Victor Diaz and his son Neruda, 5, and daughter Laila, 7, at Sack’s Coffee House in Berkeley.

By Rachel Gross

Since the small schools movement in the ‘90s, the Bay Area has been something of a petri dish for alternative academics in K-12 education. Oakland, for example, boasts 34 charter schools of various themes and sizes (as well as graduation rates), the first of which was founded in 1993. But until now, Berkeley hasn’t joined the experiment.

Now, to the outcry of some community members and the cheers of others, Berkeley will open its first charter schools, after a proposal for the schools was approved by the Board of Education last month. With a starting budget of just over $3 million, the Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement middle and high schools will open in the fall of 2011. REALM seeks to integrate alternative ways of learning into its curricula, including computer programming, game design and other technology-based projects.

The two schools will start with 200 students each and eventually reach a capacity of 700. They’ll operate under an open-enrollment policy, in which applicants are chosen by a random lottery system.

The plan has not gone without controversy. In May, the Board voted down the proposed charter schools due to insufficient planning, and concerns have been raised over the charters draining per-pupil funds from the district.

John Selawsky, director of the school board, was the sole vote against the proposal this time around. Although he didn’t comment on his decision at the board meeting, Selawsky said in an interview that was still not convinced of the soundness of the plan’s finances, academics and oversight.

“They didn’t exactly inspire confidence in me,” he said.

Additionally, the activist group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) has said the institution of a charter school could encourage the re-segregation of the district.

The visionary behind the plan — and the future principal of the charter schools — is Victor Diaz, 43, current principal of the district’s continuation high school, Berkeley Technology Academy.

Since coming to Berkeley Tech five years ago, Diaz has transformed the continuation school into a technology-oriented program that strives to give students more individual attention and hands-on experience. In one class project, for instance, students take on the avatar of a Haitan immigrant who has just moved to Florida, to get them thinking about broader social implications, economics and world history. The continuation school is composed of about 98% African American and Latino students.

Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan said Diaz is “a name to follow” in the future of public education, and Diaz was honored by the Redford Center’s Art of Activism series in February for his work with Berkeley Tech. A video of Diaz can be found here.

You could say Diaz shares a kinship with many of his students. The California native, who was the first in his family to receive a college diploma, dropped out of high school himself at age 16. He didn’t enroll in community college for seven years after that, during which he volunteered and tutored kids—sometimes in Juvenile Hall—in writing. He has worked in continuation schools for more than 12 years, and is currently earning a Ph.D in education at UC Berkeley.

I spoke to the man with the plan about his goals for the two charter schools, and his philosophy on alternative education. His comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Principal Diaz, Berkeley Tech already has a technology focus and a commitment to alternative learning. How will your charter schools build on the work that Berkeley Tech started, and how will they differ?

Success (at Berkeley Tech) was mediocre at best. We get really frustrated because we want to do higher-end things with students, but the reality is when we get them at 17, 17 and a half and they haven’t passed the high school exit exam, what we’re trying to do is teach them basic skills so they can pass an 8th grade test. Looking at the dismal performance of alternative schools, I felt that I couldn’t just pretend that I was working in a system where I really could do something different. Alternative education, I feel, is a system designed for failure.

If we had this environment—high technology, trained staff—kids will want to push the boundaries with what they know and what they think they can go. We’ll get kids at a much earlier age, who won’t be there for credit or behavioral problems. It’s as much about the trajectory to the place as it is the curriculum.

How would you respond to organizations like BAMN, who have criticized your plan for not following the district’s integration policy?

For the most part they’re mis-educated, or misinformed or about charter schools in general, and about our program in particular. I know they haven’t done enough research and reading and listening. They’re not even worth responding to, honestly. They’re kind of lame.

What has made you so committed to these kinds of continuation schools and alternative schools?

If you take a whole group of kids failing out of high school, the vast majority of them will still try to fight their way through their own illiteracies, their own lack of endurance with a book. There’s some resiliency in kids, even that late in the game. It illuminates. I can see it with my eyes closed. Conversely, there are teachers who think that very same kid gave up, because they couldn’t multiply negative numbers. Most educators look at them without that glow of possibility.

I’m pretty relentless about this. I take it personal, very personal. I don’t want any child to have to experience walking around the streets at 14 or 15. I know what that feeling’s like, that feeling of hopelessness. It rattles the bones, it cuts pretty deep. We have to succeed at a high level. Anything less is just not acceptable.

Can you tell me more about how your charter schools will integrate technology and new ways of teaching?

Classrooms will operate around essential questions, such as, “How do we make water more safe to drink?” and, “How do we make the air less polluted?” Unfortunately, schools in America have been moving away from that. Kids will learn programming languages and the latest game design applications. Many of these skills require analytical thinking and critical thinking skills, a level of math and computer science. We want to teach kids these tools, but do so with a level of social responsibility and a critique of the social implications of these games.

Do you feel that the success of these charter schools will reflect on your personal leadership?

Yes. The onus is on me. There’s no one to blame, no one to put the excuse on, it’s all on me. If I create a school that gives up on kids, that graduates kids that are not ready for college, then that’s all on me.

And how does that make you feel?

Honestly? In the middle of the night I wake up and it scares the shit out of me. Parents are giving their kids to you. That’s an enormous gift. It’s scary. But if I didn’t feel that I could deliver in spades, then I wouldn’t even think of doing it.

Rachel Gross is about to start her senior year at UC Berkeley. A former writer and editor forThe Daily Californian, Rachel was also a “blogtern” for the New York Times’ Bay Area blog and writes for The Choice, a Times’ blog on the college admissions process.

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