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B-Tech Students on Their Way to College

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 06:49:00 PM
Tanoya Law and Cassandra Irvin ponder a math problem on the B-Tech campus. Law has been accepted into three colleges this fall, and Irvin, a junior, is planning to go to college next fall.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Tanoya Law and Cassandra Irvin ponder a math problem on the B-Tech campus. Law has been accepted into three colleges this fall, and Irvin, a junior, is planning to go to college next fall.

There’s no stopping JaQuia Bolden. This B-Tech senior is going to college.  

Bolden usually doesn’t play favorites, but when Georgia’s Paine College accepted her during a whirlwind tour of black colleges last month, she knew it was meant to be. 

Four of her classmates got just as lucky, getting into other historically black institutions, something Principal Victor Diaz said was a first in the history of Berkeley’s only public continuation high school. Two students are still waiting for responses. 

At least four in Berkeley Technology Academy’s 40-student graduating class have been offered admission at Howard University, San Francisco State and other Bay Area colleges, and although the number is still fairly small compared with Berkeley High School, it’s no mean feat. 

Most of these teenagers come from broken homes and from tough neighborhoods, where drugs, alcohol and violence are daily temptations. For many, college always seemed like an unattainable dream. 

“These are kids who didn’t even want to go to school,” Diaz said, sitting inside his cramped yet colorful office at 2701 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, pictures of Che Guevera and hip-hop stars peeking out from behind him. “Watching them turn their lives around is amazing.” 

Diaz said that, because the annual black college tour, now in its third year, is not paid for by the Berkeley Unified School District, Mayor Tom Bates stepped in to help make it happen, bringing in nonprofit In Dulci Jubilo and other public education foundations to raise $10,000, about half the cost of the trip.  

The San Francisco Foundation’s Koshland Program contributed the other half, giving B-Tech enough money for 11 to travel to eight campuses in six states. 

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Diaz said. “These trips would not have happened without all these people and organizations coming together. Next year we will try to send them in the fall, so that they have time to choose between schools based on their financial aid packages.” 

Standing outside Diaz’s office on a recent Friday afternoon, basking in the warm April sunshine, Bolden can’t stop talking about her trip. 

“I just have to send them my SAT scores, everything else is in,” she said, explaining that her teachers had already helped to turn in a portfolio, complete with recommendations, transcripts and personal essays during the tour. “The colleges told us that, if we fill out applications on the spot, we would get accepted.” 

“That’s our star,” Diaz said, pointing at Bolden, before disappearing into a two-hour-long staff meeting. He later told the Daily Planet that Bolden felt her SATs had gone well. “Unless she does really poorly, she is going to Paine,” he said. 

Three years ago, Diaz wouldn’t have been able to exude that kind of confidence about Bolden. She missed classes, didn’t do her homework and barely made her grades. 

“Somebody is actually willing to take me into their school. I never thought I would make it,” Bolden said. “But here I am making myself into something. I can move on.” 

Last year, Bolden was, in her words, an “OK” student, scraping by with mostly Cs, sometimes Bs and Ds. She credits friends, B-Tech teachers and “Vic”—Principal Diaz—for turning her into a straight-A student. She is now considering a career in business management. Dressed in a violet sweatshirt, white leggings and long gold hoop earrings, Bolden has a sureness about herself that she hopes will come in handy in the real world. “I am going to be on my own now—my mom isn’t going to be there. I will have to handle my own business,” she said. 

Her peers, Tanoya Law and Cassandra Irvin, have the same attitude. They feel an urgency to graduate, to tell the world that “just because kids get sent to B-Tech” doesn’t mean they can’t achieve. 

“We are not a bad school, we are a good school,” said Law, who was accepted into Paine, Johnson C. Smith University and Howard. Mild mannered and fashion-savvy, the 18-year-old wants to study fashion in college and open her own boutique, maybe even appear on TV’s Project Runway. But right now she’s happy being a student.  

Her pride in her African-American heritage comes across when she recounts the history of the black colleges she visited for the first time. Spelman, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse—as the names rolled off her tongue, so did references to slavery, famous African-American clergy, men and women whom she considers role models, their stories pushing her forward every day. 

“It was really amazing to see how many African-Americans there were at all the places we applied,” she said. “It inspired me to apply. Over here I don’t see a lot of them applying to universities. Sometimes people aren’t even continuing with high school. Only a few go on to community colleges.” 

B-Tech secretary Nancy Williams, who chaperoned the group on the tour, said the experience had helped everybody a great deal. 

“A couple of them were not thinking of going to college,” she said. “But once they were on the tour, it changed their minds. It was a great opportunity for them to get accepted.” 

Both Law and Irvin, a junior who went on the trip as a preview for next year, will be the first in their families to consider studying in a four-year college. 

Law’s mother dropped out of high school, while Irvin’s mother attended junior college. Both their fathers are high school graduates. 

Both talked about feeling lost in their previous high schools—Berkeley High for Law and Oakland Tech for Irvin—and how B-Tech’s small classes, personalized environment and close-knit community had helped them raise their grades. 

“B-Tech’s like a family. Nobody has helped me like B-Tech,” said Irvin. “Anyone can come to Victor and say ‘Vic, I am having a bad day. Teachers have the patience to give you one-on-one.” 

Not everything is perfect at B-Tech, however. The school has received criticism for low state and local test scores, and like Berkeley High, has failed to get an Academic Performance Index score for the last several years due to poor participation. But Diaz contends that this year’s success stories are a turn for the better. The final leg, he said, was getting financial aid. 

“It’s difficult, because they have to pay out-of-state tuition,” he said. “Some of the students are trying to get local grants and have interviews lined up with several foundations.” 

Law said she was trying not to worry too much about it. 

“I have filled out my financial aid application and I plan to work,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I have faith. I feel like I am going to be OK.”