Future uncertain for Berkeley school due to unsafe building

German School
The German International School of Silicon Valley is located at the historic Hillside School at 1581 Le Roy Ave. Photo: GISSV

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A private elementary school in North Berkeley may have to find a new location after assessments of its landmarked building revealed potentially significant work is needed to make it safe to occupy.

Michael Koops, head of school at the German International School of Silicon Valley — which opened in 2012 at the old Hillside School site at 1581 Le Roy Ave. — wrote in an email to the school community Monday that, “continued use of the Hillside building requires significant short-term investments in structural improvements and possibly very substantial additional seismic retrofit work in the near future.” Koops also makes clear that funds for any structural work are not available, not least as current tuition had not covered the costs of instruction and facilities “for some time.”

The news, which came as a surprise to parents, followed a report by geotechnical and structural engineering experts on the seismic performance of the Hillside building.


One parent who has two kids at the K-8 school, and who asked not to be named, said parents were “freaking out.” (Update: He later clarified this was about the announcement, not the news of seismic issues which are commonly known.) Many are angry and disappointed, some are even talking about lawsuits, he said.

Koops said in the email that the school board had discussed the problem last week, but that no decision had been reached. He announced a town hall meeting for all the school’s parents and staff on Thursday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m.

Before that, the board will meet again, on Wednesday, to “make an informed decision on next steps, including whether or not, and under what conditions, continued use of the Hillside campus is feasible.”

Berkeley Unified School District built Hillside School in 1925 on the site of several homes that were destroyed by the 1923 Berkeley fire, which also destroyed Hillside’s predecessor. It was designed by architect Walter H. Ratcliff and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The BUSD elementary school was closed in 1983 due to a declining school-age population, and also because of seismic safety concerns. According to 1991 report by a state structural engineer, the school sits on an “active subsidiary trace of the Hayward Fault.”

A 2011 report by CB Richard Ellis, included in the German School’s September 2011 application to the city to occupy the Hillside property, said the site was “not recommended for school use.” The report stated: “In the event of fault rupture or landsliding, damage to the buildings could result in any or all of the life safety hazards occurring. Corrective structural hazards will not result in sufficient hazard reduction to justify the effort.” (See the full application packet.)

Daniella Thompson, a preservationist and former president of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, expressed surprise that the school had not foreseen such a problem. “That’s why BUSD was not using the buildings,” she said. Thompson added that she understood the school had spent money rehabilitating the property — including adding a new roof. “It’s looking so much better,” she said. It is unclear how much seismic retrofitting work was undertaken, however. Koops said he could not talk to Berkeleyside about the situation until next week.

The GISSV moved to the Hillside site four years ago from a location in Kensington. It was established in 2007 as the second satellite of the original school which was founded in Mountain View in 1999. A San Francisco satellite opened in 2011.


The Hillside site has housed other educational institutions, as well as artists’ studios. The Berkeley School (formerly the Berkeley Montessori School) occupied the property before moving to its current premises on University Avenue. The Berkeley Chess School currently rents space there.

Koops said in his email: “We understand and regret that this is unsettling information. We also appreciate that this very difficult decision-making process will impact our entire GISSV community. All angles and viable options are being considered.”

Update, 12.8.16: According to an email from head of school Michael Koops sent on Wednesday afternoon, at its board meeting that day the GISSV School Board committed to keeping the school open until the end of the 2016/17 school year and to forming a committee made up of staff and parents to “gather information and develop solutions.” A decision about whether to continue the school’s operations in Berkeley will take place no sooner than Jan. 23 and no later than Jan. 31, he said. Thursday’s town hall meeting, as detailed above, is still slated to take place.

Update, 1.3.17: The head of the German International School of Silicon Valley (GISSV) Michael Koops says a temporary location has been found for the school in Emeryville. In a statement released Dec. 23, Koops wrote: “We are nearing completion on an arrangement with the Emeryville School District to rent classrooms and a school yard at Anna Yates School in Emeryville, a recently vacated public school building in good condition where we can house all our classes.  We are grateful for the opportunity to move into Anna Yates School for the remainder of the 16-17 school year and are especially indebted to the Emeryville School District’s Superintendent and Board who have been tremendously supportive.”

Related:
Germany school opens on historic Berkeley campus (12.11.13)

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