Charter School Proponents Present Plan to School Board

By Raymond Barglow, Special to the Planet
Wednesday December 23, 2009 - 08:52:00 AM
REALM charter school proponents express their support at the school board meeting.
Asha Wilkerson
REALM charter school proponents express their support at the school board meeting.

Proponents of Berkeley’s first public charter school presented their proposal to the Berkeley Board of Education at its Dec. 16 meeting. 

The board began the meeting by honoring the contributions made to Berkeley schools by Dan Lindheim and Julie Holcomb, co-chairs of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP) Planning and Oversight Committee. BSEP is the parcel tax measure that provides $10 million annually for education in Berkeley public schools. 

The board then heard testimony on two matters: 

• The plan to eliminate science labs at Berkeley High in order to free up funds that will go to “equity grants” intended to close the school’s achievement gap between higher and lower achieving students. 

• The application for a charter school that aims to begin instruction in the fall of 2011.  

Previous articles on these matters can be found in the Daily Planet’s online archives at www.berkeleydailyplanet. 


The proposal made by Principal Slemp and teacher leaders to cut science labs has generated a groundswell of opposition. Parents Paul Lecky, Priscilla Myrick, and Susan Helmrich, along with science teachers Evy Kavaler and Marty Sicular-Mertens, testified before the board that the science labs are essential to a curriculum that serves students at all achievement levels.  

Karen Hemphill, newly chosen president of the board, said that she had not yet seen the proposal to cut the science labs. Although Principal Slemp has said that the proposal does not need board approval, it will be placed on the board agenda in January and may become an action item, subject to acceptance or rejection by the board. 

Following the science labs discussion, the Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement (REALM) application to open a charter school in Berkeley was officially presented to the board. Speaking on behalf of this proposal were activists from community organizations such as Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA), which had held a spirited rally on the front steps of the BUSD building just before the board meeting began. 

Boardmember Hemphill and Superintendent Huyett explained that the board’s role in evaluating charter school applications is only procedural: If an application satisfies state-determined criteria, then the board must grant the charter, regardless of how boardmembers feel about the merits of charter schools. 

Lucella Harrison, former president of the Oakland School Board and a member of St. Paul AME Church, spoke in favor of the charter application. “Some charter schools are very successful, some are not,” she said, adding that if a school does not perform well, the board always has the option to close it. According to Harrison, the independence of a charter school is a great advantage, assuring it more flexibility than regular public schools enjoy in regard to class size, scheduling, and curriculum choice. 

But critics of the charter school proposal strongly disagreed. Yvette Felarca, who teaches at King Middle School, argued in favor of improving existing Berkeley schools rather than abandoning them for a charter school. She pointed to the failure of many charter schools as a reason for rejecting this kind of educational innovation. Other opponents alleged that the REALM charter school would be too independent of supervision by the School Board, would draw essential resources away from Berkeley’s current public schools, and might actually increase racial segregation. 

Scott Blake, a Berkeley parent of a BUSD second-grade student, and community outreach director for Bay Area Youth Connection, said that the fears about a new charter school in Berkeley unfounded. He testified before the board that “our country’s educational system has historically failed African-Americans and Latinos due to racial biases and discriminatory practices…. I support Realm Charter School because our children deserve and need the option to chose an educational system that by design supports the academic success for all students.” 

Also speaking in favor of the charter application was B-Tech Academy Principal Victor Diaz. 

Another item on the board’s agenda was discussion of the advisability of signing a memorandum of understanding with the state to apply for federal “Race to the Top” funds being made available to schools nationwide. Nancy Riddle, Shirley Issel and other boardmembers noted that the conditions being placed on acceptance of those funds have not been specified by the state or federal government. So, in applying for the funds, the board is being asked to commit to an agreement whose terms are unknown. The board indicated that it is unwilling to do that. 

A report focused on the performance of BUSD students on standardized California tests was then presented to the board. The report included demographic data and summaries of student test scores on the CST and CAHSEE California tests. With regard to the CST, the report concluded that “over time, rates of proficiency at the district level decline, particularly for African-American and Latino students.” 

Declining proficiency, Boardmembers Selawsky and Issel suggested, indicate that more attention needs to be given to improving high school curriculum and instruction, and less to rescheduling and similar procedural matters. 

The next meeting of the board will be in January. Date and time will be posted on the BUSD website. 



Raymond Barglow is the founder of Berkeley Tutors Network.