Construction to modernize Sylvia Mendez Elementary School will begin over the summer. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Beginning this summer, Sylvia Mendez Elementary will undergo a $49 million revamp, its first wholescale renovation since the building was constructed in 1951. The school will get upgraded classrooms, a modern lobby area, gender neutral bathrooms and a new playground.

But the Berkeley school district’s initial plan to keep all students on campus in portable classrooms during the two-year remodel concerned many parents and teachers, who worried the noise would be distracting and the cramped conditions would not be conducive to learning.

Parents organized a petition protesting the plan and penned a letter to the school board arguing that keeping kids at Sylvia Mendez during construction “is not a good or reasonable option” and  asking the district to move students and staff to another campus during the renovation. The petition garnered about 150 signatures in a school of 370 students.

“We feel that this creates a pretty untenable situation for teachers to manage the students if they have nowhere to run around outside,” Mari Larangeira said at a school board meeting in April.

In response to community feedback, the district has revised its plan: Keep one wing of the school open for students during the remodel, while placing most of the classrooms in portables. This way, students won’t lose access to the auditorium, multi-purpose room and private rooms for counseling and therapy for the year. The remodel will take two years, but most students will take classes in portables for only one year.

School board directors praised Calise for listening to the concerns and figuring out a solution, but some community members who were hoping that Sylvia Mendez could be relocated to another building during the renovation away from the construction site remain frustrated.

“It’s an insane amount of money to spend and not have the experience for the kids be decent,” said Rachel Doughty, a parent of two children at Sylvia Mendez, who was one of several parents who shared their concerns with the school district. “The objective doesn’t seem to be to make it the best learning environment.”

The project is funded by Measure G, a $380 million facilities bond approved by voters in 2020.

School district facilities director John Calise said at a town hall this month that the portable classrooms were the best of 13 options that BUSD considered, including using the Berkeley Adult School, taking over a vacant private school building and setting up portables at Golden Gate Fields.

Each option ran into roadblocks, Calise said. Some were too expensive while others weren’t feasible because there wasn’t enough space or the buildings weren’t up to code for student use.

Initially, the school district intended to move students to West Campus during construction. But when Oxford School was deemed unsafe due to risks posed by earthquake damage, BUSD decided to close the school and move Oxford to West Campus permanently. The change poses a problem for all Berkeley schools undergoing major renovations, not just Sylvia Mendez.

Concerned that BUSD did not thoroughly investigate alternatives, Doughty filed a Public Records Act request for any documents about the search. When the documents produced by the district didn’t reveal an extensive search for alternatives, her skepticism grew.

“I think that it’s not possible that in the Bay Area, there’s no other option than having the children sit in the middle of a construction site. I just find that hard to believe,” Doughty said.

Calise said facilities would do their best to minimize the noise and dust from the project, the largest renovation of any BUSD school. “Sylvia Mendez … sort of won the modernization jackpot,” Calise said. “They will have an amazing school that’s there for decades and decades to come, but there is going to be 26 months [of construction].” 

BUSD plans to begin construction this summer.
“I think it is time to move forward with this modernization project,” Maria Carriedo, interim principal at Sylvia Mendez, said Oct. 16 during a town hall on the renovation project.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...