Audrey Karlstad, teacher, Nilofer Ahsan, parent and PTSA president, and Michelle Ferrari, teacher, all sitting in front of Edna Brewer Middle School. Several teachers and parents have proposed an enrollment pilot program that would seek to maintain the traditional diversity of the Brewer's population. Credit: Pete Rosos

At one of Oakland Unified’s most popular and diverse middle schools, parents and teachers have designed their own enrollment strategy to maintain racial and class diversity in their classrooms.

It’s a bold departure from OUSD’s existing citywide policy, and its creators hope the school board will approve it next month, allowing the school to start using the new system in the spring.

Located in Oakland’s Glenview neighborhood, Edna Brewer Middle School currently enrolls similar numbers of students across racial and economic lines. Last year, Black students made up about 24% of Brewer’s student population, Latino students made up 20%, Asian students represented around 19%, and white students about 24%. Teachers and parents at Brewer feel the school also has a healthy socioeconomic mix: about half of Brewer’s students qualified for free or reduced lunch last year.

But last fall, teachers at Brewer looked at enrollment over several years and noticed a worrying trend. While Brewer is a diverse school today, fewer students of color and low-income students have been enrolling over the past decade. Nilofer Ahsan, the school’s parent-teacher-student association president, presented a report to the PTSA about Brewer’s decreasing diversity and challenged the group to do something about it. The PTSA pulled more Brewer parents into the effort and formed a task force called Panthers for Diversity and Inclusion earlier this year.

If Brewer teachers and parents succeed with their enrollment program, at least 50% of the school’s first-round enrollment offers will go to students from low-income families, measured by census tract. This would be a big change from the way enrollment typically works in OUSD; currently, the district doesn’t look at socioeconomic factors when assigning students to schools. 

In taking deliberate steps to try and shape the mix of students at their school, Panthers for Diversity and Inclusion is taking on one of the biggest debates in public education: school segregation. But while integration efforts usually attempt to balance school populations that already have overwhelming numbers of one racial or socioeconomic group concentrated at a specific school, Brewer is doing something different. It’s trying to maintain the diversity it already has.

Housing in Oakland is starkly divided along racial lines due to deep-rooted residential segregation, and as a result, Oakland’s neighborhood schools also end up being highly segregated. OUSD’s current enrollment process prioritizes students who live in the neighborhood around a school, which means that schools in more affluent, largely white neighborhoods tend to serve mostly white students, while Black, Latino, and low-income students are concentrated in other schools.

“In this moment, as all of our institutions are being looked at as to how they have directly or indirectly caused historical segregation or historical inequities in our systems…this might be one of those opportunities for Edna Brewer, as a community, to try to address them,” said Kay Fernandez Smith, a parent on the task force.

Brewer’s attendance area is bounded by Fruitvale and Dimond avenues on the east and Piedmont to the north, and includes areas east of Lake Merritt below the 580 freeway. Kids who live in those neighborhoods are given priority if they choose to enroll at Brewer. Historic trends show that white students’ enrollment has gradually increased over the past several years, up from less than 10% in the 2012-2013 school year. The percentage of students at Brewer who qualified for the free and reduced-price price lunch program since that school year fell from two-thirds to about half. Black student enrollment has dropped from nearly 40% in the same time period, and Asian enrollment has fallen 10% over the last four years.

What’s driving these changes? Teachers at Brewer say higher-income families living near the school were much less interested in sending their kids there until relatively recently, frequently opting for charter or private schools instead and leaving more room for less-affluent kids from other neighborhoods across Oakland to enroll. In the 2012-2013 school year, only around 30% of Brewer students lived right around the school. But Brewer’s popularity has skyrocketed over the past decade: it was the most in-demand school in OUSD during last year’s enrollment period and ended up waitlisting 500 students. As the school’s reputation improved, nearby families became much more interested in it. Last year, neighborhood kids made up nearly half of Brewer’s student body.

“This is about preserving the school, preserving its diversity, its character, and preserving it as one of the few places in this district and around the country where we really have kids learning in a truly diverse environment,” said the PTSA president Ahsan, who has an eighth-grader at Brewer.

Panthers for Diversity and Inclusion will present their pilot proposal at the Oct. 28 school board meeting, where board members will discuss the proposal and provide feedback. The proposal could come back to the board for a vote at the following meeting on Nov. 12. If it passes, the pilot will be implemented for the upcoming enrollment period that opens on Nov. 16, and families will receive their offers in the spring. 

“We want to challenge the narrative that you can’t have a majority-minority or higher-need school and have it not be a thriving, excellent school that everybody is psyched to go to,” said Ahsan. “And we think we could have lots of those in Oakland.”

How enrollment works in OUSD

Oakland Unified School District uses an open enrollment process, which means families can choose to send their students to any school in the district, even a school all the way across town from where they live. Families rank specific schools and students receive offers based on a set of preferences: current students, siblings of current students, students from schools that are being closed, students from the same neighborhood where a school is located, children of OUSD staff, and Oakland residents, and then anyone else who lives outside of Oakland, have preference in that order.  

Brewer’s new Panthers for Diversity and Inclusion group created their enrollment pilot proposal after seeking feedback from other Brewer parents and families at nearby elementary schools who are considering applying to Brewer when their kids graduate. 

