Portola Middle School Replacement Moves Closer to Reality

Strong backing from El Cerrito, Kensington voters helped bring about district-wide modernization of local schools.

After overcoming obstacles placed in its path by neighbors of two potential sites and the Earth itself, a plan for a new $40-million El Cerrito middle school seems finally headed for fruition. The next major step is review by a state architectural board, with construction projected to begin in spring 2012.

The new school could see students as early as fall 2015, according to Marcus Hibser of Hibser Yamauchi, the architect on the project.

The rebuilding of Portola and another El Cerrito school, Fairmont, comes toward the end of  a massive undertaking to renovate or replace virtually every school in the West Contra Costa Unified School  District.

The district first planned to rebuild on the site of the existing middle school at Navellier Street and Moeser Lane. However, because of the risk of an earthquake-triggered landslide, the state would not permit construction of a new public school on the property.

The school board then decided to take over Fairmont Elementary School, near the public library, for the new middle school. Opposition sparked the district to conduct a more in-depth study of possible locations, and decide that the Castro Elementary School property, at Donal Avenue and Lawrence Street, was a more appropriate site. Castro students were reassigned at the end of the 2008-09 school year, and the campus has sat unused since. Some Castro neighbors fought conversion to a middle school in court but in November 2010, and no appeal was filed.

Though neighbors were unable to stop the project, they will get a school that stays within the area occupied by Castro Elementary, with no encroachment into a city-operated park or the district’s and no buildings reaching higher than the existing ones. It will be a relatively small middle school with a capacity of 600 students. Castro's enrollment was 268 in the 2007-08 school year. Like other schools built by the district in recent years, the new Portola Middle embraces environmentally friendly practices.

“I’m really proud of the design. I think it’s going to be fabulous when it is built,” said Hibser, a Kensington resident whose firm has also worked on Kensington, Murphy, Dover, Peres and Lincoln elementary schools. The firm has worked also on the theater at Harding Elementary School in El Cerrito, the kindergarten building at Coronado elementary and the administration building for Crespi Middle. The firm is also the architect for the . 

The main building of Castro (including the primary wing separated from the rest of the building by a breezeway) will be renovated, while the kindergarten building, west of the main building, and the multipurpose room, adjacent to Lawrence Street, will be torn down. All portables  will be removed, with the services provided by California Children’s Services  in portables along Lawrence relocated.

A larger structure including a gym, library and administrative offices will cover the spot now occupied by the kindergarten building. The new multipurpose room will serve both as a cafeteria and theater, with classroom space shared by drama and music and for use in conjunction with evening performances as well.

A new classroom building will be added, stretching from the old primary wing westward.

While Castro had no off-street parking, the new campus will include two parking areas on Donal, one at Lawrence and one at Norvell Street. The one at Norvell will provide parking close to the multipurpose room for evening performances. Between the Lawrence parking and the multipurpose room will be an area that will double as an entryway to the multipurpose room on performance nights and as a lunch area during the school day that allows students to break into small groups. At the same time, Hibser said, the area is open enough to make supervision easy. The nearest classrooms will generally house electives, with core classes placed farther away from lunchtime noise.

Entrances to the campus are limited so that foot traffic during the school day can be directed through the administrative offices.

Because the school is built on a slope, campus buildings will range from one to three stories. In some cases keeping to the current building heights meant digging deeper down and into the hillside. (See the attached images for detailed plans for the school.)

Like other recent district projects, the new Portola will meet the standards of the Collaborative for High Performance Schools. The standards include being healthy, energy efficient, and easy to maintain and operate. Hibser said green features will include highly efficient lighting and heating and treatment of rainwater to prevent pollution. The school will also have a small “teaching garden.”

The school district moved Portola students into portable buildings on the lower portion of the hilly lot occupied by the old campus this school year. The  is expected to be demolished as soon as this summer. There are no immediate plans to sell the  land, but school board president Charles Ramsey said the property is one the district is willing to sell since it cannot build a school on it. He said the city may be interested in the property for recreational programs.

The middle school on Navellier was built in 1949 and designed by architect John Carl Warnecke, who designed John F. Kennedy’s grave site at Arlington National Cemetery and was known, according to the New York Times, for his “respect for local surroundings when designing a building.”

The Portola and Fairmont projects are part of a massive effort to modernize or replace schools throughout the district. Voters passed five bond measures between 1998 and 2010, raising $1.27 billion, augmented by $150 million in matching state funds and $46 million in federal subsidies from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Only Collins Elementary School in Pinole has not been slated for work.

Asked how it feels to see the results of years of planning and campaigning, Ramsey said, “I feel a sense of joy. It’s good seeing you can do more than anyone believes you can do.”

Ramsey credits former school board member Glen Price of El Cerrito with planting the seed for the massive effort when others were skeptical. “Glen Price was the catalyst. He said, ‘We can do better. We have to try.’ ”

Still, few can match Ramsey’s longevity with the campaign to rebuild West County schools. An 18-year veteran of the school board, Ramsey has been involved in every one of the bond campaigns.

