School Board Votes to Create Berkeley Technology Academy

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday May 19, 2006

When classes commence this fall, students at 2701 Martin Luther King Jr. Way will be the first to navigate the multiple pathways of Berkeley Technology Academy. 

The school, in its existing form as the Alternative High School, has earned a bad rap for low test scores, poor attendance and truancy, among other problems. Administrators and school officials hope a new continuation model that offers students three avenues for earning high school diplomas will help turn the school around.  

On Wednesday, the Board of Education unanimously approved a proposal to revamp the school, put forth by Alternative High School Principal Victor Diaz, in conjunction with district administration.  

The Alternative High School was a continuation school in the past, but in 2000-2001, as an attempt to diminish negative associations with continuation programs, the Board of Education formed the general alternative school, which students could attend voluntarily.  

The experiment was short-lived. Last year, a legal settlement between BUSD and a group of students who accused the district of organizing involuntary student transfers forced the district to revisit its need for a continuation program. B-Tech, as administrators are calling it, is the result of that settlement—with a few perks thrown in for good measure. 

The school prepares 10th- to 12th-grade students for graduation via college preparatory courses, vocational training or independent study. The new program will feature a 15-to-1 student to teacher ratio, additional hires—a work experience coordinator and a second school safety officer—in addition to community partnerships with organizations like Berkeley City (Vista) College, the Black Ministerial Alliance, InnerWorks and Project ECHO. 

Students who don’t fit in elsewhere in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) because of truant behavior, academic performance or other reasons may be sent to the school involuntarily. 

District administration, school board directors and parents at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting lauded the reform. 

“I’m for the proposal,” said Nancy Williams, whose child attends the alternative school. “It’s not fair for [students] to be in a class where they aren’t challenged. These programs the principal is proposing are programs that are helping students succeed.” 

Tenth-grade alternative school student Keneishia Lewis shares those high hopes.  

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said Thursday. “It will help us prepare for life.” 

Some residents, like Laura Menard who lives near the school site, also back B-Tech. It’s an “improvement for youth education and safety,” she said.  

But not everyone supports B-Tech unconditionally, particularly staff members who learned about the overhaul late in the game and aren’t sure proposed reforms can solve the school’s problems.  

B-Tech will only work if the principal tightens up discipline, said English teacher Kadhir Raja who, along with one of his students, devised the nickname “Hotel Berkeley” for the alternative school, because students come and go as they please. 

B-Tech would be “cool,” Raja said, “as long as [Diaz] is more strict and more structured.” 

Raja, a first year teacher, doesn’t know if he’ll come back to the school next year. Diaz expects that just four of the school’s 10 teachers are returning.  

Other staff members have concerns with implementation. Teachers received copies of the new proposal a day before the Board of Education was scheduled to act on it May 3. (The board delayed that action until Wednesday.) Still, just weeks before school gets out for summer recess, staff members have yet to discuss the restructuring process, said English teacher Andrea Pritchett. 

Some students are also in the dark. When the Daily Planet visited Thursday, a class of about eight ninth- and 10th-graders were unaware that their school’s name and curriculum were changing. Eleventh-grade student Kionna Lemott, who participates in student leadership, said seniors weighed in on the proposal, but underclassmen did not. 

“I don’t like it, because this school’s been this way for hecka’ long and they didn’t even get our input,” said Lemott. “They still haven’t talked to us about it.” 

She admitted, though, that if the changes are as sweet as administrators say, B-Tech could be a good thing. 

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said school board President Terry Doran at Wednesday’s school board meeting. “It’s not a panacea. As long as we can remain flexible and talk to each other, that’s really the atmosphere we need to improve the school.” 

In other news Wednesday: 

The board unanimously passed a resolution supporting Proposition 82, the state Preschool for All Initiative. 

Board directors approved an extra $100,000 for an environmental impact report for an East Campus/ Derby Street playing field, with Director John Selawsky opposing. The review will look at the environmental effects of closing Derby Street and leaving it open. 

Directors fleshed out details for how funding should be distributed in a renewed school parcel tax measure, which would provide the school district with $19 million a year for 10 years. They are scheduled to vote on recommendations May 24.