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Portola Middle School (El Cerrito, CA)

Berkeley Parents Network > Reviews > K-12 Schools > West Contra Costa County School District > Portola Middle School


May 2014

My daughter is going into middle school in another year so in know i have a little time to look around.Our plan is that she would go to Portola Middle school in El Cerrito.I am aware that she would probably still be in the portables so i would like to get a little information about what some experiences are that students and parents have made.How organized is it,how organized are the teachers,how is the homework load,how have your kids felt at the school,positive,negative,is the principal as good as the rumors,how involved is he and how approachable,how do the kids get along,are their racial problems,are there cliques,how inspired are the teachers? And anything else that comes to your mind.

Please I ask to only hear back from people that have first hand experience with their own children being students at the school ajd not from people that have no kids there and heard a lot of rumors.Thank you middle schooler next


Thank you for your question, and for asking for facts rather than rumors.

We have had two kids go through Portola; one will enter next year. She should be in the new building her 8th grade year (which means that your child will start in the new building).

Of our two kids who went through Portola, one is a senior at El Cerrito High School. He was accepted to every UC to which he applied (including UC Berkeley and UCLA), as well as an Ivy League school. Our daughter is a freshman at El Cerrito High School and is well prepared for her honors' classes.

To answer your questions:

1. Everything you hear about the principal is correct. He is very present, very engaged, very thoughtful.

2. The students are sweet. Really! It is a very diverse school, with no one ethnicity represented as a majority. The students get along, and have opportunities to make friends with children of other races, religions, and income levels. As a Kensington family, this was embraced by our family, and our children have made wonderful friendships with Muslim children, children who live in poverty, and children of other races than they are. They have learned about other cultures and families through these friendships, and are well prepared to be members of a diverse society without biases that sometimes exist when we only know ''our own kind.''

3. Teachers are hit or miss. Sorry. On the one hand, you have the 8th grade English teacher, who won Teacher of the Year in the district last year (our of thousands of teachers). You have a top notch, amazing Spanish teacher (our children entered El Cerrito High School in Spanish 3 and excelled after two years of Spanish at Portola). You have a rather wacky 7th grade science teacher who cares enough to post requests on DonorsChoose to enhance his classroom every year. You also have a fairly weak math department, some not so great teachers in other areas as well. But this can be said for almost any school (even the private middle school next door...). Teachers are willing to work with the kids, and the principal is willing to listen to concerns and brainstorm solutions.

4. In our experience, drug use was very small. Our one child was in the old building, with the old principal. There was a lot of weed use, and kids cutting class. Our other child was in the portables. TOTALLY DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE! The campus is small, contained, little drug use, no cutting of class.... Again, kids at the private school next door have brought pot to school as well (we know many, many families there). In our few years at Portola, we have felt that there is LESS pot than at many of the other middle schools in the area. As one student told me, ''Every time we walk around a corner, Mr. Burnham is there!'' Our child did not experience any drug use or anything like that while at Portola.

5. Portola is a middle school in a crappy district. It's true. BUT, we parents have really rallied together to try to bring the school up. We help out with lunch duty, we just hosted a great school carnival, we help support the library, extra programs, and so on. It feels good being at Portola and striving to improve our local, neighborhood school.

6. At the end of the day, it's middle school. Personally, I am willing to jump in there with my neighbors and support Portola. My child took Geometry at El Cerrito High School while in the 8th grade. We took advantage of some great summer programs that cost money (because we were not paying for private middle school).

I hope this was helpful. Again, thank you for not spreading or believing rumors. We overheard a woman at the dog park in Albany bad mouthing Portola (her children did not attend there), and when I pointed out my own two children who were playing with their dog and said that they DID attend there, and were sweet, smart, kind people, she offered, ''My children will never go there!'' and continued to tell the other woman lies and rumors about the school (within ear shot of my two kids). This hurts us all.

Finally, please come visit. You are welcome. You will see that it is not the school of the past. It's hard to recover from this bad reputation and history, but we will get there. Proud to be a Portola parent


I have put two kids through Portola, the second one finishing up 8th grade now.

Let me start by saying that middle school should be and has been a time of valuable growing experience. Kids at this age need to start advocating for themselves and taking responsibility for their own successes and failures. My kids grew personally and as students while at Portola, although it was not always fun or warm and fuzzy. One did well, one did not so well. If you want warm and fuzzy at this age, let it go, your kids need to grow while you are still there to catch them if they fall.

1. By Fall 2015, Portola/Korematsu should be in the new buildings, but if not, the portables have been fine. The kids don't mind at all, they are nice on the inside.

2. Keep in mind that each teacher has at least 150 students, they have to have a program and structure to keep organized and on track with the curriculum. Thus, an unorganized student will be left behind in the dust. Probably the most important thing you can do is to start NOW making sure your child does all homework on time all the time, and that there is no pile of crumpled paper in her backpack ever. Many GATE students end up with Fs because they do not do all the work all the time, on time.

3. 7th grade has a huge volume of homework, 8th grade less so. Kids must check PowerSchool everyday and start homework by 4pm or they will not get it all done. Keep in mind that 7th grade history covers ancient civilization, current events, and teen social issues, that is a lot, thus, there is a lot of work. 7th grade pre-algebra gives the foundation for high school math and science, it may seem over-structured and anal, but just suck it up and do it.

