Berkeley’s Underground Railroad

Will the city's school district finally crack down on all of the hundreds of students who illegally come from out of town?

The last few years have been very good to Berkeley. One of the few major problems still confronting the city is how truly terribly its African-American students are doing in school. When David Baggins recently ran for a seat on the school board, he openly declared that he had the answer. Countless numbers of students are sneaking across the border from neighboring cities, and they are responsible both for Berkeley’s racial “achievement gap” and its campus violence. Elect him, Baggins promised, and he’d put an end to this practice for good.

Baggins, the chair of Cal State East Bay’s political science department, has lived in town for sixteen years, has two children in the schools, and volunteers with his wife at the Berkeley arts magnet school. It was here, he says, that he first learned of the gravity of the problem. “It became pretty clear to us that about 30 percent of the school reliably was outside the district, or wouldn’t give their real address,” Baggins says. “We had an unprecedented cheating problem.”

No one at the district seemed to take this problem seriously, so Baggins decided to run for the school board himself. He knew he wouldn’t win, but he figured his race would finally force the district’s leaders to address what he called a problem of “mass theft” in his candidate’s statement. The practice of falsely registering as a Berkeley resident in order to illegally attend school, Baggins declared, is just the top of a pervasive atmosphere of failure responsible both for violence at Berkeley High and its embarrassingly high academic failure rate. “How can a city world-famous for its ideas have a 30 percent failure rate?” he asks. “The answer is it’s the power of false registration. … The high school has come to realize that most of the violence is related to the cheating problem. … They perfectly get it that out-of-district kids [are] what has made this town kind of violent.”

Although Baggins doesn’t explicitly state it, his implication is clearly that black students from out of town are responsible for this “subculture of failure.” Because perhaps the most noteworthy detail about this phenomenon is that while Berkeley’s black population has declined to 12 percent, the percentage of African-American students still hovers around 31 percent. According to standardized tests from the last three school years, Berkeley’s black students have consistently and dramatically performed below the state average, while Asian students score higher, and white students much higher than average. African Americans score on average even lower than students categorized as “English learners,” and lower than those students deemed “socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

Analyses by sociology professor Pedro Noguera and others concluded that at Berkeley High, there were simply not enough adults to counteract the influence of peers and upperclassmen. So as long as there was a tradition of skipping class and getting high, very little could change this dynamic. Berkeley High teachers have tried to create “small schools” that offer more intensive adult intervention, but Baggins’ solution is much more extreme: remove half of the underperforming students, whom he suspects are here illegally, and you remove a critical mass of underachievers who are infecting everyone else. “A one-third underperforming cohort generates more negative force than intervention can hope to alter,” he wrote in his candidate statement. “Only half this cohort is predicted from the Census to reside in Berkeley.”

For all his intentionally bland euphemisms, Baggins’ candidacy aroused a fair amount of racial tension, and he lost badly in the election. “I think it’s outrageous that he correlates being violent with being black or brown,” school board member Karen Hemphill says. But no one denies that many students are sneaking into town, and thanks to his campaign, the school board pledged to take a new stab at this problem. “I think Baggins’ campaign has moved it from a back-burner to a front-burner issue,” school board member Shirley Issel says.

On the other hand, just how they intend to solve this problem is up for debate. Issel thinks the district has pledged to settle on a new policy of “re-enrollment,” or examining whether students really live in town, in the next few months. But board member John Selawsky claims the board may not do anything at all. “I think what we’re doing is taking a look at what it would mean to re-enroll students in the high school,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. … We’ll know if we can do it or can’t do it by next September, and then we’ll figure out if we’re going to do it.”

There are two major roadblocks to this issue: No one knows just how many students are sneaking into the district, and no one really has the heart to hunt them down and kick them out. That black students constitute 31 percent of the student body while blacks are only 12 percent of the population may look dramatic, but board members estimate that 20 percent of white students attend private school, which skews the numbers. In addition, a number of parents may be divorced and send their kids to Berkeley, even though the kids may not live with them. “As a practical matter, if you have an address in Berkeley, that’s it,” Issel says. “We don’t look at custody arrangements, to my knowledge.” Finally, white parents in Oakland’s Rockridge district may be just as guilty of gaming the system, since they would be reluctant to put their children in Oakland schools. According to Hemphill, subscribers to the Berkeley Parent Network discussion list often post questions asking how to sneak their children into the district — and actually get a few good tips.

In the end, district leaders may simply balk at cracking down on the phenomenon, because it’s just, well, mean. “I don’t want to do bed checks,” Selawsky says. “Is that what the school should spend its time and resources on? I say no.” In fact, as Hemphill notes, people who take the time to sneak their children into the district may be exactly the sort of parents who have a commitment to their children’s education, producing the kind of students who don’t contribute to the district’s problems. “I am not saying that it’s okay to be falsely registered, but to me, any family that’s going to the trouble of falsely registering a student, why would you think they’re more of a problem and [a] drain on resources than kids who are legally here?”

In the end, one of the great assumptions complicating this debate is that African-American students are better off in Berkeley than in Oakland, and that forcing them to return to Oaktown’s notoriously dysfunctional schools is morally troubling. But that doesn’t appear to be borne out by the facts, at least not any longer. According to the latest standardized test results, known as the Academic Performance Index, black students in Oakland scored marginally better than their counterparts in Berkeley, 603 to 601. If the great dilemma of this debate is the ethics of forcing black Oakland students back to their own district, the great surprise is that, at least academically, they might not be worse off after all.


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