Part IV, Jefferson Memories 1983-1995

90 Years of Jefferson School, 1906 to 1996 : Part IV: Jefferson Memories

by Marian Altman, Principal 1983 – 1995

In mid-October 1983, I was assigned to Jefferson by Superintendent of Schools David P. Tansey. It was a bold move in an era when staff and parent committees generally sent their recommendations for principals “downtown” after an extensive interview process. Parents were wary of me; the staff warm and welcoming; and the children excited and somewhat confused by the change of leadership mid-term. And so began an exciting and fulfilling twelve year period of my life as the Jefferson School principal, which culminated with Jefferson being designated “A California Distinguished School.”

When I joined Jefferson, it had been a primary school, serving grades 1 – 3, since 1968. There was an Early Childhood facility which also doubled as an after-school program. The old building on the corner of Sacramento and Rose, declared earthquake unsafe for children, held Adult School classes. It was fenced off from the main yard, with a gate passing through.

Right away, I could see that the school yard needed lots of work. The yard was basically flat with a play structure, baseball backstop, handball wall, trees, tables and benches, and high basketball standards. Ramps led up to the two doors of the east wing. It was a good yard for older children, but lacked the softness, warmth, interest and easy handicap accessibility that our younger Jefferson population needed. Time for a change!

The District had insufficient funds to do the job. But I believed our school could accomplish the task if I could get enough parents to trust my vision. Landscape Architect Doug Wolfe, an alumni parent, designed a plan, while PTA President Barbara Alesandrini began examining fundraising opportunities, and a dedicated committee was formed to see the project through. By January 1984, we were on our way.

We found the solution we were looking for when our landscape architect suggested we might be able to get the National Guard to help out. Some of you may recall the 1968 events surrounding the Free Speech Movement, when the National Guard’s actions and presence in Berkeley made national headlines and local enemies. So I think the Guard was as nervous returning to Berkeley as we were inviting them. We offered the yard as a training ground and negotiated with Sixth Army Engineers to lend some earth moving machines to the National Guard. It turned out to be a training ground for all of us.

For starters, we dug up much of the asphalt, rearranged the elevations, dug a swale, removed a ramp and made a rise for the lawn. It took a lot of donuts, soda pop and weekends to complete this first phase. Parents worked right along with the Guard, and if the Guard wasn’t working, parents and kids came to clear rocks and plant trees. The Black Cowboys came one Saturday when we needed a lot of people-power. KRON-TV did a feature story about the parent-developed schoolyard, and the neighbors also put up with a night of high-jinx when the bulldozer and caterpillar had a race down Rose Street backwards!

But mostly I recall the parents, too many to list here, who worked with dogged determination to see the long, hard project through to completion. I remember the children giving me progress reports on the willow tree slips growing on kitchen window-sills. And the teachers and other staff, who initially signed-on to teach children, wound up teaching forbearance along with engineering, mechanics, public policy, ecology, topology, botany and lepidopterology! Today, Rebecca Mayeno’s Butterfly Garden, the Shade Garden, the Vegetable Garden, the Rose Street strip and the Community Bulb Garden all attest to the teachers’ love of the school and their willingness to enrich the children’s lives. And parents and children continue to care for the yard.

The Jefferson Community

When I came to Jefferson in 1983, the school had both Spanish and Chinese bilingual classes. It made the site an exciting place to be, but the District could not meet all the compliance issues surrounding approval of assignment to bilingual classes. The Superintendent decided to relocate the Spanish program to another site. It saddened me to lose the wonderful Latino spirit from the school. Over the years, the Chinese bilingual classes doubled and became bicultural to allow a broader scope of language and curriculum. We eventually had fifteen languages other than English spoken in the homes of our students, but I always missed the Spanish kids.

During the dozen years I was Principal, we had an assembly as our first activity every Wednesday morning. Here the children held patriotic exercises, sang, performed and watched others perform. It gave us a chance for school-wide pride and recognition. It also provided an opportunity for students to attend plays, concerts and shows right at Jefferson.

