In 2014, the FUSD Board of Education voted to adopt the Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP) in response to schools’ overcrowding and renovation needs. The LRFP laid out plans to convert all five FUSD junior high schools (grades 7-8) into middle schools (grades 6-8). Original estimates planned for the first conversion, Walters Middle School, to finish in the fall of 2018, and the last, Hopkins Middle School and Centerville Middle School, in the fall of 2022. Walters’ construction has since finished in the fall of 2019, and delays have pushed out the project’s final completion date to 2023. Read the Smoke Signal’s coverage of FUSD’s middle school conversions to find out more about the project’s budget, construction, and facility upgrades.
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Funding for the project came from Bond Measure E — a $650 million general obligation bond passed in 2014 through a 61.8% “yes” vote. The measure dedicated taxpayer money to modernizing FUSD schools through a series of facility repairs outlined in the LRFP.
The middle school conversions make up the majority of the roughly $365 million allocated for school improvement projects, and construction dates at each school are staggered to align with the issuance of Measure E bonds every two years. However, rising costs and building regulations have led to budget increases not anticipated in the district’s original projections, according to Associate Superintendent of Business Services Raul Parungrao.
As a result, in 2018, the Board shelved more than 50 other renovation projects, such as other high school and elementary school modernizations specified in the LRFP.
“We had a set of projected data for the next seven years, based on the info that was available then, and the actual [cost] turned out to be much more than we anticipated,” Parungao said.
More recently, in August 2020, the Board approved a $16 million budget increase from $76 million to $92 million for Thornton Junior High School’s conversion, using nearly half of the board’s $35 million remaining Measure E contingency funds. The measure passed in a 4-1 vote, with Board Member Ann Crosbie dissenting.
Hopkins Parent Tracy Song said, “As a parent, I actually am very interested in knowing why we were underestimating the budget, what happened, and what the causes were for the increases. Only when we know the core causes can we know whether it’s justifiable or not.”
FUSD Head of Facilities and Construction Kellé Lynch McMahon pointed to additional state requirements for further safety upgrades such as ventilation and lighting to explain the cost increases. During the August 24 Board meeting, she said, “[State officials are] really putting their thumb down on us and making us really upgrade our facilities so they are the best they can be.”
Feedback has been mostly positive, even considering the roadblocks the project has faced. “I think that the distribution of materials and resources should be placed where they’re needed the most. And that would probably be to benefit the students,” Hopkins ASB President Callie Yuan said.
LRFP Pie Chart
Adopted in 2014, the LRFP underscored facility renovation needs such as increasing classrooms at school sites, replacing outdated heating, ventilation, and air conditioning installations, improving technology infrastructure, and updating electrical wiring that was not up to CA safety code.
In addition, it outlined facility needs for the middle school conversion process, such as constructing additional PE classrooms for sixth grade students and indoor cafeterias.
These conversions were also designed to address overcrowding issues at elementary schools. As the LRFP also recommended the district move from offering half-day to full-day kindergarten, more classroom space was needed at the elementary level. Further projections also showed increasing enrollment trends for the next several years.
By expanding middle schools, the district hopes to eliminate elementary schools’ reliance on portable classrooms and overload programs, which force more than 2400 students on average to attend schools outside of their designated attendance area.
Further plans include designs for new buildings at the middle schools, such as a new innovation laboratory at Thornton and a new music building and two-story sixth grade building at Hopkins.
Thornton’s new buildings and playing fields as part of conversion program.
The district-wide Middle School Instructional Task Force met eight times from 2015-17 to discuss curriculum models at FUSD schools. The task force included former Superintendent Kim Wallace, former Fremont Unified District Teachers Association (FUDTA) President Sherea Westra, California School Employees Association (CSEA) representative Denise Mayfield, as well as teachers, principals, and parents.
The task force visited three middle schools in the South Bay and met with staff there to discuss the instructional models used at those schools. In addition, they hosted meetings with FUSD teachers to envision the conversion in terms of teachers’ curriculum and schedules and presented their findings and future plans at the August 2015 Board meeting.
Even after FUSD’s shift to distance learning, construction and transition plans have continued. On October 21, FUSD officials posted an update on Thornton, with photos of the final touches surrounding the school’s new playing fields. Later, on November 3, FUSD officials uploaded a new schedule detailing the new construction timeline.
