Berkeley Technology Academy Principal Victor Diaz summed up the school year at the 2008 graduation ceremony at UC Berkeley’s Alumni Hall Thursday: “It was a year of extreme highs and extreme lows—a crazy crazy year.”
The school graduated 42, or twice as many students than last year, a feat Diaz attributed to rise in enrollment coupled with “a high success rate.” It also recently received the statewide After School Education and Safety 21st Century grant, which will award B-Tech $175,000 annually over the next five years.
With 160 students, enrollment is at an all time high and suspensions are decreasing every day, Diaz said.
Faculty, staff and students at this alternative school are recovering from the May 15 incident when one of the school’s seniors shot a junior outside school and sent the entire B-Tech community into shock.
Both students could be expelled, but Diaz said the Berkeley Unified School District will hold off making a decision until the juvenile court rules on the case.
Students looked on during Thursday’s ceremony as one of the graduating seniors recounted the fateful day four months ago when he became the victim of a drive-by shooting in Oakland.
“I’d never thought I’d be here today,” the student said. “Thank you for all your visits to the hospital and all the cards you made for me.”
As families broke down into tears, and exchanged hugs, students and parents spoke about how B-Tech gave them their lives back.
“B-Tech saved my son,” said Kathy Dean to rounds of applause from the audience. “We were lost before we came to B-Tech. We were lost before we found Vic. These are not the throwaway kids, these are the next Barack Obamas. Let nobody tell you that you cannot be the next president of the United States.”
Diaz praised the small and dedicated bunch of students who were off to four-year universities, as well as the ones who had already registered for Peralta Community College District for classes in the fall.
Devenere Dodson, 18, her dark eyes shining with excitement, talked about Texas Southern University—where she’s off to pursue business management in fall.
“I never thought it would be possible for me to go to a four-year-college,” she said, flashing a smile. “The feeling is unexplainable. I don’t have words. It took so long but I finally got there. I want to become an entrepreneur and own my own business one day.”
Dodson, one of the class toppers, graduated with a 3.0 GPA and A’s in most classes, including English and math, her favorite subjects. A transfer student from Newark, Dodson lives with her mother, who works two jobs as a secretary and a nurse, and three younger sisters.
Her friend Okoye Jones jumped up and down next to her wearing dark shades.
“It feels gooooood,” Jones, who will be studying auto mechanics at Alameda College, said laughing.
Like Dodson and Jones, most of the students at B-Tech were not afraid to talk about their shortcomings. They proudly pointed out their parents, who took leave from their jobs as AC Transit drivers, Safeway cashiers and nurses at big hospitals to stand by their kids on their big day.
“Yea, I got kicked out of Berkeley High because of bad grades,” said Markeita Mcmillian, smiling in her yellow robes. “But I am awfully excited and proud of myself today. I graduated with a 3.0 and I am off to Texas Southern University to study health administration. I will remember my teachers and Vic who looked after me, and who were like my parents. They helped me improve, and here I am today.”
Baby brothers held on tightly to shiny balloons, and mothers jostled for space in the front row, clicking their cameras as the graduates lined up to take centerstage.
“My mother came almost an hour in advance so that she could see the youngest of her three children graduate,” said Celeste Kelley, a Berkeley High graduate who now owns her own daycare business in Oakland. “I am overjoyed for my little brother. We have been through a lot of ups and downs and I am so proud he made it. When I went to Berkeley High eight years ago, B-Tech used to be a school for troubled kids. Now if a child needs more attention or a smaller classroom he can come to B-Tech.”
Diaz acknowledged the school still has a long way to go, especially when it comes to improving scores and ranking in standardized testing.
Since the API score for Berkeley Technology Academy was based on less than 100 valid STAR test results in 2007, the alternative school did not receive a ranking among similar schools.
“There’s been almost no strategy for increasing participation for standardized tests,” he said. “But the district is working on that now, and hopefully, we should see some improvement. We try to take testing seriously, but our numbers were still low last year.”
Diaz added that social and economic factors such as a bad economy, along with rising gas and food prices, impacted students coming from poorer communities.
“We don’t just live in a vacuum that is school,” he said. “During lessons, kids talk about their parents having to choose between food and a health bill, and how they are being evicted from their houses. This impacts learning. And we have been busier than ever this year trying to provide our students with support to deal with all that.”