Op-ed: School district overcrowding is an opportunity that begins as a problem

Last week’s Berkeley School Board meeting kicked off a series of important community input meetings to address the issue of overcrowding in our schools. Parents from local elementary schools shared observations about how increasing demands on our teachers, classrooms, schoolyards and cafeterias undermine the quality education that we want for Berkeley’s kids.

Although our schools are overflowing, the school board meeting felt strangely empty. Four of our ten elementary schools were represented, and no middle school or high school parents spoke about overcrowding during open comment. Perhaps the word is still getting out about the meetings, but we are entering a critical window of decision-making in which current and future BUSD parents and community members need to consider solutions to a city-wide problem with no easy answers.

Berkeleyside readers are familiar with the chaotic situation at Malcom X elementary (Op-ed: Berkeley schools are victims of their own success, Aug. 26, 2014). Every BUSD school exhibits aspects of this chaos.

As the parent of a child at Cragmont Elementary and one that has moved on to middle school, I have seen first-hand the impact of these increasing numbers. Just ten years ago, Cragmont had over 100 fewer students, plus coveted enrichment spaces for art, science and computers. Today those things are all gone. We are packed to the gills, every classroom full, including a room that has been converted from a copy room and book storage room into a classroom. Assemblies in the multipurpose room often reach or exceed fire capacity and it’s near impossible to keep the restrooms sanitary with the increased load of students.

Several elementary schools including Cragmont were required to add last-minute kindergarten classes this year, subsequently requiring last minute teacher hires. Next year we anticipate the trend to continue with even more students entering our already full elementary school. Class sizes increased two years ago and keep going up… the average number of kids in K-2 doesn’t appear it will return to the 20:1 benchmark ratio set forth in the original Measure A any time soon. I wonder how middle and high school plan to accommodate the increasing number of students? Something has to give.

As a former PTA officer, I think about the upcoming kindergarten tours and what to say to prospective parents regarding space and enrichment. In a nutshell, how do I make lemonade out of lemons?

It’s true that we still have amazing teachers, aides, and staff, but it’s also true that their time is being stretched thin with increasing class sizes that include a more and more disparate population of kids to reach. Sometimes learning aides skip lunch in order to see more students in need. Kids have longer bus commutes because more stops continue to be added. Our bathrooms need constant attention due to increased traffic. The multipurpose room is too small for large community events. But most sad to me is that fact that we were once able to reach struggling kids who didn’t want to come to school by luring them through the doors of our precious art studio. We no longer have this way of reaching those kids. I wonder if this is how the parents felt when we lost the science lab?

We recently asked our community a survey question to guide our action, “Are you concerned about overcrowding at Cragmont?” Responses were resoundingly, “yes!” While this survey was conducted at our school, we know these voices represent families all across Berkeley and could easily be representative of any school. Comment trends included: disappointment in the lack of commitment to Measure A, perceptions of the School Board’s inattention, and concern over fraudulent enrollment.

Anyone who studies the Superintendent packet from the October 8 Board meeting will see that all of our elementary schools look full on paper. Anyone who tours these schools today will observe that impact at the elementary level, and in coming years at our middle schools and high school. Berkeley must make significant decisions over the next four school board sessions towards solutions. During this brief window we need our community to participate in solving this problem quickly. We don’t have the luxury of time, but we do have the luxury of widespread commitment to public education among our community.

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Stephanie Wade is a BUSD parent, PTA member and former Cragmont Elementary School PTA president. She owns a marketing/design agency.