Berkeley Technology Academy. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Berkeley Technology Academy has faced decreasing attendance and an increasing suspension rate in recent years. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Teachers at Berkeley’s alternative high school have raised concerns about the state of affairs on campus, citing “extreme behavior” among students, chronically low attendance, a lack of academic rigor, and a generally unsafe campus environment due to deficient security resources and limited district support.

Berkeley Unified School District officials and the school principal have repeatedly declined to speak in depth about safety at Berkeley Technology Academy, the district’s lone continuation high school. The campus serves the district’s highest-need students, many of whom are minorities who come from challenging home environments. Data reviewed by Berkeleyside paints a stark picture of increasing suspensions and dangerous activity at the school site in recent years, including a spike last year in suspensions related to assault or battery on school staff.

Read more about school safety issues on Berkeleyside.

The difficulties have come despite district efforts to improve the school by hiring a new principal — acclaimed in her previous district for outstanding leadership — who has worked to revamp BTA’s record keeping and data collection, upgrade campus infrastructure, and win accreditation for its coursework so the BTA diploma carries more clout for graduates. Graduation rates, too, have risen steadily in recent years.

Teachers say these changes have not been sufficient to address a slew of significant problems that remain widespread. They say school and district administrators have failed to respond adequately to concerns teachers have tried to resolve internally, and that the campus receives more of the highest-risk students than it can handle. Berkeleyside spoke with five BTA teachers and agreed to grant them anonymity — particularly because the campus has only about a dozen teachers on site — in response to fears they expressed about retaliation by the district.

As an alternative school serving what is for the most part a high-needs population, some of its problems may not be unique when compared to other alternative campuses. More than 90% of the students at BTA who were screened by a Berkeley mental health counselor found them to score high enough on a spectrum to be diagnosed with complex traumatic stress disorder. “That’s repeat exposure or daily exposure to extreme poverty, homelessness, harassment from police, drug addiction, domestic violence, or some combination of those factors, that take place in a lot of our kids’ lives,” one teacher said.

But teachers who have worked in other districts say they’ve never seen the issues to the degree they see them in Berkeley. They attribute the scale of the problem not only to the student mix, but also to what they believe to be an inconsistent, unpredictable enforcement of the rules. In the past three years, one teacher reported seeing everything from a student swinging a stick at people to fist fights, and students throwing books, chairs and waste baskets around the classroom: “They’re cussing constantly. They threaten you. I never saw that kind of stuff before, not anywhere.”

In the past few months, said another teacher, students reportedly recorded themselves getting fellatio, then viewed those videos on school computers with their peers. A female student stuck a large ball of aluminum foil in a microwave and set it to run for 10 minutes. The principal suggested that student for expulsion, according to the teacher, but the district refused. Earlier this year, a male student punched through a glass window into the classroom of a girl with whom he had a dispute. He was taken to the hospital after receiving significant injuries.

A student punched through a window — boarded up pending repair — during an argument with another student this year. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A student punched through a window — boarded up pending repair — during an argument with another student this year. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Last fall, one teacher told Berkeleyside, “I’ve had several students in my classes just released from the California Youth Authority” — the state corrections institution for juvenile offenders — “for armed robberies, home invasion, sexual assault, attempted murder, etc. They often openly admit these things to me. None of the veteran staff feel safe working at BTech.”

The teacher said one student “with serious mental issues and a history of violence” who came to BTA in the fall had been expelled by another district “for threatening to slit a classmate’s throat right before pulling out a knife on that person.” The teacher continued: “Not surprisingly, there are seriously violent episodes that occur at BTech and near BTech on a regular basis (on a scale of 1-­10 the danger level is about a 10).”

One teacher estimated that, conservatively, one quarter of BTA students had been arrested, spent time in juvenile hall, or been incarcerated by the CYA. Some wear mandated ankle monitors to allow law enforcement to track their location, or have probation officers.

Another teacher said school and district administrators approach all information related to criminal records with “a shade of secrecy,” making accurate, verifiable numbers elusive. Some of that information must be kept confidential due to privacy laws protecting minors, but teachers say there could be more transparency, even about sensitive topics.

Teachers are allowed by law to view information about past charges or whether students are on probation, but they said what they see is incomplete unless an incident happens on campus or involves another student, in which case they may be given access to more detailed information.