4. Be a joiner. Band or drama, and there are a lot of great clubs, math, library, cross country, basketball, yearbook, student council, etc. This is a great way to make friends with common interests.

5. Parents do not complain to the teachers about your child's grade, however the teachers will talk to your child about their grade. This is by design, so the kids learn to advocate for themselves.

6. Yes, the principal is all that. He really knows every kid.

7. I have not heard of racial tension or problems due to cliques. Kids do stick together based on demographics, but I have not heard it is a problem.

8. Re bullying, according to both of my kids, the only bullying that ever occurred in their experience was in the gym locker room, and it was pretty short-lived, the bullies changed targets fairly quickly. Neither of my kids felt bullying was personal, it was more about the bully than the victim. Good Luck


I'm a 7th grade parent just finishing up this year. Portola is an immensely complex place. It enrolls students from every walk of life. Every socio-economic group, race and scores of nationalities are represented. We have students at every level of learning. It couldn't get more diverse.

The diversity was the reason why I decided to send my child there. I want him to be exposed to as much as possible. I want him to learn that not everyone is like him. I want him to develop friendships with people that are unlike him. This has been very successful. At the end of the 7th grade, he has friends that represent the full spectrum of the school.

There are many great 7th grade teachers. Tiffany Baldwin, Spanish, Mr. Kunz, Science, Ms. Bogie, Librarian, Ms. Lodge, English Language Arts. My son loved "College Bowl" with Mr. Fulumirani. Both the Math Club and Math Enrichment pullout are great. The kids benefit from very gifted tutors.

The music program deserves special call-out. Tiffany Carrico is simply amazing. She runs five bands at the school. She will take any student at any level with any instrument - beginner to advanced - and teach them to play. Band is a huge time commitment. Most meet every day and there are at least 10 mandatory concerts. There is also a Cazadero Music Camp field trip in May. The standards are high, but Tiffany's tireless enthusiasm makes it fun. You can't go wrong here.

Below, please find a list of our 2013-2014 awards and accolades:
* Seven medals award at the highly prestigious San Francisco Bay Area Science Festival. We sent 10 projects and won seven awards - 70% success rate.
* 22 medals awarded at the WCCUSD Science Fair - 70% success rate.
* Home to WCCUSD's District Spelling Bee Champion.
* Home to Ed Fund's Teacher of the Year, Bruce McCormick, 8th Grade English.
* Home of WCCUSD's Second Place Winner, Reclassification Essay.
* Home of WCCUSD's First Place Winners, "Battle of the Books" Competition.
* Symphonic Band awarded a mark of "EXCELLENT" by the California Music Education Association.

Could 7th grade have been more rigorous? Probably. Could the in-class math instruction been better? Yes. Could long-range communication about the school and its aspirations be better? Absolutely.

But really, the best way to find out if this is a match for you is to join us now. The easiest way to do that is to get onto our e tree and listen in on our community. You can do that by emailing us at the address below. We welcome your questions and involvement. portolaptsa@gmail.com


Thank you so much for asking for the real story about Portola. I have a daughter finishing the 7th grade at Portola and we have had a good experience here. The principal really is as good as his reputation. He is very involved with the kids and responsive to the needs of parents. There are some really excellent and dedicated teachers on staff here, too. My daughter's favorite is her science teacher, Mr. Kunz. They are currently doing a unit on robotics in which they build the robot and then learn to write the computer code to program the robots. Also truly outstanding are the Spanish teacher Ms. Baldwin, the librarian Ms. Bogie, and the English teacher Ms. Lodge. The math enrichment program and math clubs have been enormously beneficial to my daughter. There was also a day-long field trip for girls to a STEM conference in Richmond where they got to hear motivational talks by women in science, technology, engineering, and math and participate in small hands-on workshops. My daughter, who at this developmental stage thinks almost everything is lame, wouldn't stop talking about this field trip.

Organization at the school can be a little bit challenging. It is a big transition from elementary school with the communication folders that come home every week and room parents to send out emails. The kids have to learn how to navigate the system and keep track of assignments. The good news is that there is an e-tree that you can join whenever you're ready (join anytime by emailing portolaptsa@gmail.com), a website which is updated semi-regularly (portolanews.org), a weekly newsletter that comes out in print and is posted to the e-tree, and occasional robocalls for the really crucial stuff. There is also a district software program called Power School, which allows you to track your student's grades and attendance and allows your student to keep track of their assignments. It's not a flawless system, but it's a pretty good tool that we use a lot at home. Communication in general needs work, but there are ongoing efforts to address this issue.

Students feel safe on campus and I am completely comfortable having her there. The portables are not pretty and there is a problem with kids not picking up their garbage after lunch. But the portables create a small campus that is easy to navigate and supervise. There are occasionally fights, but my daughter reports that it is always the same kids and that security or staff breaks it up right away. She has remained close with a bunch of her elementary school friends, and made some really great new friends, too. It has been lovely to see her and the kids we've known since kindergarten branch out to include a whole other group of kids. I'm sure there are cliques, it is middle school after all, but it appears to mean that there is somewhere to fit in for everyone.