Many other FUSD schools are looking to add libraries and locker rooms, renovate classrooms, and expand parking lots. LRFP’s overarching framework emphasizes core spaces, facility layouts, infrastructure, and overall expansions.
Walters’ construction finished in the fall of 2019 and Horner’s in the fall of 2020, while the other three middle schools, Hopkins, Thornton, and Centerville, are on track to finish construction throughout 2021-23. Of the five middle school conversions, Horner’s is the most expansive, with nearly all of its old buildings being demolished and rebuilt where a large field was located. This decision was made after district officials concluded that rebuilding the school would cost less than the various renovations that were outlined in the LRFP; consequently, Horner’s conversion has the largest budget of the five at $98.1 million.
As CA Common Core State Standards are organized in a grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 model, FUSD’s middle school conversions help the district align learning standards more closely with state targets. They also reflect the fact that grades K-5 curriculum is mostly taught by one teacher, while grades 6-12 curriculum is designed to cover multiple topics from educators with subject specializations.
Sixth grade curriculum at converted school sites will include two core blocks of Math/Science and History/English, as well as the sixth grade Wheel, which includes four quarter-long courses — Academic Strategies, Digital Citizenship, Healthy Lifestyles, and Innovation — designed to help sixth grade students acclimate to a middle school environment. In addition, all sixth grade students will participate in daily PE instruction.
Sixth grade core curriculum will also include more integrated activities and projects to provide students with a more multidisciplinary learning experience. “I think the core curriculum is pretty cool because you have the same teacher for two subjects, so it’s nice if you have any questions,” Horner Sixth Grader Shriya Surana said.
Currently, the FUDTA has bargained with the district to allow current sixth grade teachers the first priority to choose whether to transition to teaching middle school or to teach a different grade level at their current elementary school. “Any teacher in an elementary school right now teaching any regular classroom is appropriately credentialed to go teach sixth grade at a new middle school, so we wouldn’t need to make any changes at all,” FUDTA President Victoria Birbeck-Herrera said.
One local effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that these new additions in schools are going unused. However, once in-person learning resumes, student and faculty safety will continue to be one of the top priorities. Walters Junior High Principal Brian Weems said that “house calls and constant communication to know what support they need” are vital for the new infrastructure.
Although construction was initially slowed down because of shelter-in-place orders, the absence of students has proved to be helpful in streamlining construction.
As the pandemic evolves and the conversions continue, Irvington High School SURFBoardE Representative Zayaan Khan believes that patience is necessary in these times. “Flexibility is extremely important, and moving forward, hopefully, we can improvise based on the [COVID-19] conditions,” Khan said.
To help students acclimate to a middle school environment, some schools offer transition programs such as Where Everyone Belongs (WEB) and Link Crew, two student-led organizations that partner an incoming middle school student with an older peer mentor. Sixth grade students will also have the opportunity to participate in socials, spirit weeks, and science camps.
In addition, conversion officials have worked to create a smooth transition for both students and parents alike. “I worked with Secondary Education to facilitate parent/guardian information nights for incoming 6th grade families,” former FUSD Middle School Conversions Program Manager and current Horner Assistant Principal Beth Perez said.
Student support programs, such as Homework Help, FLEX time, and free mental health counseling, are accessible to students as well. In addition, sixth grade students can join on-campus clubs or sports teams at their middle school. “We will continue what we have always done regarding culture and academic success. The main thing for me is to make sure sixth grade staff and students are connected and that they are part of the team,” Weems said.
Current junior high school principals expect the first year after the transition to be the most challenging. “The first year… we’re going to be adding a new grade level, so a third of the staff coming on will be new teachers. Kids that were in fifth and sixth grade will be transitioning, so that first year is going to be almost 1000 kids coming in instead of 500,” Hopkins Principal Corey Brown said.
However, after the first year, principals and district administration expect the transition to proceed smoothly. “One of the benefits of being last [in the conversions timeline] is that we get to learn from some of the previous mistakes,” Brown said.
Although students have been unable to interact with their peers and teachers face-to-face during remote learning, the array of available resources has helped streamline their transition process. “At first it was super confusing, but then after that, it got easier and easier, and now it’s just like the new normal,” Surana said.
Cover image by News Editor Alina Zeng