In summer of 2024, Sylvia Mendez Elementary School will begin a two-year construction project to modernize the facility, which will render all except three classrooms unsafe for student use during the first year of construction. The renovation has frustrated parents and staff who would prefer to have the school moved to an alternative site during construction, but is described by Berkeley Unified School District administrators as necessary.
Sylvia Mendez campus has undergone 10 minor renovations in the 30 years since it was constructed, but buildings and facilities have largely remained the same. The upcoming updates will fix structural issues in the building, add a science room and gender-neutral student bathrooms, and improve the outdoor play-area of the school, according to BUSD facilities director John Calise. Campus modernization is estimated to cost 49 million dollars.
The modernization will move students to portables during the first year of construction. The amount of outdoor space available to the kids will also be limited, as portables will be placed on a significant amount of the school’s blacktop and parts of the play structure will be closed for renovations.
When the modernization was first announced in fall of 2021, administrators planned to shut down the whole school and move all students to portables. Subsequently, teachers expressed concerns in regards to having enough classroom, outdoor, and community space during construction.
Additionally, many parents were concerned about operating a school in an active construction zone due to the effects of noise and dust on teachers and students alike.
In April, a change.org petition was created by parents who called for construction to be delayed until an alternative site could be found for the school to be moved to. It has accumulated around 150 signatures in a school of 370 students.
As a result of feedback from the school community, the construction plan has been amended to shut down the north wing, where most classrooms are, for the first year of construction, and maintain the south wing, so students can still access restrooms, the auditorium, and the library, among other spaces. With this plan, construction will happen for two years, although most students will only be in portables for one year.
Despite the updated plan, some parents expressed feeling that there was a lack of transparency and communication between the school community and the school administration when it came to a search for an alternative site.
“The whole experience was just really frustrating and it felt like we were just shouting into a void,” said Mari Larangeira, a parent of two kids at Sylvia Mendez. Larangeira said that when discussions of an alternate school site during construction came up, they were told by the facilities department that there was an ongoing search being done and parents should make recommendations for places the school should be moved to, yet there was little information available to aid parents in the search.
Rachel Doughty, a Sylvia Mendez parent, said that parents were repeatedly told by the facilities department that an extensive and exhaustive search was being done, and yet she also failed to see any evidence for the fact. As a result, she submitted a public records request on behalf of Sylvia Mendez parents seeking to find evidence of said search. Subsequently, the only document she received back regarding the search was an email to staff and families regarding the construction. Doughty said that the evidence of the search for an alternative site didn’t match what parents were being told, and that the lack of documents backing up the claim of an extensive search damaged her trust in the facilities department.
One of the main reasons that the search for an alternative site has come up short has been the lack of a swing space, a space in which schools can be moved in cases when a school must be displaced to another location, available to BUSD. In 2020, Oxford Elementary School was moved permanently to West Campus, which used to act as a swing space, due to geological concerns about its previous site in the case of an earthquake. Consequently, there is no longer any up-to-code swing space that the district can use. Many other BUSD schools have planned modernization projects and the lack of a swing space will impact other planned modernization projects in the district. There is currently no plan to build another swing space, according to Calise.
In October, a town hall meeting was held over Zoom in which parents were told of 13 options for alternative school sites that had been reviewed and dismissed for various reasons, and then the final option, of maintaining the south wing while the north wing is under construction, was shared with the school community. Additionally, Calise, who was running the meeting, said that construction could not be delayed in the search for an alternative site due to the current bond measure expiring shortly. If the construction is delayed, according to Calise, it will be a minimum of 10 years before the modernization can happen.
In November, the school board approved the current plan for construction, with board members applauding Calise for listening to the community and being transparent in their plans.
“I think it’s a testament to really listening to the community and bringing in their input and then responding to that in a really careful way,” said Councilwoman Shanoski. “I’m really excited to move forward.”
Some parents are unhappy that their kids will be attending school in a construction zone, many acknowledge that the construction is necessary and it is time to move forward and adapt. Justin Randall, a parent at Sylvia Mendez, said that he’s unhappy with the current plan, but he’s now trying to focus on making the best of it.
“I’m confident in the resiliency of Sylvia Mendez,” said Randall.