Portola has its problems and struggles. Not all the teachers are awesome, and WCCUSD's track record for addressing issues is spotty at best. But, it's our community school populated with some incredible teachers and staff members, dedicated parents, and really great kids. It's not perfect, but it's ours. Alonn Ilan


I am the outgoing PTSA president at Portola. My daughter is an 8th grader at Portola this year. I would like to say that 8th grade seems to be even better than 7th grade. My daughter has enjoyed her 2 years at Portola. She has made new friends, feels she has grown socially and academically. She has been challenged to work hard and be creative. She has tried cross country , track, she has participated in debates, she is part of a library after school group "Library Rats", she has enjoyed participating in school events where the students are given the ability to be leaders and has volunteered along with many of the students to help run some of the school events. She has been inspired by her History, English, Spanish and Science teachers. Is Portola perfect? Nothing is. The Principal is open and supportive of parents and their ideas. He knows all the students. For a fund raiser the principal volunteered to play soccer with any student who signed up. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to serve, volunteer and be acquainted with so many great parents and students!We feel out daughter will be well prepared for ECHS! Kathy
Our daughter is finishing her 7th grade year at Portola. Her dad and I placed her at Portola with a bit of trepidation due to the past negative ''rumors,'' but we were hearing that things were turning around thanks to the new principal. But we, like you, did research and spoke with parents whom we respect that had children either attending or going to attend Portola. We felt comfortable enough with their experiences and reasons for attending that we decided to send our daughter. We've been pleasantly surprised. She loves school and hasn't missed a day of it all year. Academically she is being challenged. She's in all advanced classes and working hard (we keep an eye on her progress through PowerSchool). Her teachers have always responded promptly to our emails or texts. She is encouraged to be a leader by her teachers and she seems to feel that she is a vital member of the Portola community (and she's only in 7th grade, so she has another whole year to just keep building on this).

We don't know about all teachers, but her set of teachers emphasize self-management and organization and have strong expectations that students will be mature enough to keep up with it all. Being responsible for managing her own education was a bit of a surprise to her at the beginning, but once she got with the program she was really able to concentrate on the academics and do quite well. If I had been encouraged to build such organization and self-management skills when I was in 7th grade, I'd probably be a different person today. She puts me to shame!

She's made lots of new friends. She has been in El Cerrito schools since day one, so it is just a given that she has come across a variety of cultures, races and religions in her friends and classmates. She doesn't see the differences as an issue. It is very refreshing and one of the reasons that we live in the Bay Area.

Her exposure to such a variety of classmates has also shown her that life isn't always easy or fair. She knows that even with the struggles that she feels are so great in her life (think middle school and angst); others have had to overcome much more. She sees and respects the grit and determination that some classmates have to get an education. She also sees that others just don't have the same appreciation. Her dad and I (we're both professionals) were worried that those who didn't appreciate an education would overshadow the ones that do. Fortunately this doesn't seem to be the case.

Now as far as the principal yes he is as good as the rumors say. He is very approachable and responsive. He seems so mellow and casual, yet he is able to command respect from the middle school crowd and get things done. The district, the student body and the parents are very lucky to have such a great leader. He deserves to oversee that great new school they are building!

The current campus of portables is very self-contained and seems safe - although the new campus will be a great improvement. There is going to be a meeting on the 31st of May from 11-1 at Castro Clubhouse to give an update on the new campus. We're hoping that they will be telling us that the new campus will be finished soon - we've got our fingers crossed that our daughter could be one of the first graduates of the new school!

Good luck with your research and decision. Feel free to contact me via email if you think of other questions you would like to ask. Susan


I'd like to chime in, as well, on the Portola comments. My son is in 8th grade and my daughter, who is in 5th, will hopefully enter the new campus when she's in 7th grade. Here's my Mr. Burnham story: On the day in August where we picked up our kids' books and gym clothes two years ago, I ran into Mr. Burnham and asked him whether my son should take pre-algebra or algebra. He told me to wait five minutes because he had to take care of something and then he'd be back. I waited, he returned, and I followed him to his office. He pulled up my son's academic record and looked it over. We talked a little and then he gave me his recommendation. That's pretty much more than a parent can ask for during a very busy orientation day. He's been active, visible, and responsive to my e-mails (some more timely than others). And bottom line: The kids respect him.

While 7th grade was a painful transition for my son because he's not an organized kid, he had to learn to advocate for himself with some teachers, and some teachers were just okay, he has really flourished in 8th grade. Three reasons - English, history, and Spanish. We have fantastic teachers in these subjects. My son admitted to me last year that he doesn't like to read or write, which wounded me because I have a degree in English, I write for a living, and I love to read and write. Thank goodness for Mr. McCormick (English) and Mr. Aloi (history). They taught him to be a critical thinker, reader and writer, which are what I believe make for a successful student and person. He loved the books they read in English class and the discussions they had. He learned that history is not about dates and events but about human motivation and stories. Dinnertime conversations this past year included many a story that Mr. Aloi had related to them. They stuck in his head. He really looks up to those two teachers. Spanish was his favorite subject last year, and his teacher is great, but the other two teachers really made an impression on him.

When I recall my K-8 education, I could point to two teachers in those 9 years who sparked my imagination, made me a deeper thinker, and nurtured my strengths and what I loved to do. My son got two in one year, a critical year. I feel he is prepared for high school.

