School District Will Review Attendance Zones to Address Overcrowding

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Saturday May 09, 2009 - 08:06:00 AM

Berkeley's Board of Education voted unanimously April 29 to ask the school district to review classroom capacities and attendance zones to address overcrowded elementary schools. 

Although the Berkeley Unified School District's student assignment plan has had minor adjustments and the number of schools has changed since the board approved the three elementary school zones—north, central and south—in 1994, their geographic boundaries have remained the same. 

District Director of Facilities Lew Jones stressed that the north zone, especially, could not accommodate any more students. 

“We are very pinched in that zone,” he said. “We would like the board to formally ask us to review projected student population and look at either increasing capacity or changing zones.” 

Some board members attributed the overcrowding to the fact that the north zone currently has three elementary schools—Jefferson, Thousand Oaks and Rosa Parks—while the central and south zones have four each. 

The south zone includes Emerson, John Muir, LeConte and Malcolm X and the central zone is home to Cragmont, Oxford, Berkeley Arts Magnet and Washington. 

“There are more students who want to go to the schools in the north zone,” Board Vice President Karen Hemphill said. “If we change the boundaries, choices would change in terms of choice of school. Or we could just increase the capacity by adding new classrooms.” 

Board member John Selawsky told the Daily Planet the board had discussed the zones in 2002, when the district closed down Franklin Elementary, which was in the north zone and enrolled 150 to 175 students. Franklin’s closure, Selawsky said, may have led to the current lack of space in the north zone. 

Jones said the district would work over the summer to draw up a timeline for changing zones if necessary. A committee representing education services, student assignment and facilities will draw up a plan and present it to the board in August. 

“It’s possible that when we finish there will be no change, but we believe it is likely there will be change,” Jones told the board. He added it was important to study the K-5 population before looking at the middle schools because of the immediacy of space requirements in the north zone. 

“It’s really much better to look at elementary schools first. It makes it much easier to align middle schools after that,” said District Superintendent Bill Huyett, who has worked on this issue in other school districts. 

Board President Nancy Riddle made it clear that the board’s action would not open up the district’s whole student assignment plan for analysis. 

“It’s a much larger, more difficult process than looking at geographic zoning capacities,” she said.  

Board member Shirley Issel compared the task at hand to “opening up Pandora’s Box.” 

“To me it’s just a huge thing,” she said. 

“It will be complicated, but we have to do it,” Facilities Director Jones said. A review of zones and capacities, he said, would span several departments and raise questions about education equity, facilities and attendance. 

“While it is not yet clear that an adjustment in school zones is required, that is one possible outcome,” Jones said in a report to the school board. “Zone adjustments can have a large impact on citizens, and therefore public input is an important part of such a process. If zones are to change, sufficient advanced planning is needed to have time to inform the assignment process and to successfully implement the next lottery.” 

Superintendent Huyett said there will be ample time for public comment on the draft plan between mid-August and the end of September, following which a final plan will be developed. Huyett said any changes, if implemented, would occur in the 2010-2011 school year. 

Berkeley Unified currently has about 9,000 K-12 students, a third of which are elementary school students. 

Selawsky and Hemphill pushed for the rexamination of the three middle-school zones. 

Hemphill pointed out that there is a reason why Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School is more more crowded than Willard Middle School and Longfellow Magnet Middle School. 

“King has a new Dining Commons, while Longfellow has a basement cafeteria,” she said. “Compare the landscaping at King with the landscaping at Willard ... If you take pictures of King, Longfellow and Willard, parents who don’t have any idea of quality will want to send their children to King.” 

Hemphill told the Planet that although Longfellow has the highest test scores and the smallest achievement gap, it is also stuck with the poorest facilities and lacks a park and a track, features present at the two other schools. 

Longfellow, originally built as an elementary school, was converted to a middle school 14 years ago. The highlights of the school—which offers specialized curriculum and draws children from the entire city—is that it houses a theater, a dance studio and a computer lab. 

“My concern is, how can we have an equitable look at middle schools,” Hemphill said. “Good public relations is important. The community needs to know about all the wonderful things these schools have to offer. Additionally, the district needs to enhance some of these campuses.”