There are also more minor offenses that disrupt the learning environment, teachers say. It’s not uncommon for students to show up high or “stinking of weed,” teachers said. One described the prevalence of marijuana as “overwhelming,” noting that the shifting political landscape related to marijuana adds to the challenge.

There have also been escalating problems related to tardiness and truancy. Cellphone use by students is rampant in class. Teachers say they have tried to enforce school rules related to all of these behaviors, but have been unsuccessful due to a lack of support, including inconsistent disciplinary efforts, from the administration.

One teacher wrote that enforcing the rules feels like a lost cause: A school security officer “tries yelling to get the kids into class or off their phones but they don’t listen. The kids know that consequences are never going to happen.”

In late March, one teacher described a recent fracas on campus: “There was a fight last week between a parent, two students, and her daughter over a stolen car. Admin told the mother to keep her daughter at home as the girls involved threatened to retaliate against her. She returned to school yesterday to finish her finals when three girls rushed onto campus (past security), went into her classroom, moved her desk and told her to: ‘Stand up bitch!’ A student in the desk next to her told her: ‘Don’t let her do that to you, stand up and handle your business!’ A fight broke out and the girl they had targeted beat the bullies up. One of the girls involved in this incident was kicked out of BTA and sent back to BHS, how she got on campus is the question [the principal] has been asking. The three girls rushed off of campus before they could be detained.”

Teachers said, too, that school leadership is unable to handle the campus climate. They say the school principal, Sheila Quintana, spends most of the day in her office with the shades pulled down, and is disconnected from much of what actually takes place. To be fair, they said, many of the decisions about BTA appear to be made above her at the district level. But they said they have attempted to raise these concerns at the site level and have not been able to make headway.

“The school is managed through fear, intimidation and marketing the school a certain way that’s in stark contrast to what’s happening on the ground,” one teacher said, of the principal’s approach. “The school has a tremendous amount of potential but right now it is unsafe and it is being mismanaged.”

District Student Services director Susan Craig has come to campus only a handful of times this school year, teachers said, despite the fact that she is charged with making many of the decisions that ultimately affect BTA, such as which students are assigned to it, and which expulsion recommendations to uphold.

Berkeley Technology Academy. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The last school year was plagued with problems, too. Teachers said at a November 2013 staff meeting that they felt “burnt out.” Meeting notes included numerous observations from frustrated teachers: “It seems the kids feel they are invincible (untouchable) and can do or say what they please with no consequences.” Said another, according to the notes, “Personally I feel [the] climate has not been this bad in years.”

That same month, one of the school’s security officers was punched in the head while trying to break up a fight off campus involving more than 20 students. The teacher wrote in an email to the union that “It feels like this is a powder keg waiting to explode.”

At other times throughout the school year, teachers referenced disruptive classroom behavior, threats of violence toward teachers from students, and fights among students.

In December 2013, there was, according to one teacher, a “40+ person melee at BTA … which occurred after school. It was originally a four way fight involving nine girls until a student’s mother jumped in and began beating one of our students. There is video of the incident, our safety officers said they have never seen a fight so brutal and violent: ‘it was like watching dogs fight, or a cage fight; it was almost like they were literally trying to kill each other….’ I cannot express to you how dangerous this situation is becoming for all of us.­ We need help.”

Wrote that teacher in a letter in May 2014 to the union, “This staff has had it…. Colleagues are suggesting we collectively pen a letter of ‘no confidence’ in the administration.”

The next month, the teacher described one particularly difficult day: “During lunch time – all hell broke loose. [Two teachers] prevented a massive fight from breaking out. Simultaneously, a student had an epileptic seizure (his third of the year)” after being challenged by another student to drink nearly a full bottle of promethazine — a prescription-strength cough syrup that is used recreationally, after being popularized in the hip hop community.

“The paramedics showed up — the looming fight was so bad that the paramedics intervened to try to break the fight up thus taking their attention away from the seizing student. After the staff deescalated multiple incidents, [the principal] showed up and got an incident update. Only one of the students went home for the day but only because she is 18 and can go home without permission. Not certain if any of the other students involved will receive a consequence.”

