By Elise Proulx
For 100 years, the small school in the mock Tudor building at the top of Claremont Avenue has educated the students of Berkeley.
Along the way, there have been a number of milestones: the school hosted the first integrated classrooms in Berkeley Unified School District in 1969, and pioneered programs for hearing impaired children in 1986. The architecturally significant Arts and Crafts schoolhouse was even slated for demolition in 1976, until the community rallied to preserve the building and the historic murals by renowned California artist Ray F. Coyle that grace the school’s library walls.
This year, John Muir Elementary School is marking the school’s remarkable centennial anniversary with two days of activities.
First up is a traditional neighborhood May Fair on Friday, May 13, from 5-8 p.m., replete with games, food trucks, obstacle courses, a cakewalk, old-fashioned field games and a raffle (with a four-pack of tickets to Disneyland as the grand prize). Entry is free but the purchase of a wristband is necessary to participate in specific activities.
The next day, Saturday May 14, will be a special Centennial Celebration from 3-6 p.m., with light afternoon fare by alumna Jennifer Sherman of Chez Panisse, and beverages in the Harwood Creek preserve, a natural habitat restored and maintained by volunteers. School tours will be happening throughout with alumni tables displaying memorabilia. A program highlighting the school’s history will be held in the Craftsman-style auditorium, which architectural historian Anthony Bruce has called “one of Berkeley’s most impressive interiors,” embodying the Craftsman ideal and the use of handcrafted materials.
Neighbors, alumni, and parents have banded together to help organize this grand weekend birthday party, including Sheila Schwartzburg, who has been instrumental in organizing Saturday’s event. Schwartzburg has a long history with John Muir: she was instrumental in fighting to save the building in the ‘70s and all three of her children, Anne, Molly and Jesse, attended between 1972 and 1983. Jesse’s children are keeping up the tradition and are now in kindergarten and 4th grade at the Claremont Avenue institution.
“John Muir is the same now as it was 30 years ago. It’s a wonderful small community with great teachers who care,”Schwartzburg said. “I love seeing kids climbing the trees and running around the playground.”
Alumni tend to have surprisingly strong ties to the school, potentially due to its intimate size — it’s the smallest in the Berkeley Unified School District.
Local real-estate agent Michael Stephens is a major sponsor of the weekend’s events and a graduate of the class of 1967 (when the school served kids up through 6th grade).
Stephens is still tight with his classmates and his favorite memories include “necking with the girls in the creek tunnel and playing baseball for endless hours in the summer. Oh, and walking to and from school every day. We had many adventures in those unsupervised hours.”
Stephens’ classmate Ken Gerver moved from New York to Berkeley in the mid-‘60s and entered “exotic” John Muir as a 3rd-grader.
“To accommodate the Baby Boom, the school used a trailer…which we colloquially and bucolically called the ‘bungalow’,” he said. “To an eight-year-old kid, it seemed exotic. Of course, having just come from PS 32 in the asphalt world of Queens, New York, the bungalow’s setting by the creek was quite a change for me, and a picture remains in my mind’s eye to this very day.
Current John Muir parents are just as passionate about the school and its inclusive philosophy. Current PTA president Tisha Harvey moved to Berkeley from San Francisco, so her hearing-impaired son Dinari (now in 5th grade) could attend John Muir.
“John Muir has meant endless opportunities for my son!” said Harvey. “He has flourished into such a smart, courageous, and well-rounded young man with the ability to succeed along side his hearing peers”
Both celebratory events take place on the school’s green and verdant campus. Wristbands for Friday’s May Fair can be purchased on site. Tickets for Saturday’s Centennial Celebration are $50 for adults/$10 for children (free childcare for kids who are post-diapers). Advance tickets available.
Ticket, food, and raffle sales will raise funds for physical education classes, the school’s dance program, field trips, teacher grants, after-school enrichment programs, and other PTA programs.
John Muir Elementary is located at 2955 Claremont Ave. in Berkeley. More information on John Muir is available at JohnMuirSchool.org.
Elise Proulx is the mother of a John Muir 3rd grader and marketing director for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
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