Berkeley High Teachers Press BUSD For More Space By Fall

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday January 15, 2008

Posted 1/17—Brandishing posters, placards and signs at the Berkeley Board of Education meeting Wednesday, more than 30 Berkeley High School teachers urged board members to construct the new classrooms approved for the high school by August. 

The board approved a $2 million project on Jan. 9 to create four new classrooms through remodeling and to buy six portables in order to add 10 classroom spaces. 

The lack of space at Berkeley High has compelled its teachers to hold classes inside the Washington Elementary School portables and in the Community Theater lobby. 

“We have reached a critical situation for space at Berkeley High,” said district spokesperson Mark Coplan, who explained that recent voter mandated reductions in class sizes have meant an expansion of classes. “The trade-off for having smaller class sizes meant we would have a lack of space,” he said. 

According to a survey conducted by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) in 2007, 70 percent of Berkeley High teachers not connected to a small school program either shared a classroom or moved around from room to room. 

“They take their belongings in a cart and move along,” said BFT President Cathy Campbell. “It’s really hard getting from one class to the other. It’s hard to be on time and hard to get the room arranged and hard for the students to find their teachers. You can’t think and plan and analyze properly. Most teachers are doing that work at home, and for a lot of us with families, it’s not the best plan.” 

Campbell said that it was important to have the new spaces ready by mid-August. 

“Beginning of the school year is such a critical time,” she said. “We’d prefer to have the students in the new classrooms by fall rather than have them change rooms in January or February.” 

Dozens of children attending Hasmig Minassian’s freshman seminar class in the Washington Elementary portables wrote letters to board members asking them to provide teachers with their own rooms. 

“Our teacher never stays after class to answer our questions,” wrote freshman Michelle Casimiro. “We don’t know where she is if we have something important to ask her.” 

Others complained about not being able to post their work on any classroom wall. 

“For students these spaces will mean that when they enter their classroom their teacher will be there, greeting them at the door, calm and ready to use every possible instructional minute to its fullest potential,” said Shannon Erby, who has taught at Berkeley High for three years.  

“The homework will be written on the board and the desks will be preconfigured to support the lesson,” she said. “Baskets of extra handouts and clear places to turn in homework will be available. Student work and visual resources will adorn the walls, and the entire whiteboard at the front of the room will be available to support visual learners.” 

Erby added that more classrooms would improve student achievement, strengthen student-teacher relationships and assist in teacher retention. 

“I am one of Berkeley’s finest teachers, but I don’t need a classroom ... I have this,” Berkeley High teacher Tim Mullering said, exhibiting a black marker to the school board. “We could have a class in the park, in the steps of the Community Theatre or in the warm pool ... But it’s very difficult for my students. I volunteered to write letters of recommendation for 40 of them and they had a tough time looking for me.” 

“As a teacher it’s really hard to be taken seriously by your kids when you don’t have your own space,” said Jordan Winer, who teaches drama at the high school. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence—who will retire Feb. 2—informed the teachers that it would be difficult to have the spaces available before next spring. 

Lawrence will be replaced by Bill Huyett, who until recently served as superintendent of the Lodi Unified School District. 

“At least three rooms will be ready for use in September,” Lawrence said. “It will be tough to get it all done by August, even if we pull all the stops.” 

Lawrence reminded the group that the portables were more of a temporary solution to the space problem and that the district hoped to build permanent classrooms after demolishing the Old Gym. 

“The issue about overcrowding really needs to be heard by the community,” she said. “Some momentum will help us get through the issues of licensing and the environmental impact report.” 

Lawrence reported that the lawsuit by Friends Protecting Berkeley’s Resources to block the demolition of the old gym and warm pool was delaying the plans for the proposed three-story classroom building from moving ahead. 

According to a report submitted to the school board by district’s facilities director Lew Jones last week, Berkeley High doesn’t have enough space for its 3,172 students, and the crunch will only increase as the student body is projected to keep growing until 2011. The report also states that the school currently has 114 available classrooms, as opposed to the need for 128 regular education classroom. 

The 10 new classroooms, which would supplement the four Washington Elementary portables, include recapturing one space from Berkeley Community Media, dividing three larger rooms and adding six classroom portables and a restroom portable. 

Although the Berkeley High administration have identified the school’s softball field as the best location for these buildings, nothing definite has been decided yet.