Every morning, Konstance Kirkendoll leaves her San Leandro home at 7 a.m., with her two children, an 8-year-old and a 3-month-old, in tow.
On good days, she says, she makes pancakes before they head out. Other days, they grab muffins or yogurt to eat in the car. Together, they drive anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes to get to Beechwood School in eastern Menlo Park. Ms. Kirkendoll drops off her baby at a cousin's house nearby, before they arrive at Beechwood School, located at 50 Terminal Ave. across the parking lot from the Onetta Harris Community Center.
It's the school she attended as a child and now where her daughter attends as a second-grader. It's also where she works as a teaching aide for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students. After 24 years of learning, volunteering, teaching and parenting there, it's a place she's come to call home.
However, the private elementary school, which enrolls about 170 students from low-income families, mostly from eastern Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, faces a crisis. As housing costs skyrocket, an increasing number of families the school serves and the teachers who serve them find themselves priced out of nearby housing.
One recent day after school, a group of 10 stakeholders at Beechwood gathered in a staff meeting room to talk about the crisis facing the Belle Haven school, which was founded in 1984 and serves students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Those in attendance were David Laurance, the principal; Katie Fields, executive director of the school's nonprofit arm, the California Family Foundation; Helga Wild, a member of the Belle Haven Community Development Fund; plus a number of concerned teachers and academic support instructors.
At the heart of their concerns are these questions: What do you do when there are fewer and fewer low-income students left in Belle Haven and East Palo Alto to teach? How will the school continue its mission of serving local low-income students? What will the school do when even teachers can't afford to live nearby?
Mr. Laurance, the principal, says that this year there are four families he knows of that have left or will be leaving Beechwood due to the rising cost of housing. Twenty-eight students at the school who previously lived in East Palo Alto or eastern Menlo Park now live elsewhere.
There are also nine staff members experiencing financial strain due to the high cost of housing. Many other families are experiencing strain too, he says. At a school where there are only 10 to 18 students in each class, those strains and changes are seen and felt acutely.
How bad is it?
In Belle Haven, 78 percent of households are categorized in the low, very low or extremely low income categories, with the median household income being $53,971, according to statistics from the 2010-2014 American Community Survey, recently reported by the city of Menlo Park. That median income is about 47 percent of the citywide median household income of $115,650.
A 2013 infographic from Menlo Park's housing element presents various income scenarios wherein housing could be afforded. Only the hypothetical household where two adults work one in a high-earning job for a law firm and the other in a professional career (the example was as a social worker) were there a number of theoretically affordable housing options throughout the city.
In other words, anything less than two household members making moderate- to high-levels of income would render most of Menlo Park's housing stock out of reach. And those figures are from three years ago. Over the last year, home values in Belle Haven rose 18 percent and are projected to increase another 4 percent this year, according to Zillow Real Estate.
Yet pricey housing is nothing new in the region. Over the years, the teachers say they've seen the economic pressures tighten and release for families. Ms. Kirkendoll says that when she was a student at Beechwood (she graduated in 2001), she saw a gradual shift as the community changed from largely African American to largely Hispanic, as many African American families moved to more affordable areas like Tracy, Modesto or Stockton. In 2007 and 2008, things were tough for families too, the teachers say, but what they're seeing now has escalated to a new level.
"It's systematic," says Priscilla Taylor, who teaches math to middle school students, is a former principal at the school, and has been at Beechwood for 20 years.
A single mother of three Beechwood students, who wishes to remain anonymous, will be leaving the school in June to move to Texas, where she says she can live at a lower cost with family members. She works in Palo Alto as a nanny for several families. Her twin 13-year-old girls and 12-year-old son have been at the school for about eight years on a scholarship. In exchange, she volunteers at the school and takes parenting classes the school offers.
The East Palo Alto home she has been renting with her parents and two brothers will be sold, so she has to leave, and other places in the neighborhood she's looked at are out of her price range one was about $4,000 per month.
"I don't know what else to do," she said. "It's not going to stop. Nobody's trying to control it."
"I just want the best for my kids," she said. "That's why I made the decision to move and I hope I'm okay with that decision."
Isabel Jimenez, the school's office manager, says the housing crisis is escalating on a month to month basis. From last year's admissions cycle to this year's, she says she's observed noticeable changes in the affluence of people who inquire about the school. Families asking for applications now ask her why the school's tuition is so low. Tuition is $180 per month, said Principal Dave Laurance, and about 80 percent of the school's cost is subsidized by the California Family Foundation.
