Part 1, The History of Jefferson School

90 Years of Jefferson School, 1906 to 1996 : Part I, The History of Jefferson School

by Mary O’Bannon, Principal 1907-1943

There is a section of Berkeley that is different from other parts in some ways. It lies in the north west part of the city, on the gentle slopes below the hills. In early days a stream passed through the woods and grassy slopes. Since homes have shouldered out the groves of trees and grass plots and formal gardens have replaced the wild grasses and the flowers, and since culverts hide the stream that still comes down each spring, it is hard to realize the peace and beauty of the past. Yet still the section seems different to those of us who work here. Perhaps the friendliness of those who live here is due to the distance from the busier sections of the city. Perhaps, too, the love of their homes and the contentment that prevails is not unusual. Someway, we feel that it is different and that it is our heritage.

“Peralta Park” as the section was known in early days, was claimed by early Berkeleyans for a suburban hotel and residence district. Each home was in spacious gardens. The hotel did not succeed and the building was next used for a girls’ academy. Finally, it was purchased by the Catholic church which still maintains a boys’ school there.

Often when we approach Jefferson on a foggy morning we can see the gold cross of the academy rising above the fog, brilliant with the reflection of the morning sun. The building is hidden from view by the mist so the cross seems something apart, a beacon to guide us through our day’s task.

Between this section and Berkeley proper, small homes were built and in 1906 the Berkeley Board of Education felt that it should build a public school to care for the children who must otherwise travel a long distance to Whittier or Franklin schools. A square eight-room building was placed on a small lot facing Rose Street. Rose Street was still unpaved, but we did have a board walk.

Four rooms were finished for the opening of the school in the fall of 1907. The upper story was left unfinished.

A man was elected teaching principal with three other members of the faculty. A week before school opened the principal of LeConte School resigned. The board knew of no one so well fitted to fill the place as the one whom they had selected for Jefferson. They transferred him and asked the present Jefferson principal to take the vacant place, as substitute for the fall term.

The remuneration for services as executive was only ten dollars a month, so the job was not a coveted one. Then, too, this is a community of kindly, generous folk who would befriend anyone making an honest endeavor, so no one objected to her reelection at the end of the term even though she was very young for the task.

At the close of that first term, in January 1908, so many mothers of little children had objected to the lack of sidewalks that the enrollment dropped considerably and one teacher was taken from the staff.

In the fall of 1908 a large group of restless boys consented to be transferred from Whittier to Jefferson and again our staff numbered four, and continued so till the fall of 1912.

This was our “country school” period; three classes in each room, and too little equipment to carry on the program of other Berkeley schools. The yard was not well surfaced, but the children, especially the boys, were interested in sports and joined in all possible inter-school games. The mothers complained of the adobe mud tracked home, but became reconciled to it as inevitable.

We needed a piano and the Board of Education could not provide it. By dint of much effort fifteen dollars was raised for down payment and the principal gave her note for the one hundred eighty-five dollar balance. Her faith in the Jefferson people was justified. They met every succeeding payment.

We had few distractions. Rose Street and Sacramento Street had been surveyed and were sometimes rather busy, but being ungraded there was really no “traffic” problem. The principal drove to school each morning in her buggy, drawn by a small roan pony who would have been quite a school pet if she had had a gentler disposition. Since she was not fond of children, she was staked with the neighbors’ cows on the hillside back of the school.

1912: Parents Raise Funds and Build

There was great excitement at Jefferson when the numbers increased and it was decided to finish off an upstairs room. That was in 1912. The neighbors assembled in country style as “Improvement Club” and “Mothers’ Club”. They held fairs and festivals with the school, to provide for needs the Board of Education could not meet, and in the fall we began work as a faculty of five.

Another of the upstairs rooms was floored (but left unplastered), and served as an auditorium for several years. Here the people of the neighborhood discussed the safety hazards of the two electric trains that began to run so near the school They held here neighborhood parties of groups affiliated with the school.

It was at this time that we secured a baloptican projector, one of the few in the city. The light of the machine was supplied by two carbons which, if properly adjusted, threw a very clear picture on the screen. The programs we gave were much appreciated but were often punctuated by noisy delays if an inexperienced or careless operator allowed an imperfect contact of carbons to occur.

