REALM Principal Victor Diaz with his children. Photo: Rachel Gross.

Berkeley’s new Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement (REALM) middle school may be located in a commercial property at Addison and 8th Street, and there is a “high likelihood” that its high school will be located at BUSD’s West Campus site according to Victor Diaz, REALM’s principal.

The location of the middle school has stirred controversy because of potential plans to place it at Willard Middle School, which would have displaced the music program, a classroom and an office.

“We don’t want that solution,” said Diaz. “We don’t want to disrupt Willard’s program. We think we’re coming close to a deal on the commercial property, and we’re still on course to announce plans by April 1.”

Parents and the principal of Willard Middle School have expressed concern about the possible location of the REALM  middle school on the Willard campus next year. Willard Principal Robert Ithurburn wrote to Willard parents that it “would impact our program”. Numerous parent and PTA email are currently being circulated.

The REALM high school location is not contentious. At the Berkeley Unified School District board meeting in January, district staff recommended Willard and Franklin schools as possible sites for the middle school, in addition to the school district’s West Campus on Browning. The school board passed a motion on a 3-2 vote to restrict consideration to Willard and West Campus.

West Campus would require REALM to use portable classrooms, which is expensive. Willard would necessitate the displacement of programs and teachers. Diaz said today that the potential commercial site on Addison meets all the requirements for a school building.

“Most of the Willard community are pretty outraged that it’s even an option,” said Mark Shaw, an executive board member of the Willard PTA. “It just doesn’t make sense that you’d take a school that’s doing well and put that in jeopardy.”

The objections of Willard parents center around two main issues. First, the displacement of the successful music program. The music program would need to be relocated to Longfellow Magnet Middle School, more than one mile away on Derby Street. Second, because REALM would be split across two sites, administrators would not always be present.

In his email to the Willard community, Ithurburn echoed the parent worries. “Concerns include,” he wrote, “supervision of REALM students when their administration is not on campus; use of facilities such as the library, cafeteria, gym, restrooms, etc by the REALM students; sense of community for both programs and students jockeying for position in the social hierarchy typical in middle schools, decreasing classrooms and space at a time when Willard’s students population is increasing.”

According to Mark Coplan, spokesperson for BUSD, both Willard and West Campus remain under consideration for the REALM middle school. The school board plans to make its final offer to REALM by April 1. Coplan said the timeline will be determined by how the offer is received. It’s possible, according to Coplan, that a finalized agreement could be reached before the end of March since REALM has already received the board’s preliminary offer.

A proposal for the two new charter schools in Berkeley was approved by the school board in June 2010. With a starting budget of just over $3 million, the REALM schools seek to integrate alternative ways of learning into its curricula, including computer programming, game design and other technology-based projects. The two schools will operate under an open-enrollment policy, in which applicants are chosen by a random lottery system.

Diaz said that enrollments for the REALM schools are going well. “We’re at 85 to 90% of capacity for the middle school and 75 to 80% for the high school,” he said. Capacity is 100 students per grade level. “Once I can make the announcement about facilities I’m confident we’ll reach capacity.”

A matter of principal: Meet Victor Diaz, head of Berkeley’s first charter school [07.02.10]

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...