The Pacific School of Religion plans to rent its Seeley G. Mudd building to REALM charter school. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Berkeley’s REALM Charter School plans to rent a building at the Pacific School of Religion’s (PSR) Holy Hill campus beginning in fall 2018, possibly bringing relief to two institutions that have had tumultuous years.

The charter school has filed a letter of intent to move its middle school to PSR’s two-story Seeley G. Mudd building, which was put on the market earlier this year after a plan to build senior housing on the quad fell through. REALM’s middle school currently rents classroom space from Berkeley Unified at its West Campus building, but will have to leave the site next year as the district begins a large construction project there.

As PSR began searching for a tenant for the available building at the beginning of the year, “we wanted to identify somebody who would share our commitments to innovation, diversity and social justice,” said David Vásquez-Levy, PSR president. Leasing the space to REALM “will be a great use for it, and a great way for us to connect with the broader community,” he said.

PSR has offered REALM an initial eight-year lease for the building, which is located on the Holy Hill quad at 1798 Scenic Ave., for around $25,000 per month.

Vásquez-Levy and Diaz plan to meet with neighbors on Nov. 6 to address any concerns about the school’s possible move in the fall.

Concern from community members presented a hurdle to PSR’s previous plan to build 265 senior apartments and adjacent memory care and nursing facilities on the quad. Neighbors formed a group called Save Holy Hill, arguing that the proposed development would clash with the smaller scale and residential character of the surrounding neighborhood, and that the apartments would be unaffordable for many of Berkeley’s older residents. PSR and non-profit developer Mather LifeWays backed away from the plan in December 2016, citing a new local political scene less hospitable to development.

Changes in both the higher education and religious landscapes have prompted PSR to reevaluate its mission and the use of its facilities, said Vásquez-Levy. PSR was founded in 1866, and for decades was a residential seminary for white, male students, whose studies were funded by religious institutions. Now, financial pressure on both PSR and its students, a growing inter-faith population, and a commitment to access and diversity have prompted PSR to offer a range of unconventional programs that allow students to keep their jobs and social lives while studying, Vásquez-Levy said.

Few of the current 165 graduate students live on campus these days, and in some of the programs classes are only held once a week, or online, he said.

“For the last several years, we’ve been running deficits,” in order to subsidize students’ tuitions amid decreased support from religious denominations, Vásquez-Levy said.

PSR’s financial hardship and the changing culture of religious education has led the leadership to ask: “How do we use this campus?” he said.

Pacific School of Religion quad on Holy Hill. Photo: Chris Benton

PSR was in discussion with several possible tenants for the Seeley G. Mudd building before pursuing the agreement with REALM, he said. The institution also decided to maintain its ownership and use of the other buildings on the quad, as well as five nearby residential buildings it rents out to students and others. The school has 11 other residential units, mostly on Virginia Street, that will be put up for sale in the summer, Vásquez-Levy said.

This past summer, PSR consolidated its academic and administrative operations into the other buildings on the quad, freeing up the 12,176-square-foot Seeley G. Mudd building. The structure will need a few accessibility and lighting upgrades before it can be used as a middle school, said Vásquez-Levy.

He said the partnership with REALM would allow seminary students to “be in conversation and more engaged with younger generations” and a diverse group of students that reflects the changing demographics in the state and country.

The agreement would also provide relief for REALM, Berkeley’s only charter school, which has struggled to stay afloat financially and meet its facility needs in recent years. The school, whose charter was approved by BUSD in 2010 and renewed in 2015, is split between a high school campus at 2023 8th St. and the middle school at West Campus.

REALM’s middle school currently rents its BUSD space for $3.00 per square foot, which was estimated in the lease to total $66,327 for the 2017-18 school year, plus an estimated $115,000 maintenance cost and $70,000 custodial fee.

BUSD is not required by the state to provide a facility to REALM, because the school serves fewer than 80 students who live in Berkeley. Many are from Richmond and other nearby cities, and there is a far greater percentage of students of color at REALM than at other Berkeley schools.

REALM’s lease at West Campus was up at the end of the 2016-17 school year, and the district initially declined to extend it for 2017-18, in preparation, district leaders said, for major renovations slated for the building.

At School Board meetings last spring, board member Josh Daniels suggested REALM seek a charter with West Contra Costa Unified School District, where the school would be eligible to receive a facility. But many REALM students and parents said they valued going to school in a safer neighborhood away from the challenges many face at home.

When REALM was unable to find another building for 2017-18, the district leased a small area at West Campus to REALM. The high school, which had previously occupied a larger portion of the building, swapped places with the middle school, which had been at the 8th Street campus. The board said it would not extend the lease to 2018-19 under any circumstances.

REALM families and staff packed into a spring 2017 Berkeley School Board meeting to defend their schools amid financial strife. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

School Board president Ty Alper said Thursday that he had not been aware of the pending agreement between REALM and PSR, but said, “I hope they find a facility in Berkeley that fits their needs.”

REALM’s facility challenges have coincided with serious financial woes. After an audit revealed that REALM’s middle school ended the 2015-16 year with a negative fund balance of more than $1.1 million — the high school had a positive balance of $243,646 — BUSD issued the school a notice of violation of the terms of its charter in January. The School Board considered revoking REALM’s charter, giving the administration until this past July to come up with a satisfactory plan to improve its financial situation. The board ultimately allowed REALM to continue operating this year, and will review its progress at an upcoming meeting.

Diaz said REALM has taken steps to remedy the situation, including laying off 11 full-time teachers and consequently increasing class size.

“That was unfortunate for REALM but fortunate for our budget,” he said.

However, the uncertainty about the school’s future dissuaded some families from re-enrolling in REALM this year, and the middle school population is currently 190, smaller than it has been in the past and smaller than the new building could accommodate, Diaz said.

As for the likelihood of moving into the Holy Hill site, “We’re excited that there’s a really legitimate prospect on the table,” Diaz said. “We’re excited about the leadership at PSR and their mission and vision.”

The proximity of Holy Hill to UC Berkeley was a selling point for REALM.

“It’s a block away from the Graduate School of Education — you can’t get much better than that,” said Diaz, who hopes the closeness will allow for new partnerships between REALM and the researchers or students there. REALM’s education program is focused on project-based learning, often with a social justice bent and emphasis on innovation, and its students already participate in an annual robotics competition connected to Cal’s engineering school. That program could now become more accessible to REALM’s students, Diaz said.

However, the greater distance between the high school and middle school campuses could also present new challenges. Many high school students currently take public transit with their younger siblings to the middle school in the morning, then walk down to their classes at the high school, Diaz said.

“We’re going to have to do more to support our families,” he said, whether that means creating a new van transport system or facilitating carpools.

The remaining obstacle, in Diaz’s mind, is notifying and earning the support of neighbors. He plans to put up fliers notifying residents of the Nov. 6, 6 p.m. meeting. He said he anticipates, and understands, anxieties.

“It’s one thing to have undergraduate and graduate students there,” he said, “but it’s a whole other thing to have middle school kids in that area.”

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Natalie Orenstein

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,...