Teachers and parents brought their own talents to the stage, and they also brought others in to perform for the children. Some programs became traditions, such as the Chinese New Year Pageant, Living History, Jump rope Assembly, MLK Day Assembly, Juneteenth, Circus and Teddy Bear Assembly. The children sang to the accompaniment of Ellen Hoffman, led by Katie Brookes. The children became such good vocalists themselves that we made a fundraising tape called The Singing School. Once, Lorna Brand led them in song for me at the Berkeley Public Education Foundation Spring Luncheon. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house when they finished.

It was great fun to hear the children say Good Morning in about 25 languages and lustily sing their own special song about Jefferson School. I can never say enough good things about the assemblies. I hope they continue forever!

Jefferson School was filled with all kinds of other creativity, too. It was one of my pleasures to see the teachers develop and share their own special interests with the children, thus providing a school filled with quilts and fabric hangings, hatching eggs and the subsequent chickens running around, a weather station, a Thomas Jefferson display in the library, jewelry making, Hawai’ian music and dancing, Western Day activities, introduction to American Sign Language, butterflies, herb gardens, Chinese brush paintings, kittens in the kindergarten, bird houses in the trees, models, science projects and exciting study trips. . . all in a very personalized school, indeed.Scott Snowden, Thomas Jefferson’s fifth great grandson, came to celebrate Jefferson’s 250th birthday with us. Judi Doyle even embraced my plan to teach the children to ride unicycles. I don’t think there was any idea that the staff would not examine with me. Jefferson is an exceptional school in many ways.

Perpetual Construction

Sometimes the staff put up with extraordinary inconveniences. The Loma Prieta earthquake, forever leaking hallway windows, lack of handicap access to the stage and second floor, asbestos removal, lead paint removal, failed heating system, popping floor tiles, and falling ceiling tiles made working conditions stressful for years, as repairs and new construction went on all around us.

We often had to endure truck traffic, fenced areas, buzz saws, hammering, wet paint, riveters, jack hammers, drills, blowers and construction workers tromping through the school. At times there was no water, heat, electricity, plumbing or downstairs lavatories. I kept telling the staff to make it a learning experience for the hildren. More than one teacher rolled her/his eyes at me on days when we had to evacuate the school, pump water off the yard, seal off classrooms and skid through the halls. It would not surprise me at all if 350 students turn out to be construction engineers because of all those “wonderful learning experiences.”

When I left the school in 1995, we had elevators and safety features, but you still had to squint in the dark cafeteria and read a manual every time a fire drill was called on the new computerized system. The classroom phones didn’t work right and the awful computer wiring that took more than two years to install was still goofed up. And, the windows still leaked!

The Jefferson site will probably always be a work in progress. When I became exasperated with the mess, I would think of the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China, and conclude that Jefferson was probably next in line in terms of construction time. If you read the accounts of former principals, you will find similarities over the decades. Some things never change.

Distinguished School Award

The children, curriculum, school climate and strong parental involvement at Jefferson frequently brought positive comments from visitors, state reviewers, and our supervisors. A collaborative effort produced a fine written account of our school, so we submitted our proposal for state recognition. But the staff was really too busy to concentrate on doing all the paperwork right, and we were passed up. Yet the praises for our well-rounded program kept coming. When the opportunity arose once more, parent Joann Sullivan urged us to try again. Today Jefferson proudly bears its Distinguished School designation.

The heart of a school cannot be captured in a few pages of a booklet, and yet as the children grow up and the people of the early years became part of the ages, it is good to reflect on Jefferson’s history. The redwood trees Miss O’Bannon planted are now stout and regal. The mosaic Mr. Johnson wrote about is a constant source of aesthetic joy. The venerable Old Jefferson has been sold to Richard’s Preschool (now Thomas Family Children’s Center), but if you pass by Jefferson or the pre-school site on a typical morning, you can still hear the children’s laughter and voices drifting through the Berkeley fog.

Next Section >

Jump to Another Section 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