Now, are there weak teachers? Yes. It's a fact of life. It was a fact of life in elementary school and that will happen in high school and college. I'm just thrilled he got great teachers in subjects which I think really matter to me and ended up mattering to him.

Did my son ever feel unsafe at school? I ask him every once and a while, when I hear a story from another parent, but he hasn't ever felt threatened on campus. He has gotten to know so many other kids from the other feeder schools, which I love. He has a great group of close friends and a wide circle of friends. He has grown up in a diverse elementary school and middle school, which is what the Bay Area is all about. I was active in the PTSA and I, too, got to know other involved parents from the feeder schools, so that was nice for me.

My son isn't in band, but I wish he were. My daughter gets lessons from Ms. Carrico along with other 5th graders on Tuesday evenings, and she is fantastic. It's a nice tight subgroup within Portola.

When my kids were much younger, I heard so many negative stories about Portola. Maybe they were true at the time or not, but when I saw families from our elementary school who went to Portola and are now in high school and are shining and preparing for college, I knew we would be fine, and we are beyond fine.

I don't know why parents who have no experience with Portola bash it. I've taught both my kids not to pay attention to such talk because it gives the ill-informed power that they don't deserve. You can't change what other people say or do; you can only be responsible for yourself. If you asked my son about his overall experience at Portola, he'd tell you that he had a great year and there's a part of him that will miss leaving. I've watched him grow up so much this past year, and much of it has to do with his social circle and his academic world. Patty


June 2013

Re: Middle School for boy into history/philosophy
I recommend attending an info night a Portola or making an appointment to speak to the 7th grade math, history and science teachers. You should come out surprisingly impressed. 7th grade advanced science at Portola is very good, with lots of time in the lab and hands-on work (chemistry, however, is not a big part of the 7th grade curriculum so he won't get much of that at any school, public or private). 7th grade history is a ton of work, studying ancient civiliazations, current events, and teen social issues; your son may be surprised that he can experience history and philosophy overload. At Portola, 7th grade advanced math is very structured with a lot of homework, and it gives an excellent foundation for Algebra I and II, Geometry, and the math required for high school Chemistry. There is also a placement test for students wishing to skip into 8th grade math. good luck


Nov 2012

Re: How are El Cerrito/Kensington Schools?

The jump to middle school is much talked about in our Kensington/El Cerrito community- many kids leave the district for private schools or finagle their way in to Albany and Berkeley middle and high schools. Since both post-writers are many years away from making that kind of decision for your younger kids, I won't belabor the issues related to that, except to say that we decided to stay with our district middle school and are glad we did. Our daughter has new challenges at Portola, social and academic, and continues to excel due to great teachers there and an exceptional new principal. If you have other questions, feel free to email me directly. Luisa

Portola is thriving under a very popular principal (liked by parents, respected by teachers) and the small close-knit temporary campus has resolved the safety issues this school had in past years. There are some good electives--band, theater, leadership, Spanish. Parent involvement and support is very strong this year. public school mom


Dec 2011

Re: Spanish Immersion after 5th grade
I believe Longfellow is the Berkeley middle school where the continuing Spanish immersion kids go, but I could be wrong. In Contra Costa, Portola is the feeder for our Spanish immersion kids but their program is in its infancy, just started this year. anon


Nov 2011

Re: New to El Cerrito - Junior High and Elementary

Portola Middle School. PLEASE do not believe the rumors and dated ''facts'' about the school. Portola is very small (currently there are only 472 students); in fact, it is much smaller than the local elementary schools! It only has 7th and 8th grades. There is a new principal (excellent), dedicated teachers (small teaching staff), and the students are very sweet. There has been a recent surge of local families opting out of private school and dedicated to sending their children to our local middle school. The school is very much ''up and coming,'' and is worth a second look. There are many professional families there, and we have found the teaching and learning this year to be excellent (certainly as good as the local private schools, to be sure).

The one thing we cannot control is class size (rather large), but we are working on it!

Good luck in your move, and we hope to see you in our local public schools! It Takes A Village (and we welcome you)


Madera just added a 6th grade this year, so Portola is now a 2-year middle school. Some kids do fine there, others do not. (Some kids do fine anywhere -- others would be better served elsewhere for sure.) The mantra is ''if your kid is academically strong and takes all the advanced classes and has a tight cohort of friends and plays in the band and/or plays sports ... Portola is fine.'' In any case, two years is not forever, and lots of kids leave during middle school years (for another district, or homeschool, private school, independent study); some return to the district for high school. Maybe when the new Portola campus is built, this will change.
Just wanted to add my voice to the discussion about Portola.

My son is now a freshman at El Cerrito High School and I feel that the autonomy demanded of him by his teachers at Portola prepared him well for high school.

Classes are large so it's mostly lecture format. Kids are expected to track homework in their planners and show up during lunch or after school if they need individual help or tutoring. Parents can track student progress online by logging into a program called power school which reports whether work is being completed and gives the current grade in the class. Most of the kids rise to the challenge of being responsible for their own academic achievement and are ready for high school.

My son chose the advanced classes (they let the kids choose) but struggled to keep up in some of them because he wasn't always focused. He had some very engaging and wonderful teachers but he was busy dealing with teenage hormones,navigating friendships, and growing into his new adult body so academics were not the highest priority. Fortunately, middle school is a time of transition so this wasn't a big deal.