Two of the teachers interviewed by Berkeleyside said that, despite these incidents, they do not feel physically at risk on campus.

“I’ve never feared for my personal safety,” said one. “But, working with this population of students that are dealing with so much trauma and stress, it is a subtle but very real challenge for adults to navigate that trauma and stress. It’s not a stretch to say emotional safety is a real issue at our school for everybody that’s there: staff, teachers and students.”

Several students, too, shrugged off the campus outbursts. Two, who came to BTA from Berkeley High this semester to make up credits, said they felt it was a good learning environment, and did not feel threatened the day one of their peers punched through the glass window and was taken to the hospital. They also noted that the relatively empty campus made it easier to focus than it had been at Berkeley High.

Another student noted that “everyone here is late all the time,” but said there is also a large amount of support among the students, whom she praised as talented and smart. She said campus sometimes felt unsafe “because some people are very territorial,” and that she knew of one classmate who had recently been released from Santa Rita Jail after a robbery arrest, along with several others who wore court-ordered ankle monitors. But she also described campus as a “haven”: “Everybody here knows it’s your last chance.”

The Berkeley Technology Academy courtyard. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Suspensions up at BTA as overall enrollment declines

The graduation rate has improved significantly at Berkeley Technology Academy since Principal Sheila Quintana took the helm in July 2011. She was able to get the school curriculum approved so its coursework counts for students who apply to University of California and Cal State campuses, as well as for those who want to return to Berkeley High.

Berkeley Unified School Board President Judy Appel lauded those efforts, as well as a range of intervention and support groups Quintana has helped bring to campus.

“She is working with some of our hardest to reach kids to get them back in the game,” Appel said. “She has made it a much more academic program that is getting kids prepared to graduate and then be eligible for college.”

Appel said the district is “putting a lot of concentrated attention into trying to support the students who are most at risk of dropping through the cracks,” adding, “as a school district it is our responsibility to make sure that we are serving all of our kids, including the kids who face the most challenges and sometimes are the most challenging. That’s in part what a continuation school does. They are there in part because they’ve had a hard time.”

Under Quintana, dropout rates have declined for three years running, at the same time that graduation rates have risen, from 43% (29 students) in 2011-12, to 51% (36 students) to 55% (28 students) in 2013-14. Test scores have also improved, according to the latest available data from the state, almost year over year since 2009. (That being said, only a fraction of students on campus take the tests.)

Over the same period, however, less positive indicators have also proliferated.

Bucking the district-wide trend, BTA has seen declining enrollment in recent years, combined with an increasing number of disciplinary incidents. The school enrolled 193 students over the course of 2011-12, 173 the following year and 157 last year, according to the California Department of Education.

As enrollment dropped, suspensions more than doubled, from 25 in 2011-12, to 36 the next year and 45 last year. The numbers may not capture all the cases, either, as students suspended multiple times are counted only once in the data posted by the state.

Over the same period, the district-wide suspension rate per 100 students decreased from about 5 to 3. Statewide, the numbers also declined, from nearly 6 to 4. At BTA, the numbers paint a different picture, according to the latest School Accountability Report Card for BTA, rising from 13% to 21% to 29% last year. Aggregate data for alternative high schools is not readily available from the state.

Suspension-related offenses spiked significantly from 2011-12 through 2013-14, with 59 reported the first year, 87 the next and 167 last year, the most recent year of data available. That’s because a single suspension is most often the result of multiple offenses. The largest category last year was disruption or defiance, followed by suspensions linked to obscene acts, profanity or vulgarity. The third most frequent type of offense was for a student causing, attempting or threatening injury. Assault or battery on a school employee was listed as an offense seven times.

Quintana said, by email, that the school offers “intervention support to redirect our students,” but that “consequences are given if a student persists in the inappropriate behaviors.”

Susan Craig added, also by email, that Quintana has been more thorough about documenting student discipline than was the previous principal, “which is reflected in the higher suspension numbers the past few years.”

Other than better data collection, neither Craig nor Quintana directly addressed what might be pushing the numbers to trend up.

Craig did explain, in response to questions from Berkeleyside, that BTA has two safety officers, who are district security staff rather than police, and that a student can be checked for weapons if there is a reasonable suspicion regarding weapon possession. She said weapons found on any student in the district are reported to police, as required by law.

