabi, work assignments, and/or feedback on student academic progress. Many adolescents simply aren't mature enough to be self-advocates or even to be organized and focused enough to stay up with class assignments (the #1 reason for failing students according to ALL the teachers I've spoken to at the high school - NOT basic skill level or ability).

5. Academic support services are inadequate. Many middle income students are successful because of private tutoring, especially in math and science. Parents that cannot afford private tutoring and don't have in-house expertise due to language or their own academic skill barriers find it extremely difficult to provide help when needed. By the way, virtually all of the academic support services are grant funded and do NOT take away resources from ''academically strong without help'' students.

Bottom line: BUSD is alot like Cal. A world class education is available - but not everyone is going to succeed there, especially students that are relatively immature and not self- motivated - whatever their natural ability or skill level. And, because of the relative lack of teaching standards and systemwide accountability, the classroom experience will vary (there are some REALLY bad profs at Cal as well as the outstanding ones). And, students of color may very well feel that they are NOT welcome and not expected to succeed (and told that their accomplishments are due to ''affirmative action'' or ''liberal'' grade giving rather than their own merits - which I as a Cal grad student of color was told more than once by fellow students). So far my children are succeeding and overall have had an outstanding education at BUSD, but its taken constant monitoring, participation, and sometimes hell-raising to make it so. But then, my friends whose kids are at private school have had their issues too...
Eyes open public school advocate


Boy, kind of heavy reading the responses so far to that question! I have a first and third grader in a Berkeley public elementary school, and so far I am very happy! I myself went to public schools, but up to college it was in western Europe. Highschool there is 'stratified': a PhD prep highschool, MS/MA prep highschool, BA/BS prep highschool, and tech school prep highschool. This really worked in many ways, I think. I was in the PhD prep highschool, mostly because my dad 'pushed' me a bit and I am so glad he did!

Regarding my kids school, I think it has been excellent so far! One kindergarden teacher was poor & yelled at kids and parents (a bit maniacal) and all of us parents, we just talked about it, went to the prinicipal, I even discussed a bit with the teacher, and the principal let go of her at the end of the year, which I think was the right thing to do. A lot of the kids liked her despite the negatives (she was also fun and creative), so I'm glad she wasn't send away in the middle of the year; it would have been disruptive for the kids, but I'm also glad she didn't stay for another year. Also, our principal listened to us! He never really said ''I agree with you'' at the time, but I think in his position he has to be diplomatic, i.e. can not gripe about one of his teachers with the parents, but he listened and took action.

In second grade, there was one child from a poor family who was behaving abysmally (stepping on other kids fingers on purpose, tried to trip my daughter, etc etc). I just kept communicating with my daughters' teacher and other parents and also the prinicipal. In this case, the teacher had some reluctance about being 'the bad one' in having to address the child's behavior, but I kept discussing that the child and all the other children in the class and ultimately she herself too as teacher would be much better served by simply not tolerating this hebavior, and the teacher started getting tuff on the child! There also was a boy in my son's kindergarden class room, from very poor family, who really misbehaved; eg kicked a girl during recess on purpose, and wouldn't come when a supervising parent called him, etc. The K teacher was SUPER with this boy, using the 'carrot and stick', eg 'if you come when the parent calls you, you can still have half of your recess', etc, and the boy improved a lot! The first grade teacher both my kids had is superb too. She had a child stay home on Halloween because he was pushing and shoving other kids! I think it really made an impression on the child and he behaved better too!

I just so believe in public school, and yes, I believe in helping the poorer students who don't have all the advantages my kids have A lot of these families are struggling. I just try to spend a LOT of time at my kids school! I hear a lot from other parents, talk to the teachers a lot and find out a lot about the assignments, the classrooms, and the dynamics that way, and, yes, I do try to help those students that just need help with behavior. I talk to help them understand the effects of behavior, sometimes just shadow them, and when they do good, I'm sure to tell the teacher so they get their just rewards. So far, I am very happy. Also, the principal started out this year saying more differentiated instruction is planned, and therefore disruptive classroom behavior will be tolerated even less! My friends' children did BUSD all the way and are in Hopkins now... Regarding the disruptive behavior: can we just all get togther more as parents and set better limits if needed? If we all work together, we CAN make the changes! And it may cost less then that private school tuition! The more involved parents that speak up, yes, of course, the better off we'll be! BUSD parent


When I first visited Berkeley Public Schools to check out the kindergartens for my then preschooler, I was not impressed. But having 2 children, we had to use the public school system and it turned out that she did quite well and we were very pleased with her K-2 teachers and I really liked the principle. I had heard ''stories'' of teachers teaching to the ''bottom line'' etc., but we didn't really find that. Then we moved to another East Bay town and my daughter hated 3rd grade. They did not teach using as much art and imagination as the Berkeley school and they had more homework. So I talked to friends from the Berkeley school - Their children had more homework also and it increased as the children got older and the art components, etc were reduced as the children got older. So I can say that, regardless of whether my child was in a Berkeley school or in her current school, she probably would have had to work harder and would have had less art and more homework and not have been very happy. She does not like doing homework. Her 3rd grade teacher in the new school said she had not learned her math facts and I become worried because she had done well in math on the Star exam in 2nd grade in math. Her second grade teacher in Berkeley had never mentioned problems in math. So I started sending her to Kumon after her 3rd grade Star exam. Then when we got her Star score back in August she was still above the 400 mark in math.

