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Berkeley Montessori Moves to the Flatlands

Friday December 12, 2003

Nine years after a fire burnt down their first home, Berkeley Montessori School is moving to the flatlands—hoping that at their new address they can breath life into a Berkeley landmark and surrounding neighborhood fighting to improve its image and maintain its character. 

Come February, the school’s 270 students will move from their rented space at the Hillside School building to 1310 University Ave., beside Congregation Netivot Shalom, also under construction at the site of the former Jayvee Liquors. “The whole setting in the hills is beautiful, but it’s pretty isolated,” said Will Travis, a Montessori parent. “I think it will be exciting for the kids to be in the midst of the Berkeley community.” 

Besides wanting a home of their own, parents were eager to leave Hillside School—still owned by the Berkeley Unified School District—which sits directly over the Hayward Fault and was prohibited by state law from remaining a public school. 

Lew Jones, director of facilities and maintenance for the district, said no decision has been made about the fate of the site, which is rented by other groups as well.  

Parents secured a $7.9 million bond to pay the Catellus Corporation for the University Avenue site, home to the historic Berkeley Santa Fe Railroad Depot—up until the 1960s one of Berkeley’s two passenger stations and most recently a restaurant. 

An additional $1.3 million fundraising drive will make the new school an environmental marvel that keeps room temperatures comfortable while actually producing power for the neighbors. 

Local neighborhood groups have found themselves at the center of several land use fights this year, but they said they’re happy about the school’s arrival. The same groups have struggled to hold on to the Berkeley Adult School (which they say helps deter crime), banish the Berkeley Corporation Yard to an industrial site, and oppose development of Panoramic Interests’ new Acton Courtyard apartments, which several called a “five-story monstrosity.” 

The school and synagogue are a step in the right direction, said neighbor Sharleen Hardy. “They kind of fit in and when things fit in no one complains.” 

Parents and school officials insist that students will feel at home along the busy thoroughfare that has a seedy reputation. 

“All of our kids live closer to that part of town, so there’s not much we need to teach them,” said school spokesperson Sharline Chiang.  

The school will have fences and gates to keep children from wandering onto University Avenue. 

Getting to school will be easier for parents and children who’ve been force to rely on cars to reach the previous site. Located on bus lines, the school has also donated a ten-foot swath of land for a planned bike trail to traverse the site linking the Ohlone Greenway to Bay Trail. 

Montessori schools mix environmental stewardship with some unorthodox teaching methods, and the school will cater to both. 

Since younger students do most of their learning on the floor, rooms will be heated through radiant tubes underneath the floors made of Plyboo, a soft, durable surface made of bamboo. 

Architects have outfitted the school with a dimming system that senses the amount of natural light in a classroom and adjusts the electric lighting accordingly. The lights themselves are powered by solar panels connected to the PG&E grid and yield a surplus of electricity for the school and neighbors. 

Outside, the school will plant an organic garden for each class. 

In addition to two new buildings comprising 14,000 square feet of teaching space, the school is doing its best to restore the train depot, built in 1904, as a library. “It won’t be the jewel in the crown,” said Douglas Burnham, a parent and architect, but the school is working with a historian to replace the stucco exterior and repaint the depot to its original color. 

“Now our kids can have a better sense of history by living in it,” Travis said.