The group ended up shelving some other ideas, like upping their goal for the percentage of Brewer students who come from lower-income families to 65% rather than 50%. But some families in Brewer’s neighborhood pushed back during community engagement sessions, fearing their kids wouldn’t get in.  

“Enrollment issues are very, very charged, and hit families who might lose a spot very, very personally,” Ahsan said. 

That led the Panthers for Diversity and Inclusion to carve out seats for families from the neighborhood in the pilot. Students who live in the school’s attendance area, attended an Oakland public school in fifth grade, and apply on time will be guaranteed a seat.

Brewer enrolls around 800 students each year, and anticipates making about 300 sixth grade offers to next year’s incoming class. About 200 of those seats are offered to neighborhood families or students with siblings who already attend Brewer, and 100 offers go to other Oakland residents or people outside of Oakland through a lottery system. Last year, about a third of the neighborhood offers went to low-income families. If the pilot is put in place, a majority of the additional lottery seats will go to low-income students to ensure that the 50% target is met. 

If the pilot is implemented, the most impacted families will be middle and upper-class students who don’t live in Brewer’s neighborhood, who could have previously gained admission through the general Oakland resident lottery. 

Monica Kaldani-Nasif is a Brewer parent who also serves on the school’s PTSA board. When the Panthers for Diversity and Inclusion working group came to the board with their initial proposal, which would add a preference for diversity above neighborhood, Kaldani-Nasif said she was nervous about how quickly the group wanted to implement the new strategy. 

“I wanted it to succeed, and I didn’t want there to be a backlash,” she said. 

Kaldani-Nasif created a second proposal as an alternative. Her plan proposed adding a preference for students in certain categories, like low-income, English learners, and foster students, and placed it below the neighborhood preference but before the general lottery. Soon after Kaldani-Nasif’s counter-proposal began circulating, Panthers for Diversity and Inclusion revised its proposal to add a guarantee for neighborhood families.

“My goal was to show that we’re all working toward the same thing. I’m sure there’s going to be people that will come and still not be happy with the proposal,” Kaldani-Nasif said. “I thought we did a really nice job of finding common ground.”

OUSD’s board of education is also considering major changes to its citywide enrollment process. The school board convened an enrollment committee earlier this year to examine the district’s enrollment trends and determine whether OUSD should consider altering them to ensure equity and access to higher-quality schools. 

The district’s official enrollment committee, which includes parents, teachers, and principals, presented recommendations to the school board last week that included developing marketing strategies for schools, establishing enrollment pilots at a few schools to prioritize low-income students (this recommendation includes the Brewer experiment), and providing more support for families that don’t speak English to help them navigate the enrollment process. 

The district-wide group was similarly wary of prioritizing other factors over neighborhood preference, said Sonali Murarka, OUSD’s executive director of enrollment.

“There are definitely some people who feel like we should be disrupting neighborhood priority and that we should be thinking more about integration,” Murarka said. “And then there are other people who say OUSD has a tradition of trying to promote neighborhood schools, and we think there’s a lot of benefit to families staying in their neighborhood.”

At the upcoming Oct. 28 school board meeting, the board could vote on the enrollment committee’s recommended policy changes. One change would allow individual schools, like Brewer, to create their own pilots, and the other would add a priority for pre-k students to continue to kindergarten at their school, or the closest elementary school. 

With four current board members stepping down at the end of this year, the enrollment group opted not to present any sweeping changes until new board members, who may have different ideas about enrollment and equity, are elected.

Diversity is valued at Brewer

If Brewer’s pilot isn’t adopted, teachers note, the school could lose its Title I funding, federal money for schools with significant low-income student populations. Brewer receives about $150,000 each year in Title I funding that goes toward academic support for students, like counselors, tutors, and extra-curricular programs. If the percentage of low-income students falls below 40%, Brewer risks losing that extra funding. 

Brewer teachers also say they’ve seen the benefits of classroom diversity can have on the way students learn, and one motivation for their pilot program is to maintain the range of perspectives in the classroom. 

Michelle Ferrari has been an educator for 20 years and is in her fourth year at Brewer, where she teaches history. She saw how the makeup of her classes changed just over the few years that she’s been at the school, and was motivated to join Panthers for Diversity and Inclusion. 

Ferrari’s history lessons consistently touch on issues of  social justice, challenging the dominant narratives and incorporating the voices and experiences of marginalized groups. Middle school is an essential time for learning how to coexist in a diverse community, Ferrari said, and she believes Brewer’s community is ideal. 

“That happening in an authentically diverse classroom is not replaceable,” she said. “As I felt that shift a little bit, you hear and see certain voices more or less represented, and I think it has such an impact on the students in terms of their development.”

Audrey Karlstad, an eighth-grade math teacher, came to Brewer in 2014. She said a diverse student body makes class discussions more enjoyable, even when it comes to math.

“Having students who are able to come together from so many different places, and bring those ideas and strategies into a math classroom, means that every single person in that room gets to see another strategy or another way of looking at a problem, and how to solve it,” Karlstad said. “They’re growing as problem solvers, which means that they can be successful in all different kinds of situations.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.