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Activists Protest City’s Proposed Charter School

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 08, 2009 - 12:28:00 PM

A charter school proposed by the Berkeley Unified School District hit a road bump last week when an activist group charged it would lead to segregation. 

The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) rallied outside the district headquarters at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way before a special School Board meeting Wednesday, Sept. 23, arguing that Berkeley’s first charter school would “codify separate and inferior education” for black and Latino students. 

Although the district has hinted at giving serious consideration to an alternative secondary program that would provide students bound for Berkeley public high schools with another option, district officials said it was far too early in the process to tell whether this program would end up being a charter school. 

Called Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement, or REALM, the charter school, as the Daily Planet reported Sept. 3, was the brainchild of Victor Diaz, principal of Berkeley Technology Academy (the district’s only continuation school), and Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA), who want to provide students with a project-based, technology-oriented curriculum that would make them ready for the 21st-century job market. 

Diaz and BOCA argue that students often feel stigmatized by attending B-Tech, simply because it is often viewed as a dumping ground for students who were kicked out of Berkeley High for either failing their classes or having a criminal background, leading them to have low morale and little interest in applying for colleges or jobs. 

The majority of B-Tech students are black or Latino and hail from low-income families. 

According to Diaz, a charter school would provide a fresh start for students who feel they don’t belong either at B-Tech or Berkeley High.  

Curriculum would include new topics such as gaming and 3D movies, digital portfolios, virtual spaces, social networking and website design. 

At the Berkeley Board of Education meeting, called specifically to discuss an alternative secondary program, BAMN members said they opposed a charter school. 

“For decades, Berkeley has been a model for integrated public education that works,” said Yvette Felarca, BAMN organizer and a teacher at King Middle School. “And for the last six years, this city has successfully defended itself against legal challenges to its integration plan. But instead of expanding upon our success, this proposed charter school attempts to institutionalize and make a model out of segregated education in Berkeley.” 

BAMN organizer and UC Berkeley School of Education alumnus Ronald Cruz contended that public schools were the only way to provide integrated, equal education.  

“The majority of black and Latino students who would be sent to the REALM charter should be at Berkeley’s public high school and middle schools and have access to these school’s superior resources,” Cruz said. “But instead, REALM would turn toward the private sector to fund educational experiments for making segregated schooling work for black and Latino students. One hundred years ago, black students relied on private philanthropy to provide them with an inferior, limited technical education. Separate education is unequal education. We will not let Berkeley turn back the clock.” 

Felarca said a charter school would offer very little accountability to the district. 

“Charter schools claim one thing and actually do something completely else,” she said. “How are we going to keep track of them? Charters in the end, the whole premise behind them, is deregulated public education. And we saw what deregulation did to our economy. We don’t want that happening here.” 

Tanya Carter, another BAMN member, told the board that minority students don’t need to be separated to receive opportunities. 

Superintendent Bill Huyett told the Planet after the meeting that the group’s fears were not completely unfounded. 

“Berkeley Unified is concerned about integrating schools and racial equity.” Huyett said. “It’s true that charter schools don’t always reflect ethnic distribution. It’s an unresolved issue. The board doesn’t have an answer to that yet, but we need to keep it in the forefront.” 

Huyett said that the district would also have to figure out facilities, finances and governance for the proposed alternative program before finalizing any plans for a charter school. 

“These are tough times—it’s not a simple yes-or-no kind of proposition,” he said. “The board will have many more discussions” before arriving at any kind of a conclusion. 

Under REALM, one of the proposals is to convert B-Tech into a charter, which would enroll students from seventh grade onward. 

Three different models have been proposed, but each would place students at three campuses, including B-Tech, West Campus and the Washington Elementary School annex for the first three or four years, a plan that at least two School Board members said could lead to much confusion and ultimately little success. 

The district’s director of facilities, Lew Jones, said a new facility could be built within three to five years. The district currently has $1.8 million in unallocated funds in its facilities budget, he said. 

Although a charter school may or may not fall within a school district’s jurisdiction, in either case it is entitled to some amount of independence. 

Huyett said that it was not clear whether bond money could be used to fund a charter school. Local parcel tax money cannot be used toward charter schools, he said, making it necessary for charter schools to seek grants from foundations and private donors. 

Start-up costs for an alternative high school are expected to range from $850,000 to $1 million, with the program expected to run a deficit for the first few years before bringing in any kind of revenue. 

Although the district was planning to give middle schoolers a chance to enroll in the new alternative secondary school, at least two middle school principals told the board that only 30 or fewer students would likely be opting for it. 

Board Director Shirley Issel said she was hesitant to move forward with plans for either a charter school or an alternative program without hearing what the citywide 2020 Vision Planning Team would be recommending as a future course of action for closing the achievement gap. 

One of 2020 Vision’s goals is to redesign and restructure the Berkeley public secondary schools.  

School Board Director John Selawsky said that although some community members were pushing to get a new alternative secondary program started by next year, he remained skeptical. 

“It’s a very tight timeline,” he said. “If we are going to have to do it next year, we don’t have a lot of time.”