Sheila Quintana with B-Tech students. Photo: Mark Coplan.
Sheila Quintana Principal at B-Tech, with students. Photo: Mark Coplan

This Friday, nearly 800 students from Berkeley High will attend their graduation ceremony at the historic Hearst Greek Theatre. But with equal fanfare, they’ll be joined by 62 seniors from Berkeley Technology Academy (B-Tech). Compared to the many hundreds from BHS, that might not sound like a lot, but consider this: two years ago, only seven B-Tech students graduated.

B-Tech provides a continuation high school diploma program for students who have either involuntarily been placed because of violations of Education Code 48900 or have chosen to be placed there because they are falling behind in academic credits at BHS. Many of the students are economically disadvantaged, nearly a third are homeless, and many have direct experience of violence and incarceration in their community. It’s a small school, with enrollment around 150, many of them in their senior year. The 62 B-Tech graduates this year are part of a class of 73 seniors.

“I want all 73 seniors graduating,” said Sheila Quintana, principal of B-Tech since July 2011. 

The statistical evidence of the change wrought by Quintana on the school is undeniable. From seven graduates out of 60 seniors in 2011, the school advanced to 44 out of 55 in 2012, to the 62 out of 73 this year. Attendance, too, has improved. Last school year, B-Tech had 59% attendance; this year, it’s 93%. B-Tech’s curriculum also acquired approval for the University of California’s “A-G” requirements.

The visiting committee of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) recognized the strides being made by B-Tech in its April 2013 report:

The principal of the school has been instrumental in bringing about important changes and improvements, and has developed a relationship with the District leadership that B-Tech staff view as greatly improved. Her efficient preparation included the involvement of the entire B-Tech staff in the WASC process. Her staff has also acknowledged her for her transparent leadership and guiding the staff in creating a more nurturing environment for students.

Quintana does not mince words when she talks about the key elements of her transformation.

“The focus on curriculum has been the biggest piece for us,” she said. “When I came in in 2011, B-Tech had no textbooks. The mindset was this was not a real school. The teaching staff left around 1:30 every day. The tone was bad.”

The B-Tech campus. Photo: Julia Hannafin

Classes at B-Tech are in double blocks, so there are only four, comparatively long classes each day. According to Quintana, that gives both teachers and students more time to dig into the material and cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.

“Students are able to recover a full year’s worth of English, math, history and science in one semester,” Quintana said.

The WASC report also noted that the double-block schedule creates fewer transitions in the school day, reducing potential conflict situations and opportunities for truancy. If students are absent for either first or third block, the school calls home.

B-Tech also puts a particular emphasis on technology education. The school has one iMac lab and is opening a second soon.

“The students love technology so that’s a great motivator,” Quintana said.

The school also recognizes the particular stresses and problems its students face.

“The psychosocial piece is huge,” Quintana said. “The majority of our day is removing the barriers. And sometimes its an individualized thing. We cocoon the student and we have adults who we identify to be with the student. The kids believe the whole community is checking in on them. Some of them, no one has ever checked in on them.”

Quintana said that the school develops an individual strategy for each student, and its implementation includes a home visit.

“That shocks them when we do the home visits,” she said. “We really, really want our kids to excel.”

Karen Hemphill, Chair of the BUSD School Board, said Quintana’s focus on individualized plans for students is just one of the many good things she has brought to the school.

“She cares deeply about the students there,” she said. “She’s doing a fantastic job.”

It has been about Quintana’s emphasis on the basics, Hemphill continued, citing as an example the way she has been very strong on finding alternative ways for students to make up academic credits. (Credit deficiency is often a reason students go to B-Tech in the first place.) Quintana has students enrolled at Berkeley City College and doing make-up classes, for instance.

Quintana has also forged a close relationship with the principal of Berkeley High, Pasquale Scuderi, said Hemphill, something that has not always been the case. “It’s not a small thing that B-Tech students will be walking the stage at the Greek Theatre tomorrow,” she said.

B-Tech also has strong counseling services, and partners with a number of programs to address drug use and violence, including the Alive and Free curriculum from Omega Boys Club, pioneered by Joseph Marshall.

“There’s a lot that we can do to improve. We want to be open to options that will help the kids to be successful,” Quintana said. “Students have been told that you come here and it’s a bitch and you never get out. That’s not the case any more.”

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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...