BUSD First Day 2014-15 0050
First day of school at Malcom X Elementary School in Berkeley. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

When the Berkeley school district added two new kindergarten classes – one to Cragmont school and one to Malcolm X — just before school began, some parents were concerned about what impact the move would have on the schools, which, they said, were neither spacious nor overstaffed. In an opinion piece published on Berkeleyside, Joshua Room, former President of the PTA at Malcolm X, asked why the district couldn’t plan ahead better. Quite a few readers agreed with him.

In fact, this year’s incoming kindergarten class is smaller than last year’s class. The squeeze is instead coming from the fairly new – and growing — transitional kindergarten program, required by state law. And the BUSD admissions office said it was well aware of the crunch coming.

“I knew we needed more classrooms back in February,” said Francisco Martinez, district admissions director. But over the course of the spring, plans about where to put the transitional kindergarten classrooms went through several shifts.

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Reception with BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans on the first day of school at Malcolm X Elementary School. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

Transitional kindergarten – a blend of pre-school and kindergarten curriculum –- is for children with fall birthdays who are too young to enter kindergarten under the new state-mandated cut-off dates.

Before 2012, children needed to turn 5 by Dec. 2 to start kindergarten. Under new state laws, in the fall of 2012 the cut-off date moved to Nov. 1. In 2013, it was Oct. 1, and this year it moved to Sept. 1.

For the past two years, the children who were now too young for kindergarten have enrolled in the transitional kindergarten (TK) classes. Those kids then enter regular kindergarten the following fall. That means that 25 percent of all kindergarteners (September-November birthdays) are now getting an extra year of schooling. That’s an additional grade, albeit for a smaller group.

(It’s a tricky problem to wrap one’s mind around: the same kids are entering Berkeley schools, they’re just being sorted into different grades. So how are the numbers changing? Whereas up until 2012, the district received 12-months-worth of new kindergarteners each year, this year the district is receiving 14 months worth of kids: children born between Oct. 1, 2008 and Sept. 1, 2009 are entering kindergarten, while TK is getting those born from Sept. 2 to Dec. 2, 2009.)

Last year BUSD added three new kindergarten classes because of a surge in enrollment which it attributed to more parents switching their kids from private to public schools, the high standard of teaching in the district, as well as the TK option.

Where to put classrooms

“Anytime you add a grade level, of course we have to have classrooms,” said Maggie Riddle, Berkeley’s director of schools.

Martinez said that last February, after the first stage of enrollment for fall 2014, he was aware of how many classrooms would be needed for both transitional kindergarten and regular kindergarten.

The number of TKs went from four last year to seven this year, because of the addition of September birthdays. A proposal was made last year to shift six of the TKs to the Hopkins pre-school site in North Berkeley. However, during the spring, a group of TK teachers and some parents protested the move, asking to keep the TKs in the elementary schools. The board agreed, but that left less space for kindergarten classes.

With the TKs not moving to Hopkins, Martinez said that the district then had to decide whether to make kindergarten classes bigger or add classes. Complicating the planning process is the fact that some of those new children were still just a projection of the families who would arrive in Berkeley this summer, such as new UC faculty and professors coming to Berkeley on sabbatical for the year.  Also, some local families don’t decide until the last minute that their home-schoolers or private-school students are entering public school.  So, Martinez said, it can be hard to insist on more classroom space for mere projections.

As of now, Martinez said, the number of kindergarteners this year is 698 (so far – the number will grow), compared to 754 last year. The number of children in TK is 133 this year compared to 80 last year. Looking at TK and Kindergarten combined, Berkeley took in 831 students this year, compared to 834 last year – almost the same number.

Martinez also said there was no increase in transfer students and no noticeable increase of children listed as homeless.

As for fraudulent enrollment, Martinez believes that more home visits were done this year than ever before, although the admissions office hasn’t yet finished the visits and tallied the numbers. In short, there’s no reason to believe there was an increase of out-of-town kindergarteners this fall.

In early August, district officials decided to add two kindergarten classes rather than increase class sizes. When Superintendent Donald Evans wrote to Malcolm X parents in late August, he referred to “a growing student population” exceeding projections – seemingly at odds with the information coming from the admissions office.

Asked about the confusion, Evans told Berkeleyside the letter “did not go into that level of detail. It is a combination of new state mandates around transitional kindergarten and a larger than expected variance between our April kindergarten projections and the number of kindergartners enrolling this fall.”

The crunch at Malcolm X

Cragmont and Malcolm X were chosen for the new kindergarten classrooms because they had the most space, district officials said. At Cragmont, the art room was turned into a kindergarten classroom. At Malcolm X a teacher-prep room was used for the new classrooms.

Room, the Malcolm X parent, said that whatever the reason for the added kindergartens, Malcolm X still needs added staff.

“If they are going to have schools that are growing, they need to support it with staffing. They have not done that at Malcolm X,” he said. In particular, he believes the school needs a vice principal, and more literacy and special education specialists.

Students eating lunch at Malcolm X Elementary School. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD
Students eating lunch at Malcolm X Elementary School in previous academic year. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

Malcolm X Principal Alexander Hunt agrees that the school needs more support staff.  He’s seen the school population grow every year since he arrived five years ago – it’s now around 570 and likely to continue growing this month with late arrivals. Bit by bit, the campus – the physically largest elementary school in the district — has lost rooms for dance and drama instruction. Art and science now share space. All of that makes for scheduling challenges, Hunt said.

“It requires a lot of orchestration to get kids and out of the cafeteria,” he added.

But, he said, the superintendent has committed to studying the need for more support positions, based on a school’s size. Until now, Hunt said, all the Berkeley elementary schools have received the same number of support staff members, even though some schools, like Malcolm X, have more students.

Superintendent Evans confirmed that the district will “explore every viable option” for allocating space next year, and bring those ideas to the board this year.

Enrollment surge necessitates three new kindergartens (08.16.13)
Op-ed: A Berkeley elementary school shows how it’s done (02.03.14)

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...