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District Struggles to Remake School’s Image

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday May 05, 2006

Grappling with an identity that, in the past, has included pejoratives like “dumping grounds,” “pre-prison,” and “a place for bad kids,” Berkeley’s Alternative High School is due for a systemic overhaul, administrators say. 

That revamp, in the form of a continuation school with a 21st century name, has arrived. Berkeley Technology Academy, or B-Tech as it would be called, would offer courses to the district’s 16- to 18-year-olds who don’t fit in elsewhere, whether due to truancy, academic performance, spotty attendance or other reasons. 

Students would chose among three options to complete coursework: a college track, a vocational program or independent study. The school would serve about 150 students, with a student-to-teacher ratio of 15 to 1. The average ratio at the high school is about 25 to 1. 

Additional features at B-Tech would include partnerships with community organizations like Berkeley City (Vista ) College, InnerWorks, the Black Ministerial Alliance and Project ECHO, a hands-on entrepreneurial program that gives students the opportunity to develop and operate an on-campus business. 

But the component that distinguishes the school most explicitly from the existing model is that it would serve students who are there against their will. Currently, the alternative school does not—or at least it isn’t supposed to. 

The latter point was the subject of Yarman Smith et al. v. Berkeley Unified School District et al., a class action lawsuit filed last year, when a group of students claimed they were involuntarily transferred out of school or to alternative programs. 

The allegations were never proven, said Felton Owens, director of student support services, but a consent decree, agreed upon by both parties, stipulated that the district clarify its discipline policy. Forming a formal continuation school, where students can be placed involuntarily, is the upshot. 

Historically, the Alternative High School, formerly called East Campus, was a continuation school. Then during the 2000-2001 school year, the Berkeley Board of Education voted to transition the school to an alternative model, according to Guidance Counselor Mercedes Sanders. 

The idea was, in part, to offer a site that students would choose to attend, and also to discard negative associations with the term “continuation school,” which often conjures up images of students with discipline problems, drug addiction and violent tendencies. 

“There’s been a lot of tension about what this school is,” said English teacher Andrea Pritchett. “I understand the district has a need for a continuation school, but there’s been a huge amount of ambiguity about whether we’re a continuation school or an alternative school.” 

Regardless of how it’s defined, Superintendent Michele Lawrence admits the school isn’t working.  

“I think our alternative high school program has been stuggling for a long time,” she said Wednesday.  

The Alternative High School has some of the worst attendance in the district. In January, an average of 27.4 percent of the school’s 10th- to 12th-grade students were absent. (As a comparison, Berkeley High School students averaged about a 10 percent absence rate that month.) 

In 2005, the Alternative School received an Academic Performance Index of 370, on a scale of 200 to 1,000, and earned the lowest rank possible compared with schools statewide. 

About seven in 10 students are African American, one in five are Hispanic or Latino and 4 percent are white. It is not uncommon for three-fourths of the student body to live in a single-parent home or for a quarter of the population to live in foster care, according to a written proposal on B-Tech. 

There are very few scientific studies that detail the positive components of alternative schools, according Laudan Aron of the Urban Institute, in a recent overview of alternative education. General threads through promising programs include a clear focus on academic rigor, supportive staff, small class sizes, clean facilities, partnerships with the community and extra student support. 

Some educators think the proposed continuation school won’t measure up. 

“I’m against it,” said Joy Moore, nutrition outreach specialist for the city of Berkeley who works at the Alternative High School six hours a week. “It changes the flavor and design of the educational experience for the kids. It’s like a pre-prison.” 

Sanders, who has been at the alternative school since 1993, agrees the involuntary component will change classroom environments. She hopes major structural changes will effectively address students’ needs, but fears resources may difficult to come by.  

“Intervention, internships, work programs, tutors, mentors, partnerships … what we really need are resources,” she said. 

The district would earmark about $139,000 for extra staff—a work experience coordinator and a second school safety officer—but additional costs have not been enumerated. 

Sanders is also concerned with how quickly the transition is being implemented. The Board of Education received the proposal a week ago, and was scheduled to take action Wednesday. Directors deferred a decision to the next meeting to give staff time to compile a detailed picture of cost estimates. 

A teacher, who spoke on condition on anonymity for fear of losing her job, said teachers were not given an opportunity to help conceptualize the new school. They first learned of the proposed overhaul a few weeks ago, and received a copy of the B-Tech plan for the first time on Tuesday, she said. 

Morale is low, and teachers are uncertain about whether they want to stay or go, she said. 

B-Tech has earned some backing in the community, in large part because it offers multiple pathways for students who aren’t succeeding to meet graduation requirements. A small band of parents and students attended Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting to show their support for the program and the school’s principal Victor Diaz, who is behind the revamp.  

“As a parent, I want all of what the proposal says,” Procesa Gorrostieta told the board. Gorrostieta’s 10th-grade daughter attends the alternative school. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be called the school for bad kids. The kids are different, they have other needs, and we’re supposed to give them what they need.””