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THE KINDERGARTEN through third-grade classes just barely fit the square footage of Hillcrest Elementary School s multipurpose room (above) for their lunch hour on a busy Monday afternoon. They are the first shift of kids, and the fourth- through eighth-graders are the second lunch shift. (LAURA A. ODA Staff)
OAKLAND - In mid-October, Dan Rascher and his wife bought a $1.4 million home in Upper Rockridge so their child could gain entrance to Hillcrest, Oakland's most prestigious public school.

Last week, they began to doubt their investment. A proposed boundary shift, prompted by a population boom and overcrowding at Hillcrest, would make Montclair Elementary — a well-regarded, yet less exclusive school nearby — the family's new school.

"It was really like a kick in the stomach," said Rascher, who said no one informed him about the ongoing enrollment squeeze when he made the offer on his home. Although Montclair is a fine school, he said, "We didn't think we were going to buy a Montclair home at a Hillcrest price."

Hillcrest has been a major selling point for real estate agents. Nearly all of its students come from privileged

backgrounds, and families boast that its programs outshine those of elite private schools. Part of Hillcrest's appeal is that it extends through the eighth grade, a change made during a period of low enrollment after the 1991 Oakland hills fire storm.

But if the school board approves a boundary change on Dec. 19 — the board's first major decision since the 2003 state takeover — many Hillcrest families will be redistricted to Montclair or Chabot elementary schools.

Word of the predicament at Hillcrest has spread beyond the neighborhood, creating robust debates among Oakland's middle and upper income families. To what extent should wealth — the ability to buy a home near a good school — determine one's access to a public education of their choice? Should Hillcrest continue to have a middle school, at the expense of elementary school families? How rigorously should the school district verify addresses at its 'hills' schools?

To some, the issue highlights a growing educational divide along economic lines. As more upper-middle class and well-to-do parents enroll their children in neighborhood elementary schools, they leave less room for children whose families can't afford the real estate.

Oakland's enrollment policies give neighborhood children top priority. Next on the list are children from other neighborhoods with older siblings already enrolled, followed by those who live near struggling schools, and then, by lottery, everyone else.

Until now, Oakland hasn't had a policy to address the neighborhood supply and demand imbalance. Its School Options program presumes that all neighborhood children will be accommodated. Hillcrest is the only school that does not accept non-neighborhood transfers.

About 318 students attend Hillcrest, compared to about 350 at Montclair and about 500 at Chabot.

But some wonder if Hillcrest's crowding problem will develop in other neighborhoods with growing numbers of young families. A group of pre-kindergarten families in Redwood Heights, for example, is urging the district to crack down on suspected address falsifiers at their neighborhood school.

Families at Montclair and Chabot worry about the ramifications of adding new territory. Moreover, they say they only learned about the boundary change two weeks before the board's vote, while Hillcrest parents and staff studied potential solutions for months.

Nancy Bloom, principal of Montclair Elementary School, said last week that she was concerned about the effects of a boundary shift. As it is, she said, more neighborhood kids are enrolling in Montclair's kindergarten each year — a trend she expects will continue.

"Our neighborhood is growing. There are a lot of pregnant women around," she said.

This year, 47 of Montclair's 60 kindergarten spots are filled by children who live in its current attendance boundaries. By the district's projections, the redrawn lines would add 5 to 15 neighborhood kindergartners. Since the school is at capacity, the change would limit, if not eliminate, room for non-neighborhood children.

"One of our strengths is our diversity," Bloom said. "If the available slots are filled with neighborhood kids, it by definition decreases the diversity across the board."

About 22 percent of Montclair's students live outside the affluent hills neighborhood. Since about 10 percent or less of the school's population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, that means less than half of the non-neighborhood students are economically disadvantaged; many are middle class children of diverse ethnicities.

Chabot Elementary School, in Rockridge, is located on a street of lush gardens and large homes, but its students represent more than 15 ZIP codes. About 43 percent of Chabot's students live outside of the neighborhood. Twelve percent live in low-income households.

Leslie Olrich, a second-grade teacher at Chabot, compares her classroom to the United Nations. Their families hail from Eritrea, Namibia, Nepal and China, not to mention West Oakland.

"There wouldn't be this kind of diversity if the students were just from this neighborhood," Olrich said, as the children completed their workbook exercises.

Sonia Manjon, an East Oakland resident whose children attend Chabot, said the boundary debate raises a larger issue about education in Oakland.

"It's really about equity in education," said Manjon, who is the director of the Center for Art and Public Life at California College for the Arts. "Education should not be a prize for those who can afford to live in a certain neighborhood."

If the school board is going to approve the boundary change, Manjon said, "then they need to make a commitment to making learning equitable in Oakland."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education.