Band and sports are very popular but I know students who absolutely loved the theater program. The drama teacher is very inspirational.

There was a very active parent community and a strong anti-bullying policy. Parent fundraising paid for after school and lunch time crafts on rainy days plus parents subsidize materials for the library, purchase classroom supplies, and invite each academic department to make requests for larger items (overhead projector, printer for the classroom, set of classroom books, etc.). While I was there, every teacher request (within reason) was approved and paid for by the PTA.

I really liked the small size and cohesive feel of the temporary campus. This is not a perfect school but it has a lot to offer a motivated kid who has parent support/guidance.

We are planning to send our daughter to Portola after she finishes elementary school.


Jan 2011

Re: King in Berkeley vs Portola
We have very good friends who have a daughter at King and they love it. I would recommend King without hesitation. My son is in his second year at Portola and it's been a good experience overall but not without some challenges.

On the plus side, he went to Harding and he really wanted to go to the middle school where all his friends would be so Portola was his #1 choice. We live close to the school and I am an involved parent so have gotten to know the administrators and some of his teachers fairly well. They all seem very dedicated and focused on the needs of middle school age students. The new temporary campus feels much safer and more compact (it's about 500 students) and my son has made lots of friends. The smaller campus makes it easy to get to know kids. Also, P.E. teachers are now using the playing fields at Vista Park and this is working well. Electives are good. Last year, my son did shop which he loved. This year, he is doing art and he likes it. The art teacher is very good. When problems have come up, I find it very easy to discuss and resolve them with the counselors, principal, and vice-principal. The parent community is very good this year and raises money to fund a lunchtime activities program (crafts and sports), they buy classroom supplies, and they have been doing a lot of parent ed programming. This school has great parent involvement and support.

On the minus side, classes are large due to the ongoing state budget crises. Some of the teachers in the ''advanced'' classes do not give much homework and don't seem to demand a lot of their students. Others seem to put a lot into their teaching and set very high standards so it really depends on who you get.

I hope that helps. public school mom


Sept 2009

I am a parent who has two children attending Portola Middle School in El Cerrito. Portola has received some bad press recently, and I would like to offer that the experience of our children has been nothing short of fantastic! The teachers they have had are excellent, caring, confident in their subject matter, and communicative. There is a very nice group of kids there, from nice families in the community.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about Portola, some of it being spread by parents of children who do not even attend the school. Please, if you want to know about Portola, contact our wonderful and active PTA, or stop by to meet our principal or vice principal. Talk to families who send their children there, who believe in the power of community schools, and who would love to speak to you to share the other side of the story! Portola Family


Sept 2009

Re: El Cerrito High School
I know your question was about El Cerrito High but I also wanted to chime in about Portola because you mentioned some negative experiences. I hope some of the issues you are having in 8th grade get addressed ASAP.

All my child's 7th grade teachers at Portola seem to be organized and on top of things and there haven't been any subs so far. A few teachers passed out a syllabus with the work that will be expected throughout the year. One teacher assigned homework on the first day. My son says they all seem good. One of his teachers strongly encourages the kids to turn in homework done at home on a computer. They also have computers/printers in the library that students can use to do papers.

He asked to change one of his electives and it was done quickly and efficiently on the 2nd day of school. I can't comment on class size because I haven't followed him in to view the classes. He would prefer that I hang back and let him figure things out for himself and I am trying to respect that.

I am loving the weekly phone updates from the principal to let us know what is happening at the school.


June 2009

I've read recent newspaper articles about the violence at Portola middle school. We live in Kensington and Portola will be the middle school that my children will attend if we stay in the public school system. I am wondering how Portola parents and students feel about the current incident? I would really like to hear if current parents/students are happy with and feel safe at this school and if not, are there any other local middle school options that others can recommend. Concerned parent


I'm glad you asked about Portola. My daughter is graduating from 8th grade there this year, has been there for three years. She came from Madera. In general she's had a great time there, loved the band, loved the shop class, loved being with her friends, who are all good kids and straight-A students. Her standardized test scores are now higher than they were at Madera, believe it or not.

But this recent incident was pretty upsetting (mostly for me -- she is sad about her band teacher, but it doesn't seem to have affected her comfort at the school). It's the first time I've felt worried about the school and the safety issues there. I have been volunteering on the ''parent patrol'' there in the mornings, and I will say there are some pretty badly behaved kids, and I think there is inadequate supervision. One problem is that the campus is really hard to supervise well, the physical layout (multi-level, open on all sides) is tough to monitor. There are not enough site supervisors and from what I can tell, the ones who are there aren't particularly effective. There is also much less parent participation than at Madera (and Kensington, I assume). I am not at all convinced that what happened on May 18th couldn't happen again, any time.

I think what needs to happen is that the kids need to move to a better campus, there needs to be more parent patrolling and more (better) site supervision. And the school needs to take a harder line in enforcing its rules. I don't know if or when any of this will happen. The school is what we make of it, really, and I do believe that if more kids from involved families went there, it could be dramatically improved. But we need a critical mass of participants, and I don't know that we'll have it next year because of all the problems with the site and the budget and the bad publicity. Personally I'd like the kids to move into the portables at ECHS to enable a more easily supervised site, and perhaps benefit from the on-site police presence there.

