City Charter School to Open Amid Contention

Photo: Victor Diaz, a former principal at Berkeley Technology Academy, will open Berkeley Unified School District's first charter school in spite of some skepticism concerning charter schools.
Taryn Erhardt/Staff
Victor Diaz, a former principal at Berkeley Technology Academy, will open Berkeley Unified School District's first charter school in spite of some skepticism concerning charter schools.

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Victor Diaz says he is doing it all for the kids. But some people in Berkeley are skeptical.

In August, Diaz will open Berkeley Unified School District's first charter schools, which will focus on technology and hands-on learning, while ongoing debate in the state weighing the value of these alternative institutions has hit a more localized - and personal - note.

After concluding his last day Monday as principal at Berkeley Technology Academy, Diaz is now dedicated to starting the Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement middle and high schools in Berkeley, the founding of which speaks not only to a changing attitude in the district, but also to a growing statewide and nationwide trend in favor of these different forms of public education.

"I'm not doing this to prove anybody wrong, or to ram charter schools down their throats," he said. "I want to make a great school where kids do amazing, life-changing work."

Since the inception of charter schools in the early 1990s, small school districts like this one, serving fewer than 10,000 students, have long resisted them. Originally intended to give teachers or parents the opportunity to start a school independently, charter schools have since received public money without public regulations and have subsequently been met with public debate over their effectiveness.

"Charter schools are just kind of put into a box labeled 'controversial,'" Diaz said. "People don't want to dig deeper than that."

Some complain that they siphon off money from public schools, others that they are not focused on education.

District spokesperson Mark Coplan admitted that the district is historically against corporate charters, which he said are "created like machines" as part of a profit-making scheme, putting the educational needs of students last.

Many are uncomfortable with an unfamiliar educational structure and, oftentimes, with an unfamiliar person or organization coming into a district.

But Diaz is anything but an outsider. As principal of the district's continuation high school for several years, he struggled to "break the cycle of failure," a phrase he coined along the way.

"He has great experience with a really tough population of kids, so nothing will throw him, and he thinks big and is undaunted," Carolyn Federman, parent of two Berkeley elementary school students, said in an e-mail.

It was those big ideas that allowed Diaz to puncture the stigma surrounding charter schools and get his proposals approved last June.

"It's kind of a paradigm shift with how we can deal with charters," Coplan said. "It's our community that wanted to do it."

This shift extends beyond the district though - and is impacting every rung of the education ladder.

The state just experienced its largest one-year charter school growth, launching 115 new charter schools in the 2010-11 school year, according to Vicky Waters, director of media relations for the California Charter Schools Association. Now, a total of 912 charter schools operate in California, the most in any state.

But it is bigger than just the state, too.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has warned that access to the $4.35 billion from Race to the Top - a competitive grant program designed to reward states for education innovation as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 - requires states to allow charter schools to flourish. Now, the number of students attending charters in the nation tops off at about 1.5 million, Waters said.

So Berkeley is not alone in its move to open its first-ever charter schools. In fact, many smaller school districts in California opened their first this year. More schools are also now homegrown - begun by people who used to work in the district - and therefore tailored to a district's needs, Waters said. Although these changes are helping them dispel at least a little of their muddied reputation, charter schools are still not free of criticism.

"It's a false solution that charters pose, and it's a real historic step backwards from the gains that have been made," said Yvette Felarca, a teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in the district and a national organizer for By Any Means Necessary, an activist group that has opposed charter schools. She said the schools will not better student achievement, as they are not subject to district oversight.

And some facts back up her case: charter schools across the nation have failed, and numerous studies have shown that charter schools frequently underperform a district's other schools. In neighboring Oakland Unified School District, several have been closed because of unsuccessfully improving student performance, although the district still has 31 sites, according to Gail Ann Greely, coordinator for its charter school office.

In Berkeley, a city that keeps a close eye on education, it is easy to see why people are hesitant about Diaz's schools. Since charters enjoy more freedom than a typical public school, each school's fate boils down to the strength of its individual curriculum.

It's a steep challenge, but Diaz seems alright with that.

"I faced and still face and will continue to face challenges," he said. "It's going to stretch us for sure."


Contact Soumya Karlamangla at [email protected]

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