By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group East Bay
City and county education officials tried to calm nervous neighbors Wednesday night in Berkeley where they described plans to open a school for students who have been expelled for bringing guns and knives to school, selling drugs and fighting.
The meeting at the Berkeley Adult School on San Pablo Avenue, where the Community School is being proposed by Alameda County Office of Education Superintendent Sheila Jordan and Berkeley schools Superintendent Bill Huyett, drew about 60 area residents.
The school district and the county plan to enroll 15 students and 30 independent study students who have been expelled from Berkeley area high schools, are on probation or are being electronically monitored by courts or law enforcement.
Students expelled from Berkeley's two high schools currently have to travel to Hayward for education and many are considering dropping out because it's too far to go, Huyett told the crowd.
About half the crowd was angry over the planned school and half was supportive.
Area residents raised concerns about the safety of children in the neighborhood, crime and vandalism, the safety of elderly students already enrolled at the Berkeley Adult School and the safety of people who use a community park on the grounds of the adult school.
When pressed on the issue of safety, Jordan said she can't guarantee it.
"I don't think anyone can guarantee there will never be an incident with one of these students," Jordan said. "But part of our mission is to serve children who are in trouble." Huyett said he doesn't see a problem.
"I know these students," Huyett said. "I don't see them as a continuous safety risk. If your mother feels safe on this campus, she will feel safe when the school starts. These students are highly supervised. And they are motivated and they want to rehabilitate themselves."
Huyett said the students are under a strict contract to be allowed to go back to school and if they misbehave, they are out.
Area business owners also expressed fear about the students coming to their neighborhood.
Michele Schurman, owner of Paper Plus next to the Adult School on San Pablo Avenue, said she doesn't want the students nearby.
"It doesn't seem like a good idea to mix troubled youth with businesses and residents," Schurman said before the meeting. "We already have people coming in here stealing stuff off the shelves. From a business standpoint, we're already struggling. Anything that is going to impact our clientele is something I'm going to be opposed to."
One man at the meeting who spoke in favor of the Community School was representative of about half of those at the meeting.
"You can't just kick these kids out, tell them to go to Hayward or Honolulu," the man said. "You've got to embrace them somehow. We made them what they are to a great extent and we need to be responsible for them. If they wanted to put up a pig farm or a nuclear power plant here, I'd say that's no good, but I don't think this is a big deal."
Huyett said the Berkeley school board most likely will vote on the issue in April or May. When asked if the school is a "done deal" in the neighborhood he said no.
One resident asked if the school could be housed in Huyett's office.
The school district is rehabilitating it's West Campus building on University Avenue at Browning Street. Huyett said that site is one possibility for the school "but it wouldn't be finished until a year from now" and district officials want to open the new Community School next September.