If I had an incoming sixth grader I am not sure what I'd do. It's a tough call. But I think if your kid has a solid peer group at their elementary school, and those kids will go with him/her to Portola, it will probably be fine. Ambivalent Portola Parent


In response to the concerned Portola parent, while I can't speak for the school, I can offer a suggestion for a fantastic private middle school. My son attends Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito and has had incredible teachers, a challenging and thoughtful curriculum, small class size, a great group of friends and a wonderful community of families. I encourage you to check out the school; it is a very special place! Tehiyah Day School Middle School Parent
I can't comment knowledgeably on Portola's issues, but I can address directly your last comment, about El Cerrito middle school options. I have 2 kids at Tehiyah's middle school, and I am thrilled with it. While I am Jewish, I had never considered myself especially observant, and I don't speak Hebrew (neither did they, prior to coming to Tehiyah in 4th grade). When I first visited the school, the admissions director took me to the daily morning assembly, where the entire school gathers for about 10 minutes of singing and community. She introduced me to a few 7th and 8th graders, who looked me in the eye and greeted me warmly. I was so impressed. The school values kids, encourages those who model good civic and (and civil) comportment, and emphasizes community at every opportunity. I have not been disappointed for one day. Harry
August 2008

My son will be starting Portola Middle School this fall. I've made the decision to send him there, but I guess I'm wondering if anyone has words of advice to help us when he starts there. He's in GATE & Band, & I think he'll opt out of PE (unless someone wants to talk me out of that). Thanks for any advice you have! Susan


My daughter attended Portola for 7th and 8th grade and now is at El Cerrito High. The advanced classes at Portola were good. They are not just for GATE kids, but for any kid who wants a more rigorous program. My daughter was in band--a great program. Other classes I'd recommend, in addition to the core classes, are art and drama. Skip p.e. if you can because it is a waste of time. Better to have an extra class and do something like swimming after school. The kids at Portola do fine in spite of their parents' misgivings. I think its a generational thing... enjoy Portola
July 2008

Has anyone heard anything about the new principal and vice principal at Portola Middle School in El Cerrito? I hear there is going to be a big change. curious parent


Here's what I know: The new principal is a former middle school teacher and this person was asked to make a multi-year commitment to the school which would be great. The previous principal was a great guy, a hard worker, and a good listener but most of his experience was at the high school level. The new principal will be squarely focused on the needs of middle school age students and has a lot of expertise/experience working with this age group.

Also, the incoming Portola PTA President spoke at our elementary PTA meeting. She visited all 7 of the elementary ''feeder'' school PTA's last year. I was impressed with her! She is a middle school teacher in Albany and chose to send her child to the local school in the community where she lives. She seems very enthusiastic about supporting the school. I know she is actively recruiting for board members and other volunteers so if you have an interest, please go to the first Portola PTA meeting and sign up for something. I'm sure she would welcome help from everyone.


Denise Van Hook is going to be the new Principal and Matthew Burnham the new Vice Principal. Ms. Van Hook is a middle-aged African-American woman coming from a position of Vice Principal at Juan Crespi M.S. Before that, she had extensive experience teaching 7th grade GATE English classes at Juan Crespi. Mr. Burnham is a mid-30s White man with a variety of skills, including computer and Internet technology, coaching, and program administration. Mr. Enos (last year's principal) thinks Mr. Burnham will be great with the middle school kids.

I've had a chance to listen to and talk with both of these administrators, and they seem highly intelligent, very approachable, energetic, realistic, and determined to make Portola a safer and better educational environment for all kids. I'm especially pleased that Ms. Van Hook wants to make the classwork more challenging in both advanced and regular classes, to raise teacher expectations of student performance, to improve teacher-parent communication and parent involvement, and to bring in more resources. Mr. Burnham is already trying to upgrade the school's website. They are both committed to making Portola a flagship school for the district. We're keeping our fingers crossed that they'll succeed. Dr. Harter has made a commitment to keep this team in place for at least 4 years so the teachers will have a stable administration to work under and with. nancy


April 2008

Our 5th grader is going to Portola Middle School in the Fall. I have heard from many parents that if kids are in the advanced classes, and take band and other electives etc., the school experience can be a good one. But what is the experience like for kids who are *not* in the advanced classes? Our daughter is struggling academically, and her current 5th grade teacher does not believe she should be in the advanced classes. My understanding was that you could ''opt'' in to the advanced classes, and that as long as you performing at grade level (even at the low end), and did your work etc., that was not a problem. If she does end up in ''regular/basic'' classes, what will that be like? Should we be looking elsewhere, or just ignore the teacher's advance and go ahead and sign up for advanced classes anyway? --Worried mom


Your understanding is correct. If she is in the advanced class she will still be given the help she needs. The key is trying and getting her work done. I would not put her in the Basic class. If she is a swimmer or might want to be a lifeguard when she is older have her join the afterschool program for Jr. Lifeguard. Elisa
Jan 2008

We live in Portola Middle school district. We have two school aged children. The older one is now in a private elementary school, and the other one is entering a kindergarten in the next school year. We are considering sending both of them to a public elementary school in next school year. However, that means, in a few years, our oldest one will go to Portola Middle school.

