EL CERRITO -- Portola Middle School is the melting pot where ethnicities and socioeconomic differences in the West Contra Costa school district come together.
The El Cerrito campus draws its 523 students from elementary schools in Richmond, El Cerrito and Kensington and has a roughly equal blend of white, Asian, African-American and Latino students, according to the district.
But the differences in average Academic Performance Index scores from its feeder schools can be dramatic, as much as 300 points. The disparity presents Portola's teachers with the challenge of working with students with vastly different levels of academic preparation in the same classes.
"It's one of the most substantial (test score differences) of any middle school I know of," district trustee Todd Groves said.
Some parents, especially those in the upscale El Cerrito hills and Kensington, have expressed concern about the "academic rigor" of the classwork at Portola and the level of safety for students on campus.
The concerns may be reflected in the fact that only 67 percent of Kensington Elementary School students go on to Portola for middle school, the lowest percentage for any elementary-to-middle-school transition in the district, according to statistics presented at a special meeting for Portola stakeholders Wednesday evening.
The percentage for Madera Elementary (78 percent) in the El Cerrito hills is also relatively low, as many students are siphoned off by private and charter schools, as well as public schools in other communities, particularly Albany.
Portola's physical configuration compounds the problem, many parents say. The school has been housed in portable classrooms for nearly three years after the decaying three-story classroom building it was formerly in was closed because of seismic and safety concerns.
The portables are overcrowded, adding to the challenge of teaching at the school. P.E. classes have a single teacher supervising 60 to 70 students, limiting the amount of physical activity the students receive.
School district trustee Charles Ramsey said both of his daughters attended Portola, and the younger of the two "hated the environment" in the old building.
The current situation, which the district and many parents seem to agree is vastly improved in terms of morale and safety under Principal Matt Burnham, is going to get better in two years when the school's long-awaited new campus opens, according to district officials.
The district is working out the final details of a $43 million contract to build the new campus on the site of a closed elementary school in El Cerrito.
The plan calls for modernization of old buildings left over from the former Castro Elementary, construction of a new school building and multipurpose building and other improvements.
The low bid was $7 million to $10 million over what the district had budgeted. The difference will be made up by delaying or reworking the multitude of other construction projects the district has planned, said Ramsey, a housing attorney who has served as guru for West Contra Costa's massive bond program.
Trustees seem amenable to another action to appease parents concerned about the quality of education at Portola.
Starting next fall, students who meet certain requirements will be able to opt out of the crowded P.E. classes to make room for an additional elective, if the board approves the proposal at its April 10 meeting.
According to several parents who spoke Wednesday evening, the waivers will allow students to take a music class and a foreign language elective simultaneously, something that's not possible at present.