John Muir Helps Students By Saluting Legends

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 23, 2008 - 09:53:00 AM

Berkeley’s oldest surviving public school will honor its past on Sunday to preserve its future. 

John Muir Legends is an effort to re-connect John Muir Elementary School’s alumni and raise funds to sustain the school’s P.E. program and begin planning for the school’s 100th anniversary in 2015. 

Parents, teachers and students will pay a tribute to Sheila and Toby Schwartzburg, who helped to save the school in the ‘70s when the Berkeley Unified School District was considering tearing it down pursuant to the Field Act—which prohibits classes from being held in seismically unsafe buildings—instead of retrofitting it. 

“In 1976 when the school district was going to close John Muir we convinced them to save the school and retrofit it on the basis that a school with such beautiful architecture was worth saving,” Sheila said. 

With the help of a group of parents the Schwartzburgs also raised around $4,200 to save the 1921 murals on the walls. The murals were removed, cleaned and stored by a professional art conservator and reinstalled in the retrofitted school in 1980.  

Painted by Ray F. Coyle, a John Muir parent and renowned California artist who was inspired by the style of Maxfield Parrish and Andrew Wyeth, the murals portray childhood favorites such as Mother Goose, the old woman who lived in a shoe, and Robin Hood and his merry men and the school’s namesake John Muir standing in a sea of poppies with Spanish explorers. 

“It’s one of those things you look back and realize you are so glad you did,” Schwartzburg said. “We wanted to save them from the wrecking ball that would tear down the interior rooms.” 

The parents also rallied to save the original slate blackboards during the retrofit.  

Marilee Enge, a John Muir parent who helped coordinate the Legends event, said the school was inviting everyone to share memories of the school. 

The only one of the five Berkeley schools built in 1915 that exists today, John Muir’s half-timbered style was specifically picked to blend in with the old-world charm of its surroundings and create a comforting informal atmosphere for children. 

Lydia Atterbury, who studied under Maria Montessori in Italy, taught in the school’s kindergarten room when it first opened, making John Muir possibly the first public school in California to use the Montessori method, Enge said. 

According to architectural historian Anthony Bruce, John Muir’s auditorium is “one of Berkeley’s most impressive interiors,” which embodies the Craftsman ideal and the use of handcrafted materials, honestly expressed and in harmony with the landscape. 

John Muir will also honor Don Arreola-Burl, the school’s former coach who taught PE at the school for a decade for his leadership and for making every child feel special on the athletic fields. He now teaches at Washington Elementary. 

The school’s PE program is run by the Oakland non-profit Sports-4-Kids and costs $9,000 annually. 

Locke Jaeger, John Muir’s former PTA president whose two children currently attend the school, said although elementary school teachers in California are required to teach P.E. to students, it leaves them with very little time to focus on the rest of the curriculum. 

“With the state budget cuts to schools, money is scarce and the funds for P.E. had to be re-routed to other programs,” Jaeger said. “So the PTA picked up the funding.” 

Although Sports-4-Kids doesn’t charge for each child individually, Jaeger said it would roughly cost $100 for each child if the total expenses for the program were broken down. 

“It doesn’t seem a lot, but for PTAs—which have to spend money on so many things—it’s a big piece,” she said. 

Coach Don said he was delighted that the funds from Sunday’s event would go towards the school’s P.E. program 

“I think P.E. is really important,” he said. “You don’t have to be the fastest kid or the strongest kid, but it really helps if you have the confidence. I think P.E. really stresses that.” 

John Muir Legends, Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. in the John Muir Auditorium ($40 per person), John Muir Elementary School, 2955 Claremont Ave. RSVP to Locke Jaeger at 967-6215 or 653-676, e-mail: lockesj@comcast.net