We've heard quite mixed opinions about Portola Middle school. Some say it is good, but I have also known many other families who decided to send their children to private middle schools instead, or move to other towns with better (in their mind) school districts.

Why do some say Portola Middle school is good, and the other say not so good? Why do many say neighboring middle schools in Albany, Berkeley, or Piedmond are better??? Exactly what is better; teachers, facilities, etc??? How did you determine the school of your choice is good?

It would be the best if we can send our kids to a local public school, all the way to highschool. However, we do care very much about education. If we find that Portola School is not so good, we would consider moving, but ideally we would love to stay at where we are.

I would love to know more about Portola Middle school, good and bad. We trully appreciate your honest opinions about the school. I did check the archive, but the reviews were from a few years ago. I would like more recent opinions. Thank you.

mom who wants to learn more about Portola


Portola is a good middle school but there is room for improvement.

There is a good principal, opportunities to enroll in advanced classes, and a great many parents who truly care about education. Involved parents support the music program, plan school dances and fall festivals, participate in the fundraisers, and work hard to improve the school.

Portola is one of the few schools that still offers a shop class and the students really like it. The visual and performing arts programs are very strong and the 8th graders have a chance to go to Washington DC.

The physical plant is depressing. The district has chosen a site for a brand new middle school but it won't be completed until 2011 at the earliest. If you want a pretty school, you may want to move to Albany (less diverse and overcrowded) or Berkeley. According to the Berkeley parents I have talked with, the Berkeley middle schools have strong academics, are very diverse, and have some wonderful programs.

As with any middle school, there are some rough kids and a few teachers who are dull and uninspiring. Most of the teachers are top notch and truly care about the kids.

Some parents opt for a PE waiver because their kids are already participating in team sports, swimming, or take fencing classes. This allows them to avoid the locker room antics that you probably remember from your own middle school years. It also gives your kid an opportunity to take a second elective.

Kids who are focused and academically oriented (and who have parents to advocate for them), will do just fine. Kids who are looking for trouble, will find it. Whether you think Portola is a good school or a bad school really depends on your perspective. That's my honest opinion. I hope that helps.


I understand your confusion about Portola, we went through the same thing. My daughter is now in 7th grade at Portola (in her second year) and went to Madera from K-5. I think people shy away from Portola for three reasons: the test scores are lousy, the building is atrocious, and some of the kids there are rough.

I chose to send my daughter there because they do have advanced core classes (which tend to separate the trouble makers from the serious students) and they have an excellent band program. Also, a number of my daughter's friends were going so I knew she'd have a great peer group to hang out with.

Overall, I've been very pleased with our experiences there. My daughter has been well challenged (and she was in the GATE program at Madera, so I worried a bit about this) and there are many smart kids there who come from caring, well-educated families. There are definitely some kids with issues but my daughter doesn't hang out with them so it hasn't really been a problem. She's taken drafting, woodshop, and band, and those electives have been wonderful for her. She's now in one of Portola's jazz bands (along with being in the advanced symphonic band) and she loves it. For kids who like to play music, there really isn't a better place to be, public or private. (Well, ok, maybe Crowden.) I've been pleasantly surprised by how good and engaged some of the teachers are.

Yes, the test scores suck overall, but if you look at the breakdown you'll see there's a small group of kids who are doing very well. My kid is among them. This year we saw a strong influx of kids coming from both Madera and Kensington and that makes me happy. I do wish the building wasn't so gross but that will (hopefully) be fixed in the future.

I was so worried about sending my daughter to Portola, but now I'm very glad I did. She is absolutely thriving there, her confidence is sky-high, and I can't imagine her doing any better at a private school. One caveat, though -- if your kid tends towards behavior problems or doesn't have a supportive peer group, I'm not sure whether Portola would work as well.

Hope this helps, and good luck with your decision. Good parents *do* send their kids to Portola, in spite of what you may have heard :-)

Anyway, I hope this helps you in your decision. Happy Portola Mom


I am a parent of a former Portola student as well as a future Portola student, the experience was overall academically and socially good and I look forward to sending my second child there. However, honestly, I don't think anyone's opinion of Portola now will predict the Portola of the future. The location and facility will be new and different, the student demographic may be different along with it. Seriously, don't stress over this now. It is too early and there are to many potential changes coming up. -- Portola parent
Sept 2007

My child is approaching middle school, we live in El Cerrito, and I am curious about our only public middle school option - Portola. The reviews posted on school review sites are not great, and I am wondering if there is anyone who can give me a current (as of 2007) review of the school. I also understand there are landslide issues involving the area on which the school is built, and I am concerned about sending my child to a school with possible ''slide issues''. I can't imagine they can quickly rebuild the school elsewhere, so I am wondering if the school will go into portables in a safe site -- can they really have kids enrolled at that site if it is not safe? Thanks for any info. Soon-to-be Middle School Mom


For the parent asking about Portola I wanted to share some observations. I am the parent of a fifth grader who will soon be going off to middle school and we are leaning toward Portola.

While it's true that Portola has been identified as being on a slide area, the slide is an ancient one that hasn't moved in over 100 years. The WCCUSD board will be deciding where the new campus will be built soon. The state won't permit them to build where the school is currently located but there are several alternate locations under consideration, some in El Cerrito and others outside of El Cerrito.

