After much anticipation, Berkeley Unified School District’s first and only charter school opened Tuesday, welcoming sixth and ninth grade students to its West Berkeley campus.
Classes begin this week for the Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement middle and high schools, which focus on technology and hands-on learning and is the project of Victor Diaz, the former principal of the district’s continuation school.
After years of working at Berkeley Technology Academy, as well as at schools in San Francisco and Oakland prior to that, Diaz said he felt like he was reaching kids too late.
“I saw a lot of kids that weren’t being successful … at 16, 17 years old, so there was motivation to start (teaching) at a younger age,” he said.
About four years ago, Diaz, influenced by these experiences, got the idea to start his own charter school in the district.
“There were more kids that were failing than succeeding (at continuation school),” he said. “That motivated me to take on more challenging responsibilities.”
Diaz’s proposal, which was approved by the district’s board of education in June 2010, was the first to be passed by the district. By law, the district is required to approve a charter proposal if it meets the state guidelines.
According to district spokesperson Mark Coplan, previous charter proposals failed because of reasons ranging from limited resources to insufficient staffing. He added that several earlier applications for charter schools were designed like corporations, looking to turn a profit from running schools.
“(REALM is) very clearly a grassroots effort from Berkeley folks,” he said.
The school’s curriculum emphasizes project-based learning, in which students are encouraged to answer questions through progressive methods like investigation and collaboration, according to Diaz.
“(This method is) more enticing because more and more schools are driven by textbooks and test scores and scripted curriculums,” Diaz said. “That’s not meant to say that textbooks are bad … it’s hard to adjust when kids have different needs.”
Along with traditional subjects like math and science, the school will also offer extracurriculars like art and music, as well as a physical education class that includes pilates and yoga.
The new charter school will have fewer students than Berkeley High School — home to 3,400 students last year, according to Coplan — and with a lower student-to-teacher ratio. Currently, there are over 200 students enrolled in the charter school for this school year, with a student-to-teacher ratio of 25-to-one. Though the school will only teach sixth and ninth graders in its first year, a new sixth and ninth class will be added each subsequent year as the current students advance.
“Starting off slowly lets us build community and relationships,” Diaz said. “With 400, 500 kids, it’s hard to build a culture and value. This allows us to do it slowly over time.”
Whereas neighboring Oakland Unified School District has more than 30 charter schools, Diaz’s school is Berkeley Unified School District’s first charter school and — besides the continuation school — the only alternative to Berkeley High School.
At Oakland’s Bay Area Technology charter school, a 15-to-one ratio of students has led to better test scores, compared to other public schools in the city, according to Daisy Valencia, the school’s office manager.
The charter school has signed a 10-year lease for the old West Campus school property on Eighth and Addison Streets, which will be funded by its starting budget of $2.5 million, Diaz said. Though the charter school gets the same amount of funding per pupil from the state, its budget is not overseen by the school district, giving it more freedom in how it allocates funds.
“There’s a lot of struggle for any new organization in their first year, and something like this — there’s a big undertaking,” Coplan said. “(REALM has) got some good resources and input to begin with. They’re on the right track.”
Weiru Fang covers local schools.