I don't think she had that much problem with her math facts as it was that she didn't like the school and didn't want to do homework or take tests for the teacher. Now in 4th grade in the same school she seems to like her teacher better and we haven't gotten as many comments about her not being ''up to par.'' So my conclusion has been that a lot of what makes a child succeed in school is not just good teachers, or a good school district, but the attitude of the child (and the parents) about school.


2004 - 2006 Discussions


Discouraged about Berkeley public schools

Jan 2006

I just finished reading the posts about the academics in the BUSD and know that there were probably many more that were too negative for the fourm to post. I have a son who will start kindergarten in the fall and we've just moved into a house we can barely afford just to get him into Berkeley and out of Oakland and I am just wondering how the schools in a town with one of the best public universities in the country could be in such a state. I believe in public education, I am a product of excellent NY public schools and an excellent VA public college and want the same for my children. Do I have to leave Berkeley to give them an excellent public education? From the posts it seems that elementary school may be ok but after that it's all downhill. I love Berkeley and all that it has to offer but I want my children to have a future, an academic future. I appreciate the honesty of the responses, I think I'm just wondering what to do with the information...
is berkeley worth the cost?


No, it is not so hopeless at BUSD. I encourage you to seek out and chat with folks you know who have children in the middle schools and the high school. Personally, we have a child in a BUSD elementary school and we are very happy with the academics. We are in the King Middle School zone and we hear that, although it is large, families are quite happy with it. They feel that their 6th graders are well taken care of as they are introduced to a bigger school. They feel the academics are strong, including math (stronger than many private schools). I understand that at the middle schools differentiation in classes begins. I hear that kids who are more academically oriented can aim for the more advanced classes. Getting these classes under their belt may make a difference when they get to high school. Regarding high scho ol, as you likely heard, many jr. high private school kids return to public school in berkeley because the Berkeley High has so much to offer (and many Oaklnad kids try to transfer in above board or by faking an adress). There is still a big achievement gap at berkeley high, as you will find in Oakland and many other communities with a wide range of incomes. Yet for us, we feel our children will have the ability to take advantage of the many rich programs offered at Berkeley High and will do well. The many students who do well at Berkeley High are know for getting into many excellent colleges across the country. SO is it worth the high rents/mortgage payments? For us, it is. We like what BUSD has to offer, and we participate in our child's school to help support academics for ALL Berkeley children.
BUSD parent
You mention your excellent public education in New York. As a product of the California public schools (Lowell High Class of '82), I can tell you that I too got an excellent public education back in the day. The problem is that while I was in high school, Californians passed Prop 13. Everyone knew at the time that the Prop 13 restrictions on property taxes would be a disaster for the public schools, and they have been. Talented and committed faculty, administrators, and parents in lots of districts try to fill the gap, but local districts can't come close to fully replacing the lost state support. In supporting public education we are up against that 1978 majority who weren't willing to pay for it, and that's an uphill battle.
Hopeless California native
Responding to a poster who stated that Prop 13 has been a ''disaster for public schools''...the reality is that from 1992- 93 to 2002-03, inflation-adjusted total education revenues per pupil in California increased by nearly 29 percent. Rather than faulting Prop. 13, the priority should be to reform the way tax dollars are spent to better impact student achievement. As the California Legislative Analyst Office rightly points out, the state must reform the structures and incentives in the K-12 system 'to assure that all educational funding is spent to maximum effect.'' Previou s posters regarding BUSD seem to corroborate this point.
Hopeful for Change
I was in your shoes a year ago, except I was excited about the array of options at BUSD. My kindergardener is showing me that I was right: there are great things going on in the BUSD schools. Cooking, music, drama, art, library, gardening: I never dreamed he'd have this wealth of experiences in public school these days. Ok, so a good part of it is paid for by the PTA, but all three of the schools I looked at impressed me by what was offered in these areas, and the kids love it.

Academics: My son came in already ''well prepared'' academically and then some, but is still growing and learning academically even t hough many of his classmates are still working on the building blocks. He's writing daily, learning to use strategies (other than ''ask mom'') to spell words he doesn't know by heart, improving his fine motor skills through repeated writing and other activities, and learning a lot about patterns and other concepts in the math area. Although the homework is very easy for him, I think he's finding enough challenge to keep him interested academically. My impression is that all the kids are making great strides academically.

Is he learning?: You bet! And in my opinion he's learning what he needs to right now: how to interact with kids from a variety of backgrounds, how friendships work, about the world from the many caring adults at school who have a whole wide range of interests and experience, how to be a part of a bigger social structure. He's thriving on this new range of experiences. Not only are all these things great for my son, they're great for all the other kids who are going to Malcolm X too, some from families very different from our own.

I feel a lot of energy at the school going into making it work for everyone: teachers, parents, experts, neighbors, the kids themselves. I have to trust that when we get to middle school and high school some of that energy will still be there to make those experiences rich and dynamic also.
- Happy kindergarden mom


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