Many of our friends children attend Portola and seem to do just fine. There are higher level academically challenging classes and lower level classes for students who are stuggling. The music program is a feeder for those going on to ECHS and has been internationally recognized. There are many electives including art, drafting/woodshop, drama, and every year Portola students make a good showing in Bay Area science fairs. Quite a few Portola students are on the EC Swim team and the pool is just below the campus.

The school population is under 600 students, smaller than Albany Middle and King Middle School (both have nearly 1,000 students). I have gone to parent information nights and was impressed with the Principal and Vice-Principal. There is a safety committee comprised of parents and they seem to be working well with the Principal to make sure the students are adequately supervised so incidents are kept to a minimum.

The test scores are below average but I'm pretty fed up with standardized testing these days and am more interested in solid teaching so I'm not too worried about it. If you can put up with an aging facility and your kid is pretty self-directed, I think you will do fine. EC Public school mom


My daughter started Portola this fall in 7th grade (our elementary went through 6th) and we are very happy so far! She is in the advanced classes (which are not just for GATE students! Kids who score ''proficient'' and above on STAR tests will do fine in these classes) and I have been impressed with the quality of teaching and the variety of work she's brought home. She has had creative assignments and it's clear her teachers have high expectations. Several of her friends are not in the advanced classes, but in talking to them and their parents, it seems they are getting good instruction and good assignments too.

As you read in earlier posts, the music program is outstanding and provides a great social group for the kids who join one of the many bands. They have a beginning band too, so don't worry if your child didn't play an instrument in elementary school, they can start at Portola. My daughter went to public school in El Cerrito from K on and is accostomed to a very diverse student body (racially, economically, academically, and physical abilities) and that profile is certainly true of Portola too. This provides an education in and of itself. Portola students reflect the California of today and the US of our kids' future. Learning to thrive in this environment will serve them for the rest of their lives.

I hope this snapshot of our experience helps you make a good decision for your child. Proud Portola Parent


I'm a little late in responding, as I didn't see the original post. I have one child in elementary school in El Cerrito and one in pre-K. My husband and I intend to send our kids to Portola. Both of our babysitters have gone to Portola and ECHS, and both are now attending highly rated colleges. Another babysitter now at ECHS attended Portola. Our current babysitter is attending Portola. All of them have said great things about the academics there. Many parents (including educators) at our elementary school have sent or are sending their kids to Portola, and I trust their judgment, as well as a neighbor of ours who teaches there.

Hopefully by the time my kids reach middle school they will be in new facilities, as that is the only concern I have with Portola currently.

Your best bet is to attend the open house in the spring and talk to parents whose children are there and/or have gone there. I've heard a lot of parents talk about how they're not sending their kids there, and their only experience is through what they've heard second hand. Parent of two Portola-bound children


Feb 2007

We're interested in hearing about parents' recent experiences with the academics, safety, and social aspects of Portola Middle School. Especially interested in hearing from parents whose kids have been in the advanced/honors classes, especially math. Parent of future Portola student?


There was a question awhile back about Portola Middle School that I wanted to respond to. My daughter is at Portola now, in sixth grade. She spent her K-5 at Madera, which was a great experience, but I was really nervous about sending her to Portola. Nearly five months later, I can say that overall it's been wonderful for her. She loves the band (Ms. Carrico, the band teacher, is so great with the kids) and she's also taking a woodshop/drafting class that's turned out to be really fun for her. She's in all the advanced core classes (math, english, science, and history) and with the exception of her current math teacher, her teachers are all really good. (And I should mention here that though she happens to be in GATE, kids don't have to be in GATE to get into the advanced classes--this seems to be a common misconception.) She has run into some rough kids (there's definitely a rougher element there than at Madera) but she's handled it well, and it doesn't seem to be a big issue. Not to say that Portola doesn't have problems (my daughter has complained about some foul language she's heard, and she's noticed some rough behavior between other kids, and the campus rebuilding issue is kind of a nightmare) but I've been really relieved to see her blossoming there. Just wanted to put our experience out there. Portola has been much better than I hoped (and feared). Jennifer
Oct 2004

We have checked the archives, but there is little current feedback on El Cerrito schools (particularly, how the middle schools and El Cerrito High are functioning, but we are also wondering about any good elementary schools there as well). We are attracted to El Cerrito because of the neighborhoods and the houses with back yards (!), but shy away from buying there because of the schools. Any feedback regarding academics, quality of teachers, extracurricular programs, peer relationshiops and so on will be greatly appreciated! Nervous First Time Home Buyer with Three Kids


We live in El Cerrito and my daughter is currently in her first year (7th Grade) at Portola Middle School. She went to Harding Elementary in El Cerrito from K through 6th. Harding was a great experience. With only one exception, she had seasoned, motivating teachers and got to know a great group of kids. The PTA is very active.

Many of the kids at Portola are below grade level academically. Portola has advanced placement classes in all core subjects which is necessary given the number of kids that are behind. My daughter's AP classes are generally good and there is a fair amount of homework. I suggest that you talk to parents of kids that actually attend the public schools to get their views. The only parents that I have talked to that are very negative about the El Cerrito public schools are parents who have never had their kids in public school. El Cerrito's a great little town, too. El Cerritan


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