The Berkeley school board has adapted its plan over the past five decades to respond to the changing racial demographics of the city. In 2004, the board adopted an approach that divides the city into more than 400 micro-neighborhoods and asks all families to submit their school choices. Student placements take both school diversity and family preferences into account, without looking at the race or ethnicity of any individual student. Berkeley’s innovative approach received renewed attention after the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 2007 case Parents Involved v. Seattle, ruled against using race as a factor in voluntary school-desegregation plans in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle. (Like Berkeley, Louisville has found creative ways to maintain diverse schools, despite the court’s ruling). The scholars Lisa Chavez and Erica Frankenberg argued in 2009, “The Berkeley plan is a proven success that has been very well received by the courts.”
The lesson of the Berkeley plan is that successful school-desegregation efforts require leaders to articulate clearly why integrated education is a civic good, to navigate the inevitable resistance from some parents, and to adapt plans to changing political and demographic realities. No desegregation plan is ever perfect, but innovative efforts that are given the time, resources, and support they need to succeed can make a real and lasting impact on students.