Op-ed: Berkeley schools are victims of their own success

I am a proud graduate from, and enthusiastic supporter of, the Berkeley public schools. I am a lifelong resident of Berkeley, and have chosen to raise my family here. I love the school that my children attend, and have had nothing but tremendously positive experiences with all of the teachers and staff that have been involved in their education and care.

But Berkeley elementary schools are experiencing unprecedented problems with student population growth. In recent years, the number of students enrolling seems to have skyrocketed. This growth is a good sign, as it indicates general interest and confidence in our schools.  But this may be a case of too much of a good thing. Our schools are bursting at the seams, and there do not seem to be good short- or long-term alternatives for accommodating this increase.

Some point to the closure (in 1983) and sale (in 2012) of Hillside School as a contributing factor to the crowding. I do not know the history of that closure and sale well enough to know whether either was appropriate or shortsighted. I do know it would be really great if Hillside were open now.

Others claim this enrollment spike is explained at least in part by fraudulent out-of-district enrollment. I also do not know the truth about that, and choose not to speculate. Personally, I do not much care where students are coming from. BUSD receives funds for them, and needs to provide for them.

Whatever the causes, it is apparent that if current trends continue, Berkeley simply does not have enough classrooms (or administrative staff, as I will discuss below) to accommodate the number of students that are now enrolling. It also does appear that this growth has repeatedly caught the district by surprise, both in the short and the long term.

I am a father of two children at Malcolm X elementary school in Berkeley, and also happen to be an alumnus, so I will speak to that school’s experience.

Malcolm X appears to be a microcosm and an egregious example of the growth problem. In the past few years, Malcolm X has gone from a student population of about 400 students to nearly 600. I have witnessed much of this growth myself during the past three years. During that growth period, the school has not had any increase in physical facilities, nor has it had meaningful growth in administrative, resource, or support staff.  (Some small adjustments were made to the site funding formulas for this coming year, but these have now been overwhelmed by another year of continued growth.)

Although our staff and families work very hard to maintain the community feeling at Malcolm X, and to maintain its focus on arts and academics (we are still called an Arts & Academics Magnet, though the funding for that official status dissipated long ago), that becomes more and more difficult as budgets and staff are further stretched to accommodate more students.

Malcolm X is a great school, but I wonder how long it can maintain that status in the face of these pressures. Malcolm X is known for low staff turnover, but at least two veteran teachers chose not to return this year (and two others retired). School size may have been a factor in those decisions. Many of our teachers joined parents and other school community members in going before the School Board repeatedly last year to complain that the continued growth at Malcolm X was not being adequately supported with district resources.  The teachers explained that their workloads were increasing dramatically due to the increasing size of the school.

Despite being as large, or larger, than Willard or Longfellow (middle schools), Malcolm X is significantly understaffed in comparison to those campuses (which would not claim to suffer an overabundance of staff).  It has no vice-principal, no security staff, fewer dedicated special-education staff than the middle schools, inadequate administrative support, and inadequate staff for supervising the number of kids who have to get through lunch and recess every day.

We have also, at the same time, for reasons having to do with the loss of an outside funding source, had our garden instructional specialist’s time cut back.

In these and other ways, Malcolm X simply lacks a lot of the “glue” staff so necessary to supplement or support classroom teachers, particularly as the population grows. Rooms that were not previously used as classrooms have now been converted. We lack adequate space for the art, music, dance, theater, and other arts programs that have been our hallmark. The school is uncomfortably full. This discomfort is most obvious at lunchtime, when a space that was barely adequate to feed and house 400 kids now has to accommodate nearly 200 more kids on a daily basis.  It is becoming a difficult environment to ensure adequate nutrition, recreation, and safety.

Equally disturbing, BUSD seems to be repeatedly caught off-guard by this continuing, explosive growth. I am not aware of any plans for opening new schools or building new classrooms, either for the short or the long term. That may be my ignorance, and I would be pleased to learn that such plans are underway. But I suspect they are not. Instead, the plan seems to be to keep shoehorning kids into inadequate spaces while we hope that this growth spurt subsides.

Also disturbing is the apparent inability to predict, year to year, the number of students who will be enrolling. Surely the demographic information must be available, and BUSD should be capable of projecting enrollment. But it has shown a distressing inability to do so. Two years in a row, after expecting to be limited to four incoming kindergarten classes (the norm used to be three), the principal of Malcolm X received word in August, just a week or two before the start of school, that a fifth kindergarten class would be added.  This year, the school had already been assigned an additional third grade and two transitional kindergarten (TK) classes, so it already had to absorb additional population.

The last-minute addition of the fifth kindergarten class has twice led to a mad scramble to find space and a new teacher at a time when the principal and staff should be doing the important work necessary to prepare for the year and build the community of the school. It is unacceptable for that to happen once. It is embarrassing that it has now happened twice in a row.

I fully recognize that Malcolm X is not alone, and that all elementary schools in Berkeley are having similar problems. In fact, I understand Cragmont Elementary also had an extra, unanticipated kindergarten class added in August this year. And I also acknowledge that in past years Malcolm X has had it better than some other elementary schools in terms of the amount of space available, and its ability to dedicate spaces to particular (non-classroom) uses.

I understand that other school sites were considered for placement of the additional kindergarten class that ended up at Malcolm X, but it was determined that, while already crowded, Malcolm X was better able to accommodate this growth than others. If that is true, it is a sad statement about the crowded status of all of our schools. Because Malcolm X has run out of space.

The point here is not to say that Malcolm X is exceptional, or that it deserves exceptional treatment.  All of our schools need more space, more staff, and more support to deal with the explosion in population. Ideally, new classrooms will be dedicated (unless a leveling of the population can be reliably predicted).

Until that happens, however, and while we have the responsibility to accommodate all of these additional students, there are some things our schools must have. I believe that those needs will vary according to population and physical plant, and that the district needs to do more to acknowledge the greater needs of our largest schools.

I can only speak for what I believe Malcolm X needs. It needs more staff, immediately, and it needs those staff to be capable of managing a population of this size. That means we need more permanent, professional staff, like a vice/assistant principal or similar executive, security officers, support staff, special education professionals, instructional specialists, or other dedicated, permanent community members.

We are extremely pleased to welcome all of these enthusiastic new members of our school community, and we want to ensure for them the positive school experiences we have so far enjoyed.  We need far more help to keep that promise.

As has long been the motto at Malcolm X: Together We Can!

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Joshua Room is a lifelong Berkeley resident and parent of two children at Malcolm X Elementary School in the BUSD. He was President of the PTA at Malcolm X in 2013-2014.