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Community, Educators Plan City’s First Public Charter School

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday June 25, 2009 - 07:04:00 PM

A pastor, a couple of community organizers and a group of parents, educators and students met at The Way Christian Center in Berkeley recently to discuss plans for a new charter school in the city. 

The proposal, which has yet to come before the Berkeley Board of Education for approval, is being shepherded by Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action. Organizers hope to provide an alternative for students who have difficulty adjusting to Berkeley High School or Berkeley Technology Academy, the city’s only public continuation high school. 

Named Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement (REALM), the school will operate under the Berkeley Unified School District, providing 9th through 12th graders—especially youth of color from South and West Berkeley—with an intimate small public school learning environment 

If the school board votes in favor of the project, then Berkeley might get its second charter school as early as fall 2010. The first one opened at St. Joseph’s the Worker Church about a year after its private school closed down in August 2007. 

However, there are a number of things—finances and long term feasibility being just two—which need to be worked out first. 

BOCA called a community meeting last month to address some of those concerns. 

B-Tech Principal Victor Diaz, who has also taught at the Real Alternatives Program in San Francisco and served as a continuation school principal in the Boston public schools, answered questions from the audience along with a panel of speakers from his school and Emery High School. There are seven founding directors of REALM, including Diaz, Dr. Jabari Mahiri, professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education; educator, human rights advocate and writer Dr. Chris Knaus and Pastor Michael McBride of BOCA. 

“We think it’s a realistic mission statement,” Diaz said of the proposed charter school’s goal to inculcate resiliency skills in students through innovative, culturally relevant and rigorous educational programs. 

The school’s vision, Diaz explained, is “project-based learning,” which would seek to eliminate the achievement gap by teaching students important research and writing skills required for social change. It would also prepare them for 21st century challenges by training them in new media and technology. 

He said that despite some of the academic successes at B-Tech, it was often hard for students to deal with life after school or college. 

“The kids will learn how to communicate globally,” he said. “They will be interacting in an immersive environment.” 

REALM will start by admitting 260 students with plans to expand to 400 by the 2013-2014 school year. Students will not be selected by lottery and admission will be open to any student who meets Berkeley Unified’s residency requirements. 

Diaz added that the school would not be giving preference to B-Tech students. 

“It’s our goal to include all kids,” he said. “There might be kids at Berkeley High who want to go to B-Tech but who don’t like the stigma attached with it. Again there might be students at B-tech who have voluntarily transferred from Berkeley High to B-Tech and don’t have any discipline issues. They can opt to come to this new charter school.” 

A couple of parents said they were concerned whether the plan would work in the current economic crisis which had left Berkeley Unified with a shortfall of millions of dollars. 

“What about these costs?—it’s like we are in fantasy land,” a Latina mother said. 

Diaz explained that the proposal for the school would include a budget aligned with its education goals. 

“It cannot be in a fantasy land, where everybody is sitting on a rock and holding hands,” he said. “There are some schools who have submitted a budget but have stolen money or gone bankrupt. We don’t want to have a school that will shut down four years from now. We want the school to be successful.” 

Diaz said the costs for setting up the new charter school would be made public after it gets submitted to the school board, admitting that the volatile economy could lead to adjustments to the budget. 

He acknowledged that the idea had met with some interest, but it would take time before there were “300 people beating down the door.” 

If the board denies the proposal, its proponents would take it to Alameda County as an appeal or bring it back to the board. 

Nancy Williams, a parent advocate at B-Tech and a founding director of REALM, said that the charter school hopes to expose students to the right curriculum, eliminating their chance of failing ninth grade and then having to find out that they have to transfer to B-Tech. 

“I think one of the difficulties we have is that we are getting students so late,” said Hillary Scott Walker, who teaches history at B-Tech. “They have reading, writing and academic difficulties that are being diagnosed really late. If we get them at ninth grade, we can help them a lot earlier.” 

Walker said that it was possible that Berkeley High was suitable for some students and B-Tech for others, but it was important to have another choice. 

A student support services staff at B-Tech recounted her conversation with a senior right before graduation. 

“The student was talking to me about all the struggles and I thought ‘I wish I had a little more time with you, I wish I got you when you were 15 or 16,’” she said. “I think it’s really amazing what we have created at B-Tech, but it’s a struggle to do it in the model of a continuation school. We are getting our students too late—we have already lost one of our students to violence. My hope is with the smaller learning community we can do the work more easily.” 

Antonio Cediel, who is currently principal of Emery High School, warned that charter schools were “not a silver bullet.” 

“It’s not an answer to everything—what it provides is an option,” said Cediel, who has taught at urban public schools for over the last decade. “The key thing is you build it around a new vision and you attract people who really want to be there. There are good charter schools and bad charter schools. That’s why it’s worthy of support.” 

McBride, who is also a senior pastor at The Way Christian Center, stressed it would take immense work on the part of the community to start a new charter school. 

“We need to shake up Berkeley,” he said. “We need to walk in the neighborhoods and talk to people. So far nobody has said ‘we are definitely for it,’ but no one has said ‘we are definitely against it either.’” 

McBride said after the meeting that part of the proposal was to take advantage of the small school reform happening all over the country, which was getting support from President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. 

Asha Wilkerson, a recent graduate of the UC Hastings law school, said she would love to be on the planning committee for the new charter school or even teach a class on law or government. 

“I want to figure out how I can give back to the community,” said Wilkerson, 25, who is a member of The Way Christian Center. “There are lots of little kids who haven’t had the kind of opportunities I have had. I think a charter school is something that’s doable if you get the right people behind it. Maybe you can’t change the world, but maybe you can change a few lives.” 

Pastor Sarah Isakson of the Lutheran Church of the Cross, who is also one of the founders of the Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel, stopped by to listen to the panelists. 

“We really need a charter school,” she told the Planet. “As a former special education teacher, I know so much can be done by paying attention to students in small settings. You can get more success by just focusing on basic skills and increasing motivation. South and West Berkeley kids, who often have high drop out rates, will benefit from this. Berkeley High is just too big.” 

Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Cathy Campbell said that although there was need for an alternate program within the school district, “there was nothing to indicate that it had to be a charter school.” 

“There needs to be an acknowledgment that Berkeley High is not working for a significant number of students,” she said. “This proposal acts as a challenge to the district to meet some needs of students that are not being met.”