As El Cerrito and Kensington public school students approach the upper elementary school years, becomes a popular topic of discussion. Ultimately, each family will decide whether to send its children to Portola or a private school, or try to get into a middle school in a neighboring district.
The numbers can vary greatly from year to year. Nerissa Wu, a parent, said many parents like her are committed to the public schools.
But, she said, when families start choosing other options for middle school, it can have a snowball effect. As more families decide to transfer out, that seems to prompt more to follow. Conversely, as more of a child’s peer group commit to Portola, the more appealing that option becomes. And many students report that having a group of friends from elementary school gives them a strong sense of security in the early days of middle school before they’ve formed new friendships.
Wu and several other Madera parents have decided to no longer leave this process to chance. They have formed a group called "Go Portola!" that is quickly gaining interest from other parents. Central to the group, said Wu, is the question: “How do we get Portola to be a viable option (for more families)?"
A meeting held on short notice Wednesday night at in Kensington attracted about 30 people. The gathering was attended primarily by parents from Madera and schools, but those involved are already working on reaching families of the other schools that feed into Portola: and in El Cerrito, and Stege just over the border into Richmond.
The website calls the group, “an inclusive forum for potential, future, current, and past families of Portola Middle School to share information and foster long-term community involvement in Portola.”
The introduction to the survey says: "We are a group of parents from the Portola Middle School catchment area who are likely to send our children to Portola Middle School within 2-3 years. Our goal is to increase the number of students staying in the district and increase the number of students and parents who are active in the PTSA at Portola, thereby making the school higher performing and a more desirable choice for families."
The survey will remain open for an undetermined amount of time, but early responses echo comments that have been made in the community for years: The two factors that would most influence parents to send their children to Portola are improved academics and safety.
Those topics came up often at Wednesday night’s meeting but prompted several people to note that much of the concern is based on rumor, coming primarily from adults with little direct knowledge of the campus.
Nora Hirose has sent two children through Portola and has another starting there later this month. She has also volunteered on campus and said she and her two older children have all had great experiences there.
Several parents said their children lobbied strongly for attending Portola and continued to speak positively about it once there.
Parents also asked and answered more practical questions about things like registration and lockers and shared information about Portola’s after-school program, plans for the , and existing safety efforts like the s from the El Cerrito police department, and parents who help patrol the campus during lunch.
One parent at the meeting suggested starting a Portola dads’ club, similar to the ones that do projects at Kensington and Harding (and are not limited to dads).
Some of those involved in Go Portola! have already started to ask West Contra Costa Unified School District officials questions and share the answers on the website. Some group members say some changes will likely require lobbying the school district.
The group is tentatively planning to meet again in September and may also be forming committees to work on specific projects or issues.