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Diaz Sets Out to Save Berkeley Alternative

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday May 30, 2006

As a teacher for a GED program in San Francisco, Victor Diaz floated a novel notion: He would prepare students to earn high school diplomas. 

“The principal looked at me like I was fucking crazy,” he said last week, over iced tea and a half-eaten bagel. 

Diaz said the students in the program were treated as the pariahs of public education; they were juvenile delinquents, academic failures and miscreants. There were students who had spent three years at the school with little to no instruction, and not one had received a high school equivalency certificate let alone a diploma.  

Diaz forged ahead, enlisting students who expressed interest in graduating and an additional instructor to teach math and sciences. By the end of the year, nine of the 12 students left the school with San Francisco Unified School District diplomas. 

“It was a monumental moment in my professional career,” he said. “It was so moving to see those kids—we had a graduation at City College [of San Francisco], we had caps and gowns. It was the first time they’d had any of that.” 

Diaz, 39, has found a new incubator in the Berkeley Alternative High School, where he is finishing his first year as principal. 

Administrators, educators and others have long complained that the school is due for reform. Test scores are low—the school earned a 370 on a scale of 200 to 1,000, in which 800 is the goal on a state academic performance measure in 2005—and attendance is abysmal. The student population is 69 percent African-American, 21 percent Latino, and more than half the students participate in the free or reduced lunch program.  

Last week, the Berkeley Board of Education overwhelmingly approved a school overhaul. Under the new name Berkeley Technology Academy, or B-Tech, students will choose among three options to graduate: CSU- and UC-standard coursework, vocation preparation or independent study. Partnerships with community programs, new staff and a new student population, partly composed of kids who attend involuntarily, are additional features of the model. 

The latter is the upshot of a settlement agreement between the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) and a group of students that accused the district of unfair school transfers between 2002 and 2004. But the rest is of Diaz’s making. Administrators, parents and some students have expressed significant support for Diaz and his program, a fact he plays down.  

“I’m not some deep philosopher that has this new theory that’s going to be coined after me,” he said. “There are people who have done this work for years … and the heart of it is high expectations, relationships, academic rigor.” 

None of which he had growing up. 

A self-described “angry teenager,” Diaz drifted in and out of schools in East San Jose, before getting kicked out permanently at 16, when he physically attacked a female teacher. It was his sixth high school. 

Diaz fit the classic profile of a troubled teenage boy. His mother, a teen when she got pregnant, raised Diaz and his two sisters alone in a working-class neighborhood. The school district was about 80 percent Mexican, though instructors were nearly all white and punished students for speaking Spanish, he said. 

“There was a real push to acculturate us, there were no cultural studies,” he said. “I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but what they were doing wasn’t working for me. … I was completely discouraged and disgusted by the public school system.” 

Diaz wandered aimlessly for seven years. At 23, he was without an education, job skills or a future. 

That year, a community college coach in San Diego saw Diaz running and recruited him to join the track team. Diaz enrolled in classes, but it became immediately evident that he was at a loss as to how to “do school.” For a paper on a muralist, he submitted photocopied paintings from a textbook. “It was apparent that I couldn’t write,” he said.  

At the same time, Diaz started working with high school students, and found the experience rewarding. He decided then that if he was going to help young people learn, he had better get an education. 

Diaz went on to obtain multiple degrees, including a bachelor’s degree from UCLA, a J.D. from the New College in San Francisco, a master’s in education technology from University of San Francisco and a principal certificate from California State University Sacramento. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in superintendent training from UC Berkeley. He has taught alternative education in Oakland and San Francisco, and worked as the headmaster for a continuation program in Boston, Ma.  

Today, Diaz is self-possessed, sharp and well read—his office bookshelf includes “The Cornel West Reader,” Jonathan Kozol’s “The Shame of the Nation” and “Clockers.” Traces of the defiant teenager still emerge, though. He peppers an impressive vocabulary with old favorites like “shit” and “fuck”—earning him instant street cred among students—and releases a steady stream of outrage when discussing the failures of alternative education. 

“If people don’t think there’s a correlation between the number of kids in juvenile hall and the number of grown men in prisons with these unsuccessful programs, I don’t know what other fucking correlation you can make,” he said. “So I feel like I have an obligation to say, ‘I’ve got to try everything possible to retain the kids.’” 

That attitude has gotten him into trouble at the alternative school, where some teachers say he is too quick to befriend students and too light on discipline. Under his tenure, the school has earned the nickname “Hotel Berkeley,” because students come and go as they please. During the last recorded attendance cycle, Alternative High School 10th- to 12th-graders were absent 32 percent of the time, compared with about 20 percent for the same period in 2005 and 12 percent for the comprehensive school this year. 

Diaz has attracted further criticism for what some perceive as sheer effrontery because he walked into the school, overhauled the existing program and garnered little input from staff. It doesn’t help that only about half the teachers are returning next year. 

But Diaz is confident he knows what’s best for his students; after all, he lived it.  

“My fear is that I’ll be the administrator that I confronted in school or that I’ll have teachers who are like the teachers I confronted in school,” he said. “And that shit is unacceptable.”