Finally the other rooms of the upper floor were finished and the kindergarten was started in the fall of 1914. This was our seventh class and the community was very proud of its school. In 1915, when the eighth class was organized, a teacher was assigned to it and the teaching principal became principal only. It was a thrilling event for her but she soon realized that she would never again be so close to the children she loved. At times she wondered if the promotion was worth the price. When for the fall of 1916 another classroom was needed a bungalow built by the principal and boys of Washington School was moved to the slope back of Jefferson. This was the beginning of what the teachers have called our “Shanty Town”.

It is interesting to see what can be done with a bungalow. This first room was brought when open air schools were being tried out in various sections of the state, so the windows were not put in and the Jefferson people tried to think themselves into being sturdy and warm. Since the room was unprotected from the north winds of late fall, the project failed and the windows were added. Then, though it could serve a small class it was found inadequate for one of normal size and it was necessary to change from kindergarten to grades according to enrollment. Finally an ell was added.

The old room still stands, now divided into nurse’s rooms, and lavatories. It has had all manner of repairs and alterations so one can scarcely realize that it is the small second hand shack that was hauled here so long ago.

In 1918 a new service was provided for Jefferson — an ungraded or opportunity class. This met a real need, for certain children had become so discouraged because of their inability to do the work assigned, that they were eager for any possible help.

Gradually the need for more class space became imperative and as the result of a bond issue, one unit of a new building was erected. This was completed in 1922. The planning of this building was one of the most democratic procedures in the history of the school. Again and again the architect assigned to this part of the building program met with the people of the community — fathers, mothers, and friends. They represented all types of workers and eagerly helped plan “their” school. The architect was most understanding and appreciative.

When in October 1922, a great meeting was held in the new auditorium to dedicate the new building, the sense of ownership that everyone showed was gratifying and amusing.

The Superintendent of Schools expressed the pride of the Board of Education and himself in having provided such an acceptable building. The president of the P.T.A. expressed the pride of himself and the group he represented in having brought about the construction of the plant. An attack of stage fright prevented the principal from pressing the claim of the faculty for credit also. But after all, the building was just that– the product of the earnest desire of the community, the understanding support of school officials and the assistance of the faculty in caring for necessary details in the plans.

The new auditorium had a movie booth, metal lined for safety. The enthusiastic neighborhood bought a second hand Powers projector and we had frequent movies. Sometimes the clubs secured the films and ran the projector, at other times members of the faculty were the operators. It was a warm and tedious task, very different from that of running the projectors now furnished by our visual department, but the community certainly appreciated the shows.

It was at this time, 1922, that Manual Training and Domestic Science were introduced at Jefferson. Our children were accustomed to helping in the home. The girls were well acquainted with household duties, the boys with gardens, and some also with the care of the family cow. They were most appreciative of these new “practical” courses.

The next decade was a period of growth for Jefferson. One by one the portables constructed to meet emergency needs of other schools and now no longer needed elsewhere were transplanted here for us to use “for a few years.” The failure of bond issues and the frustration of a city wide building program is well known to every Berkeleyan. The building planned and promised to an enthusiastic neighborhood was indefinitely postponed.

The school yard had been enlarged but was still inadequate. Because land was cheap, the Board had decided it would be wise to buy enough to meet future needs. The plot already purchased had little level land while across Rose Street lay a beautiful tract with gentle slope. We looked upon it with envy but the price was prohibitive so the rest of the block where the school stood was purchased. For years a large section of this was unusable for play space. It was not till the spring of 1932 that the present grounds were graded. The soil excavated for the University stadium was donated to us and raised the level of our yard far above the low streets on the north and west.

The University of California purchased the beautiful Schmidt tract opposite, which we had so coveted, and started to open a poultry project there. The neighbors realized that the result for this district would be tragic. Because the school people agreed with them, they supported their opposition to the plan. The case was carried from City Planning Commission to City Council, then to the courts, where the objection of the community was upheld and the “chicken ranch” was abandoned.

During the year 1927 – 28 a three-room wing around an open court was added to the north of the new building. This was our last addition.

Seismic Upgrades in the 1930s

When, six years later, the Long Beach earthquake spread terror throughout the state and sent every school official to the task of searching out construction flaws it was found that according to all accepted standards our old first building was most unsafe. Foundation bricks could be kicked from their places because of inadequate mortar. Beams were too small and too few. And so the two classroom floors of that building were torn away, leaving only the old basement to remind us of what has been there. This has served as best it could for a cafeteria for seven years.

