Despite the scene on the morning of Friday March 31, Washington’s playground can get quite crowded, parents say. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Despite the scene on the morning of Friday March 31, Washington’s playground can get quite crowded, parents say. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

At a March Berkeley School Board meeting, some Washington Elementary School families engaged in a bit of performance art to drive a point home.

A father of a Washington student stood next to two others and addressed the board.

“This is what the California Department of Education says is the appropriate number of students per acre,” he said.

He brought up a few more people, then several more — until a crowd was huddled around the podium.

“This is Washington today,” he said, meaning the density of students at Washington is four times what the state considers appropriate.

The demonstration was part of the latest resurgence of advocacy around capacity issues that have dogged the district since it began weathering a significant increase in elementary school enrollment several years ago.

A few years back, a parent used Google Maps and student enrollment data to determine the density of Berkeley’s elementary schools. While that study — reenacted by parents at the March 22 meeting — has not been endorsed by the district, everyone agrees that space is tight. Washington is one of the schools that has grown the most, but throughout the district much of the increase has been concentrated in South Berkeley, including at two new portables at LeConte this school year.

Administrators have spent a lot of time looking at possibilities for increasing both physical capacity and staffing across the district. The school board has identified some “flex” classroom space, added portables to campuses and made some changes in the way staff is distributed — but there is no easy fix to remaining shortages, the district says. Parents say something has got to give.

At the March 22 School Board meeting parents crowded around the podium to demonstrate over-crowding. Photo: still from meeting video

Washington has seen a one-third increase in the student body in fewer than 10 years. Between 2010 and 2012, the enrollment spiked from 370 students to 425.  The school currently serves 458 students. The district says enrollment is projected to subside slightly next year.

Portables across McKinley Street from Washington’s campus have allowed the school to accommodate extra students. Initially, very old portables used for enrichment there were converted into homeroom classes. Then in 2013-14, they were replaced with newer portables from Berkeley High School.

At the time there was vocal opposition from parents, who said it was a safety hazard to have young kids crossing the street to get to the main campus, using bathrooms with an outdoor entrance, or being stuck in the portables without the option to lock down during a crisis.

The district hired a crossing guard and added the ability for the portables to communicate with the front office and lock down when necessary, assuaging many of the concerns.

Still, “it’s tight,” said Keira Armstrong, parent of a student in the fifth grade and a member of the PTA at Washington. “There’s not enough room for musical instruments or backpacks inside.”

The squeeze is also evident on the crowded playgrounds, she said. The lunch period has been truncated — at one point only 15 minutes long — to fit in multiple shifts of kids.

“What we’re also noticing is just the inability to serve the number of kids we have with staffing positions that are not staffed proportionately,” Armstrong said.

The parents at Washington say the increase in enrollment at their school and at others in the BUSD puts the greatest pressure on special education and academic support staff. While the number of classroom teachers corresponds to the number of students, each elementary school is designated two full-time special education teachers and one literacy coach – regardless of size. So when school populations grow, the parents say, the kids who need the most support suffer a greater loss.

YouTube video

In the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan, funding for some academic support staff, like English language teachers, is proportionate to the number of high-needs students at each K-8 school, but that works out to a minimal difference in staffing from site to site. At Malcolm X, the largest elementary school, the district has also funded an additional part-time special education teacher. BUSD is not funding extra teachers at Washington, but the school site council discretionary funds and PTA fundraising have supported some extra staffing.

“It’s not the intended purpose of the PTA to raise money for an academic necessity,” said Mimi Pulich, a member of the BUSD LCAP committee and a former Washington parent who has been active in protesting overcrowding.

The district is researching how staff can be better distributed but says hiring additional special education teachers would come at a cost.

“We would love to find a way to address proportionality. That’s something we’ve wrestled with,” said Assistant Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi. “We appreciate and recognize the need but it’s not like we can make that decision in isolation.”

At the same board meeting where parents crowded around the podium to demonstrate density, staff presented an initial list of budget priorities for 2017-18. Matching up RTI staffing to each school’s needs is on the list, though no amount of funding to do so has been determined. (RTI is short for Response to Intervention, an approach used at BUSD and many other districts to teach students with academic and behavioral challenges.)

But BUSD is facing a structural deficit of $500,000  and board members said serious cuts are in order.

Increasing and proportionally distributing staff so each school’s needs are fully met would require “a notable amount of additional resources,” Scuderi said.

He said spreading thin resources around on a proportional basis can backfire. Adding a teacher who works a small fraction of full-time at an elementary school may not accomplish much besides frustrating the staff member.

While enrollment at Washington is expected to decrease a bit next year, the district has also projected an increase of 144 students across BUSD in the next five years. Meanwhile, the elementary school bubble will not burst until those students graduate high school. In order to accommodate the incoming growth at the middle school level, the district plans to move Willard’s performing arts program to the West Campus, where the School Board meets.

The upcoming renovation of that site, using revenue from the 2010 Measure I, will position it to potentially serve as a new 15-classroom elementary school in the future.

Parents say they want a shorter-term fix. If a new school is not opened in the next five years, an “entire generation” of kids will be at crowded campuses throughout their elementary school tenures, Armstrong said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...