BERKELEY'S NEWS • OCTOBER 01, 2022

West Berkeley preschool plans to expand into location of former halfway house

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ALVIN WU | STAFF

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JUNE 12, 2014

A West Berkeley preschool plans to break ground this fall on an expansion that involves razing a halfway house next door, which closed six years ago after police discovered a meth lab in the building.

The expansion will allow Nia House Learning Center, a Montessori preschool, to add 34 more students to its program, an addition made possible through a lease from the city of Berkeley, which owns the land on which the former halfway house stands. A report from the city manager’s office calculated the public benefit to be $313,370 annually — coming primarily through scholarships the learning center provides to low-income families.

“We’ve had a very long waiting list for as long as I can remember … And we’re one of the few programs that offer a sliding scale for tuition based on family income,” said Eve Uberman, the preschool’s executive director. “So when the city started the conversation about selling the house next door, we started the conversation of whether we could buy it.”

The city’s decision to lease came attached with terms requiring that the preschool fill 50 percent of its spots with Berkeley residents and offer 50 percent of its scholarships to extremely low-, very low- and low-income Berkeley families.

The property being leased first drew attention in 2008 after police searched the house and discovered paraphernalia indicating the presence of a meth lab. Since then, the house has remained vacant.

Parents and staff said the discovery of the lab spurred a realization that the preschool’s proximity to a halfway house was not ideal.

“It was seen as not a good mix of uses,” said Peter Schultz, whose 4-year-old attends Nia House.

But because the preschool community didn’t find out about the meth lab until they saw a hazardous materials team in the building, parents felt more relief for its resolution than any real fear for their children, according to Leigha Schmidt, a parent and member of Nia House’s board. Additionally, the city put together an environmental cleanup plan to expunge any lingering traces of meth production.

The expansion will add two new classrooms and a front office. Accessing the current office requires navigating through a classroom often occupied by toddling children and beds for naptime. Denise Montgomery, the architect in charge of the expansion, said her goal was to create an affordable space that spoke to children’s needs — not an adult’s conception of what children want, which can be “condescending.”

Although the city tried to sell the land in 2009, it abandoned that effort in 2010 after staff recognized Nia House’s longstanding relationship with the property — the preschool had already been using portions of the space for a vegetable garden and play area.

“It was going to be a pretty bad political move for them to sell it out from under us,” Uberman said.

Nia House has raised about $260,000 for the expansion so far and needs about $200,000 more to start construction, according to Uberman.

Parents, who noted the magnitude of the waiting list, said the expansion would make the preschool’s benefits more accessible.

“Before our son got in, we were on the waiting list for three years,” Schmidt said. “I feel like I won the lottery because my son got in. So the expansion to me just means that more families will win that lottery.”

Contact Katy Abbott at 

LAST UPDATED

JUNE 15, 2014


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