Rendering of new library and offices at Jefferson School/ WLC Architects

The Berkeley Unified School District is planning a major expansion to Jefferson Elementary School in 2013, but the plan to add new offices, classrooms, and a gleaming new library has drawn criticism from some parents.

The school district does not have enough space in the north zone for a projected increase in enrollment and is adding the new buildings to meet future demand, according to Mark Coplan, a spokesman for the district. A 2009 demographic study done by Davis Demographics determined the district needs room for 1,264 students but only has space for 1,180 pupils, according to school district documents.

The current $5.4 million plan, designed by WLC Architects, would create five classrooms in a new two-story building, another two-story structure that would house offices and a new library, and upgrade some of the existing facility. The district will hold a community meeting about the expansion on Thursday March 22 at 6:30 pm at the school.

“Our school does not have adequate space right now,” Susanna Reed, a parent and teacher at Jefferson told the school board in early March. “We have professionals working in janitors’ closets, elevator lobbies, and science closets.”

But a number of Jefferson parents have questions about the upgrade and are concerned that any expansion will overcrowd a school already at capacity. The school already has three different lunch times for the 330 students, and with more children there might have to be four periods.

Parents are also worried that the expansion will cut into the school’s already small playground. Currently, the yard is too tiny to accommodate all the students, so recesses are staggered. Students only get 45 to 60 minutes of physical education every five days, or about 120 minutes every 10 days, which is less than the state requirement of 200 minutes every 10 days. Making the play yard smaller will only exacerbate the situation, parents say.

Playground size

Coplan acknowledged that Jefferson’s playground is small, but he said that is the case for all the district’s schools. Jefferson’s yard is actually larger than some of the other elementary schools, including Oxford. A report by Lew Jones, the district’s facility manager, notes that the expansion will only impinge on 5% of the yard.

“Jefferson was the site that had the most space to do it (expand),” said Coplan. “All of our school yards are small. Yes, Jefferson has a small footprint but they all do.”

The district is saying it does not have to comply with state standards because it will be using local Measure I bond money for the construction, according to one parent who asked that her name not be used. She did not want to alienate the school administration by speaking out.

Rendering of new classroom structure/WLC Architects

Parents also have doubts about the need for more classrooms in the zone. If the district consolidates its two-way immersion programs into one site at LeConte Elementary School, as rumored, that would free up six classrooms at Rosa Parks Elementary, which is in the north zone, and six classrooms at Cragmont, which is in the central zone. That should alleviate the need for more space at Jefferson.

“It doesn’t make sense to build six more classrooms,” Bill Levinthal, a parent of a Jefferson student, told the school board recently.

Coplan said the expansion is in response to the district’s overall need for space, not just Jefferson’s requirements.

Impact on The Crowden Music Center

The expansion plans will also impact Jefferson’s immediate neighbor, The Crowden Music Center, which includes The Crowden School, a 4-8 music school, and an extensive community music center for all ages. Officials from Crowden are concerned about dust and debris during construction, increased traffic in the area, and the fact that the two-story classroom addition will cast shadows over a school courtyard.

“We are concerned about having a building plunked down on our western boundary that will cut off light much of the day,” said Susan Richards, Vice Principal of Crowden. “We are concerned what will happen with light. The students had hoped to use the courtyard as a new garden space.”

If Jefferson adds more students, it will also make early morning drop-off and afternoon pick up on Rose and Ada streets even more difficult than it is now with two schools side-by-side, said Richards.

“It can get extra crowded already, so we have some concerns how safe it will be,” said Richards.

The BUSD included answers to commonly asked questions about the Jefferson expansion in the March 7 school board packet. Read them here.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...