Ms. Taylor says about a quarter of the school's students have vocalized concerns about their family's precarious housing situations. There are likely others who don't talk about it out of embarrassment, she says.
Now, teachers say they're seeing new symptoms of the housing crisis leaking into the lives of their students.
"We have students living in garages, living with multiple families, students whose parents really struggle to find an affordable place to live, " says Katherine Magid, a kindergarten teacher at Beechwood.
That strain children feel, she says, manifests in ways that can negatively affect their schoolwork.
"It's really hard for kids to focus on learning when they're wondering where they're going to live and if they're going to have to move," Mr. Laurance says.
Ms. Kirkendoll says that long commutes impact her kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students, who sometimes come to school hungry, having skipped breakfast in a rush to get out the door, or had eaten hours prior to a lengthy commute. Oftentimes, they're sleepy from waking up so early. Those factors can make them cranky and ill-disposed toward study time. Among older kids, impacts like having to wait a long time for a ride home, or having limited study space, affect their work. One of Ms. Taylor's bright math students, she says, is underperforming in class because the only place he can do homework is on the kitchen floor.
Teachers say they're seeing their vibrant community affected. Parent participation, one of the school's central tenets, has taken a hit. Parents who used to sit and talk in the parking lot as they waited for their kids to get out of school are now passing that time coming back from a second job, picking up and dropping off students late, and spending more time commuting to increasingly far-flung residences.
"You shouldn't have to commute two hours to contribute to a community, to live or work here," says Ms. Taylor.
Even students whose housing situations are not under direct threat are affected as they witness the displacement of their friends and classmates.
Alejandro Vilchez, a parent of four children who all attend or have graduated from Beechwood, says recently some of his daughter's good friends have had to move away because of increased housing costs. His family has been based in Belle Haven since 2005, first as homeowners and now as renters. The school was a primary reason his family chose to stay nearby after losing their home in 2012.
"For the quality of education that we're getting, I would expect to be paying a lot more than we are now," he says of Beechwood. "It sounds cliche, but it really is like a family."
Teachers are facing difficulties in making ends meet, too.
Teacher turnover isn't good for students, Ms. Taylor says. "The last thing you want is inconsistency in the classroom."
Beechwood teaching couple Diana and Nathan Pantoja say things are tough, but the school environment is unique, and worth the sacrifice. "We care about these kids all around, not just about their academic success," he says.
Diana works as an academic support coordinator and Nathan teaches middle school students and leads the school's wrestling program. They both have graduate degrees. They live in Santa Clara with three young children, and spend between 45 to 50 percent of their shared income on rent. On his own, rent would take up about 80 percent of his monthly income, he says. Even to qualify for below market rate housing, he says, their family would need about $38,000 saved for a down payment. "For me to do that, that's about five to 10 years out," he says.
Ms. Kirkendoll says she's making it work by living in San Leandro and taking on a roommate. The school's atmosphere is worth the sacrifice of a long commute, for now. If economic tightening does persist, though, she says: "Of course I'm going to have to reevaluate. That's life. Would I want to? No, because this environment is a big chunk of my life."
"I don't like the excuse that there's nothing we can do about it," says Ms. Magid, the kindergarten teacher. She has attended various ConnectMenlo meetings to discuss Menlo Park's general plan update and what could be done to increase affordable housing. She says she wants to see future housing planned for Menlo Park's M-2 area be a better match for the percentage of Belle Haven residents who are currently considered low-income.
"Is it possible to have rent control in Menlo Park?" asked Ms. Taylor, intoning the question as if it were rhetorical. She says she thinks it would take some kind of immediate, if temporary, policy intervention to stem further escalation of student and family displacement.
"What's the number one sign of a healthy growing community?" she asked, and then answered her own question: "What you're putting in education is number one. It always has been."
Katie Fields, executive director of the California Family Foundation, which is the school's largest nonprofit funder, says part of the issue is that "nobody wants to talk about housing," least of all housing density. Yet "houses are where jobs go to sleep," she says. When there is an imbalance, it leads to some of the problems the region is experiencing.
Overall, though, the teachers are wary of laying blame. Many landlords do keep rent below market rate to help out residing families, they say. It's not the fault of local tech company employees, either. They're hardly to blame for using their bigger, better paychecks and in the case of Facebook employees, additional relocation bonuses to move closer to eliminate soul-sucking commutes. (Facebook has roughly a year-old policy of providing relocation bonuses to some employees who move within 10 miles of its headquarters).
"They (the tech workers) want that community too," Ms. Taylor says.
"I just don't think one should have to be sacrificed for another."