Berkeley Unified’s students are coming from wealthier families

Elementary aged kids sit on a colorful checkered rug, one kid per square
A new report reveals a rapidly changing Berkeley Unified student body. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The population of Berkeley schools has become much more affluent over the past decade, with just over a quarter of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches — a proxy for tracking low-income students  — compared to 44% in 2010-11, a new data set shows.

This year, only 26.7% of Berkeley Unified’s around 9,800 students can access the subsided school lunches, according to BUSD.

“The ongoing gentrification of Berkeley has changed the population of Berkeley schools significantly this decade,” wrote BUSD Technology Director Jay Nitschke in a memo to the School Board.

The statistics are included in the district’s latest mandatory report for CALPADS, the California Department of Education’s K-12 data system. The state uses the reported figures to determine how much funding to allocate to school districts.


Parent income level determines a child’s eligibility for the lunch program.

“In 2010-11 the percentage of students receiving free lunch was over 40% at each BUSD elementary school,” Nitschke said. “Now, just 10 years later, only Oxford and Thousand Oaks inch over the 30% mark and the overall average is slightly less than 26%. For the first time, we have a school, Rosa Parks, with a free lunch percentage under 20%,”

These socioeconomic trends reflect those of Berkeley in general, as housing prices have ballooned and longterm residents have been displaced or sold their homes. However, other factors can uniquely influence school demographics too, such as issues that prompt more parents to send their kids to private schools, the shifting age of the general population, or who comes to Berkeley from out of the district.

The CALPADS report, included on Wednesday’s School Board meeting agenda, also tracks the percentage of “unduplicated” students in the district. That label refers to students who are either in the free lunch program, are designated English learners or are foster youth. These are categories of students who the state sees as potentially needing more support or services to succeed academically.

Unduplicated students are those who the state determines as “requiring greater resources,” said BUSD spokeswoman Trish McDermott in an email.

The size of a district’s unduplicated population determines how many supplemental dollars it’ll receive through the state’s funding formula.

This year, 30.6%, just under a third, of BUSD’s population is unduplicated. In 2013-14, the first year the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) went into effect, that group made up 41.9% of the district, according to the report.

This year, BUSD received $5.5 million through that supplemental grant program, McDermott said.

“The number of students used to calculate LCFF dropped again this year,” she added, meaning the grant amount could decrease next year too.

While the trends in unduplicated student percentages were not consistently downward for all schools over the course of the tracked years, each school has ended up in 2019-20 with a (sometimes much) smaller percentage of unduplicated pupils than it had in 2013-14 — with the exception of Longfellow Middle School.

Currently, 58.8% of Longfellow’s student body is unduplicated, versus 54% in 2013-14. Longfellow is the only district-wide “choice” middle school, meaning anyone can elect to attend it, but that enrollment has dropped significantly over the past few years. It currently has the largest percentage of unduplicated students of any Berkeley school, aside from Berkeley Technology Academy, the district’s continuation high school, which is 71.7% unduplicated.

The socioeconomic makeup of a school also influences internal funding streams. In Berkeley, PTA organizations fund an array of enrichment programs and support services, and can draw more dollars from more affluent parent populations.

What are the most common languages spoken in BUSD?

Like the low-income students, the population of designated “English learners” has diminished in Berkeley schools over the decade. In 2010-11, 14.1% of students were “ELs”, while that figure has not surpassed 9% over the past few years. Now there are 809 ELs in the district, according to the report.

Matching California demographics, the majority of those students speak Spanish at home.

The CALPADS report includes a “language census,” tracking who speaks what throughout the district.

More students — 1,160 — speak Spanish than all the other listed languages combined. Of those youth, 424 are ELs.

The second most common language in BUSD is Arabic, with 131 students speaking it. After that comes Mandarin and Japanese, with 60 students each, then French and German, each spoken by 56 kids.

Most of the 2,210 students who speak a foreign language are also fluent in English, and the vast majority were born in the U.S. The CALPADS report counts 294 immigrant students, with China, France and Pakistan topping the list of common countries of origin. There are 16 Berkeley students from each of those nations.

More BUSD students speak Spanish than all other non-English languages spoken in the district combined. Chart: Berkeleyside/Data: BUSD

The number of English learners and bilingual kids in a district — beyond contributing to the state funding determination — affects the programming offered and staff employed by a district. In addition to EL classes, two schools, Sylvia Mendez Elementary and Longfellow, offer Spanish-English two-way immersion programs, which depend on a mix of native Spanish speakers and Spanish learners to be successful. To the chagrin of many families, the district decided to phase out the bilingual program at Thousand Oaks Elementary recently, citing the declining Spanish-speaking population there.

Even though the district tracks its demographic statistics and the trends in who’s attending Berkeley Schools, there is always some mystery in how those figures will translate into funds.

“We expect to know the full impact of changes to our state funding when we see the governor’s preliminary budget proposal later this month,” McDermott said.

Natalie Orenstein is a reporter at Berkeleyside. Email: natalie@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: nat_orenstein.