BUSD officials informed the principal of Rosa Parks Elementary School, Paco Furlan, just nine days ago that he would have to add another kindergarten class. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

So many new students have unexpectedly enrolled for kindergarten for the 2013-2014 school year that the Berkeley Unified School District has to add three new kindergarten classrooms.

BUSD has seen steady growth in enrollment in recent years and had projected for larger numbers of kindergarten students, but an additional 66 students unexpectedly signed up, according to a letter sent out this week and signed by Superintendent Donald Evans and Neil Smith, assistant superintendent for educational services.

In order to maintain a teacher-student ration of 20 to 1, BUSD will add kindergarten classes at three elementary schools: Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Cragmont, according to Smith. While all of Berkeley’s elementary schools are crowded, these three had extra space that could be spared for a new class, he said. Other elementary schools had already been loaded up with portable classrooms or seen computer labs and multi-purpose space converted into classrooms to accommodate more kindergartens.

The surge in enrollment has had staff and administrators at Rosa Parks scrambling. Principal Paco Furlan thought he was ready for the new school year when he got a call Aug. 7 informing him he needed to make space for a new kindergarten class. To accommodate 20 more students, Furlan orchestrated an elaborate set of moves to keep the all of the class levels together.

Cheyenne Ison and Nathalie O’Brien, both incoming sophomores at Berkeley High, have been helping move classrooms at Rosa Parks Elementary School to make room for an extra kindergarten. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Cheyenne Ison and Nathalie O’Brien, both incoming sophomores at Berkeley High, have been helping move classrooms at Rosa Parks Elementary School to make room for an extra kindergarten. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Five classrooms had to be moved and reconfigured, and new desks, chairs and supplies had to be ordered, he said. The Rosa Parks PTA paid to bring in two Berkeley High students to help move materials. BUSD is paying for extra custodial time.

“When you are a teacher and you have been in a room for four or five years, you have a lot of stuff,” said Furlan.

Furlan also had to hire a new teacher.

The additional kindergarten class also means there will be more than 100 school children under the age of 6 at Rosa Parks, since there is a pre-K program there as well, said Jessica Wheelis, the president of the Rosa Parks PTA.

“It’s going to change the look of the school, it’s going to change the tenor of the school, and it might change where our PTA dollars are allocated,” she said.

Over the last six years, enrollment in Berkeley kindergartens has grown more than 36%, according to the school district. In 2007, there were 631 kindergarten students. In 2013, there will 862 students. (Students are still enrolling, according to the letter sent by Evans.)

The district attributes the growth to three main factors:

  •  “An increase in number of families choosing public over private and parochial schools for both economic and educational reasons.
  • Excellent teaching and a well-articulated curriculum in our vibrant school communities with strong family involvement; and
  •  The option of transitional kindergarten for young five year olds, as mandated by the State of California.”

Some community members believe enrollment fraud accounts for the large number of students enrolled in Berkeley schools. As one example of that, the Berkeley Accountable School Project (an anonymously run website)  has argued that there are more children enrolled in the school district than the 2010 census reports are living in Berkeley. The racial breakdown is also skewed, according to Berkeley Accountable Schools. For example, while 9% of Berkeley’s population is African-American according to the 2010 census, about 25% of the students enrolled in BUSD are African-American, according to Berkeley Accountable Schools.

Smith said he does not think the rise in kindergarten enrollees is due to fraud, although he acknowledged that fraud does exist. The district requires multiple proofs of residency for a student to be enrolled, he said. It also has someone whose job it is to randomly verify addresses.

Discrepancies between census and enrollment figures come, in part, because about 15% of Berkeley students have special permission to attend Berkeley schools. The students may live with a Berkeley-based caregiver during the week or have an out-of-district transfer, he said.

The number of homeless students has also increased by nearly 200% during the last seven years, according to school data. In 2006 there were 283 homeless students enrolled in BUSD. In 2012, there were 826 homeless students.

Rosa Parks Elementary School Principal Paco Furlan holds up a kindergarten phonetics kit. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

One parent of an incoming kindergarten student thinks the increased enrollment is a good thing. Vicki Davis, whose daughter will be entering one of the five kindergarten classes at Malcolm X, said that more children means more diversity and more classmates for her daughter to be with in elementary school. It also means there is a larger parent community to organize and volunteer for events.

“It’s really a good problem to have to open up a new kindergarten,” said Furlan, who has been the principal at Rosa Parks for four years. “We haven’t had enrollment like this in 25 to 30 years. It’s amazing and I think it speaks volumes about the good work we are doings at the schools.”

The first day of school for Berkeley public schools is Wednesday, Aug. 28.

Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Read all about it, be part of it. Register on the Uncharted website.

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...