Ramsey, who is also an El Cerrito resident, noted that each bond measure received strong support from El Cerrito and Kensington voters and said the effort couldn’t have succeeded without those communities.

Asked how having new and modernized buildings affects learning, Ramsey said having students in schools with working heating and good ventilation and lighting is worthwhile in itself.

"We haven’t made programs less of a priority,” he said, noting that the school board has also attempted, , to get voters to pass taxes for program improvements such as retaining smaller class sizes.

For information about the district's facilities and bond program, click here.

Background information on the Portola project can be found here.

Betty Buginas April 03, 2011 at 01:11 AM
Regarding Grumpster’s comments, I actually like Charles Ramsey’s answer to my question about how it impacts learning better the more I think about it, though it was certainly not the response I expected. I remember before I was a teacher (still a full-time journalist), driving by some of the dumpy buildings we sent kids into compared to some pretty nice office buildings that the adults spent their days in and finding it depressing. That was before I started hearing stories about students in classrooms with chunks of tiles missing from the floors, leaking roofs, and bundled in coats and gloves on cold days because the heater didn’t work, or seeing the school psychologist at Castro in the small, windowless closet that she was given to use as an office. Add to that everything we now know about the earthquake danger, and in Portola’s case slide danger, too, I think we are awfully lucky that our school board as well as the vast majority of voters in El Cerrito and Kensington in particular had the foresight to get started repairing and replacing schools when they did.
K Murphy April 03, 2011 at 01:18 AM
Small schools have great benefits for students but it seems that WCCUSD is going against its own recommendations for best fiscal practices in terms of school size. During the recent school closures, the information presented to the public regarding ideal school size for WCCUSD's budget sustainability stated: "Enrollment & Enrollment Projections. The following school size guidelines will serve as a goal for optimum programs at the school sites: 1. Elementary: 450 to 800 [students] 2. Middle: 900 to 1200 [students] 3. High: 1200 to 1800 [students]." http://www.wccusd.k12.ca.us/Fiscal/School_closure/Closure12-10-08.pdf. It is surprising that the district is building such a small school given their previously stated guidelines for district school size -- especially considering the precarious finances of WCCUSD.
Voice It April 04, 2011 at 04:26 PM
Let's see an article on Fairmont Elementary. My daughter attends that school. It houses a disproportionately high ratio of special education students in wheelchairs and walkers, without one handicapped automatic door on the entire site! In fact, the doors to one of the main buildings do not even close properly. The rooms are crowded and out of date. There is no room to house the myriad of special needs equipment. There is no voicemail system for the main office so there is no way to leave a message if no one picks up the line. When Castro closed, Fairmont graciously took in many students--where's the reciprocity? At least we could have installed some working doors!
Marty April 04, 2011 at 08:00 PM
Is the Patch an extension of WCCUSD's PR department? The Castro site is unsuitable for a middle school. It is below the state's minimum standard for acreage, and its proposed attendance is below the 900 minimum the district itself says is optimum for a middle school. (If you believe the district's "promise" to leave the park untouched, I have a bridge to sell you.) There is no drop-off zone for cars or buses (70% of students commute from outside EC); the neighborhood is not designed for the anticipated traffic. El Cerrito has the highest sales and school taxes in the state. (My school parcel and bond property taxes are about $1000.) Yet, district students and schools, including new ones like DeJean, underperform. The Adams site could be upgraded, by WCCUSD 's estimate, for $20 million, 1/3 the $60 million cost of the Portola plan ($100K per student, as at ECHS). It is within the Portola attendance area, and 10 minutes drive from most of EC. Yet, the district rejected that alternative, catering to the questionable argument that "El Cerrito needs a middle school" (translation: our kids are too special to travel outside city limits, even for two years). Also, there are the construction interests that fund Ramsey’s and other incumbents’ campaigns. (You thought he got reelected because test scores were going up?). This district has an edifice complex that is costly to the taxpayers and undermines, rather than serves, the education of our district's children.
Milford Brown April 11, 2011 at 05:14 PM
My recollection is that the past bond measures were for repairs and upgrades of existing schools, not for creating great new palaces, and others have noted that even those repair funds were not managed well. At one point, the WCCUSD was promoting a new "world-class" middle school, but in the face of many legitimate objections to the Castro site, they are now saying it would be only a small one - but with 50-100% more students than the earlier elementary school population. Sorry if someone didn't like my earlier reference to the statistics of site selection, but that was just an example of how wishes of the community were overridden by the Board. We of the community were just being sensible, not "micro-managing." Another writer here has noted how the excellent program at Castro for students with various limitations was dumped onto Fairmont without doing the upgrades there that should have been obvious. But who approved the ECHS theater that has been reported as little-used? Certainly not the "El Cerrito Community."


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