The auditorium of the new building which had been the pride of the faculty, children and parents was closed, for it too was an earthquake hazard. However this was rehabilitated in the winter of 1937 – 38.

For the calendar year of 1937, Jefferson had two low seventh classes. These were established to relieve temporarily the congestion in the junior high schools of the neighborhood.

About six years ago, the parents of Berkeley children with poor vision requested the Board of Education to make some provision for the education of this handicapped group. For a few years, to meet this need, the Board furnished transportation for them to the Sight Saving classes of San Francisco. In January 1939, they decided to establish a class of this type in Berkeley. Since there was a vacant bungalow at Jefferson, this school was chosen for the project. The room was scientifically painted and lighted and furnished. Taxi service is provided where necessary. The class seems to be satisfactorily meeting a great need.

Planting Redwoods

Always at Jefferson we have attempted to avoid formal buildings or surroundings. A part of our program has been the planning of the gardens. Again and again the parents have planted trees and shrubs for us. It has been no easy task for this is adobe soil. One Sunday morning the parents dug a deep, wide hole for our first redwood tree. We filled it with water to soften the soil and then we waited for the water to soak in. After an hour or more the water was as high as ever and we gave up and agreed to work again on Monday afternoon. Even then the hole was still half full of water.

However, we have persevered and we love our school gardens. Some of the bungalow classes have beautiful flower beds surrounding them. One class, with a teacher who has a deep love of beauty, converted a dark and windy angle of the main building into “Redwood Corner” with a large redwood, surrounding shrubbery and a bird bath, a place that is a haven for the birds and an inspiration for the passers by. In the garden east of the school there is a beautiful bird fountain, the bequest of a beloved P.T.A. member who passed away.

The kindergarten teacher has converted her entrance court into a perfect bower. From time to time, the children have the opportunity to watch the wild birds nest about the yard. One humming bird raised her babies in the redwood tree in the central playground. The children loved the babies who remained in the tree for a full month after they left their nest. They were so gentle that we could stand very close to watch them.

I have written of Jefferson as a school plant. I have told of the past and present in building and environment. I have traced the growth of the school from its infancy to its present status as one of the larger elementary schools of Berkeley. But I have left so much untold.

In one of our bungalow rooms we have a well-equipped library. Many of the books were contributed by the P.T.A.

From the days of paper bag lunches, we have progressed to an excellent cafeteria. The term “excellent” refers only to the service rendered. The building is pitifully shabby.

We have had a program for extra music lessons for many years. Part of this time children could take piano lessons here for a nominal price. The unions closed this work. We still have free instruction for orchestra work and glee clubs.

Every Tuesday afternoon for many years there has been a well baby clinic at Jefferson. We believe this accounts in part for the good health of the children of the school. As a matter of fact, all the nursing service is a boon to the community. It is certainly a contrast to the first aid given by faculty and neighbors when the school was young.

The school program closes at three-ten, but the children are not through with their plans for the day. To complete the public service here, as in other Berkeley schools, playground directors are on duty after school hours, on Saturdays, and holidays.

Jefferson had one of the first traffic units in Berkeley, and still has one of the largest (and we believe it is one of the best). There are hard crossings to control but the boys love their job and serve well.

I have spoken of the P.T.A. and Dads’ Club. They continue to be strong, helpful organizations. The P.T.A. has many branches. Their study group is unusually fine. Of course there are the usual allied groups: Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls, Cub Scouts, Brownies, and Bluebirds. They are happy in their service.

What more can I say? The story is on paper but there is much that cannot be told. One cannot measure or describe the value of cooperation, friendliness, oneness of purpose. Nor is it possible adequately to pay tribute to the many wonderful people who have served here. Some have passed away, others have transferred. Many continue to serve. The contribution of each has added to the sum total a school that is not just an institution but rather, we hope, an organization of vision and purpose, vibrant with sympathy and understanding.

Next Section >

Read Other Sections of This Book

Part I: The History of Jefferson School
by Mary O’Bannon, Principal 1907-1943

Part II: The History of Jefferson School
by Carrol B. Johnson, Principal 1944-1959

Part III: Jefferson School: Memories of the 1960’s and the 1970’s
by Jean Brooks, with Pam Ormsbyand Mary Ann Furuichi

Part IV: Jefferson Memories
by Marion Altman, Prinicpal 1983-1995

Part V: Jefferson Reflections
by Jan Goodman