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The mayor and the schools chancellor hail the big gains on state math tests this year in the city's public schools, but the chancellor of the Board of Regents has strong reason to be cautious.
Berkeley High School student Tim Holm says he sometimes has to sit on the floor. Ozzie Delgado says there are twenty desks for 30 people. Rachel Kator says she has to sit in a folding chair in Spanish class.
Is Berkeley High School experiencing the great desk famine of 2009?
It all started with an article two weeks ago in the Berkeley High newspaper, the Jacket. Intrepid reporters said a school-wide desk shortage left students sitting on floors, couches and folding chairs. It blamed the problem on state budget cuts. Other news outlets picked up on the story. Pretty soon it sounded as if the revered school was in dire straits.
So we decided to see for ourselves.
Today at lunchtime, as students milled in a park across from campus, we asked them about the desk shortage. "In my Spanish class we're short about ten desks," said sophomore Rachel Kator. "So it's kind of a drag having to write without a hard surface. But we make do with what we have."
Tim Holm huddled with friends, each with an equally woeful tale. "In one of my classes in English I don't have a desk and I used to have to sit on the ground," said Holm.
District spokesman Mark Coplan says the desk issue isn't much of an issue anymore. Not really, anyway. He says the problem stems from the beginning of the school year, when the school saw an unexpected burst in enrollment. Much of the increase was students transferring from public school, because they're parents could no longer afford the tuition.
"At the high school there are often issues at the beginning of the year where you've got 32 hundred kids coming into the school," said Coplan.
"You might have a 100 kids that were coming from the private sector that weren't expected."
Coplan insists every Berkeley High student now has a chair to sit in. To prove the point, he took us through the school, class by class.
In one room, two students sat in folding chairs while the rest of the class sat in desks. In temporary buildings built to house the school's growing enrollment, students sat at plastic folding tables. Coplan explained the tables are used for testing, and had to be pulled from storage.
"The child may not be sitting at a traditional desk. They're sitting at a table," he said, peering into the window of a portable classroom. "But as you can see in many of classrooms, tables are the way they're set up anyway."
Coplan says the district has been hit hard by the state budget cuts. But that isn't what's behind the desk shortage. Years ago, Berkeley passed a $22 million parcel tax that helps fund education. Coplan says the district plans to order more desks this week. He hopes they'll be in place, by Christmas break.