Suspensions, and related offenses, at Berkeley Technology Academy have risen in recent years. Source: California Department of Education

BTA teachers say they are discouraged by the principal from suspending students. But they also note that her approach reflects a statewide trend to find other types of resolution for problematic behavior, including by managing it more often in the classroom.

The teachers have a “behavioral flowchart” they are directed to follow, made up of warnings and time out by misbehaving students for reflection before parents are called or the issue is escalated to school administrators. But teachers say that, with discipline enforced unevenly between classrooms and by school leadership, students learn how to game the system and continue to act out, with disrespect, insults and more violent outbursts.

“Are kids getting better instruction because there are fewer suspensions now [in the state], or are teachers taking less abuse?” wondered one teacher. “I think it’s a thing for districts to make themselves look better on paper. And I think the teachers are absorbing a lot of the shock.”

Another teacher said the lack of consequences can be particularly difficult when students exhibit extreme behavior, which the school is ill-equipped to handle. The teacher recalled one student, a foster kid who was “super volatile with oppositional defiant disorder,” who threatened to kill several BTA instructors, but was allowed to remain on campus.

“I just had to ignore her and let her do whatever the hell she wanted so as not to provoke the scary behavior,” the teacher said. “You can’t confront them, you can’t kick them out. You just have to deal with them.… There should be another school for that type of student.”

The teacher said having stricter rules, with clear repercussions, would help improve student behavior.

“Kids are pushing. They’re looking for a line and there is no line,” the teacher said, noting that the focus for the district is on protecting civil liberties rather than enforcing the law. “Students get such mixed messages. And it’s Berkeley’s over-liberal politics that have paralyzed any change from happening in the school.”

It’s easy to drive by Berkeley Technology Academy without even noticing it’s there. Photo: Emilie Raguso
It’s easy to drive by Berkeley Technology Academy without even noticing it’s there. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Teachers say lack of academic rigor at BTA harms students

Students who graduate from BTA are, according to the district and the school’s accreditation, as qualified to attend a four-year university as are Berkeley High students. But teachers say, in reality, that’s simply not true.

“It’s insane that the diplomas are equal,” said one teacher.

As a credit recovery program, students at BTA can earn up to 80 credits a year, compared to the 60 credits Berkeley High students can earn. That’s because BTA classes are offered in blocks, four a day, focused on math, English, science and social studies, along with some electives.

Students at BTA are not, in general, assigned homework, in part because the block schedule is designed to allow them to do that work in class. But, as it stands, they can also miss dozens of days in a marking period and still receive a grade and credit for a course. They can show up with 10 minutes left in an 85-minute period and be marked as having been present. And they can transfer from Berkeley High to BTA with two weeks left in a semester, and still get a grade and credit for the BTA class, teachers said.

“I can guarantee you we’re not doing 25% more coursework,” the teacher said. “So how is it that a student who is truant, who has lower skills and is not engaged, and is not being successful at Berkeley High, can come to our school and not just do the same work but accelerate? That’s the elephant in the room.”

Because it is an alternative school, which is defined differently by the state Education Code, BTA has more flexibility about how to award credits to students. Students who attend the school’s optional one-hour-a-week Alive & Free anti-violence program — even if they show up only a handful of times — can earn five credits for a semester. Participation in the school’s support groups also earns them credits. Teachers said that is very much a double-edged sword.

“There’s some great creativity there,” continued the teacher quoted above. “But without a real cohesive vision about what we’re doing at our school, along with an approach that’s loosey-goosey — that doesn’t take into account how many times students show up, or what’s their obligation of what to do for the credits — there’s a bit of a disconnect.”

The teacher also said that, rather than focus on the “song and dance” that, in large part, results in accreditation, students might be better served with other types of programs that could more directly address their needs. To put it in perspective, only one BTA graduate went on to a four-year college last year. Most go to community college or don’t attend college at all. (This does not include students who went back to Berkeley High for a Berkeley High diploma.) The accreditation requires a certain approach to coursework that does not necessarily serve or work for the student population.

“The idea that we are trying to meet a standard of rigor, it’s a misplaced priority,” said the teacher. “Let’s just be more transparent about what’s really going on. We’re not really achieving genuine equity at our school.… Where is the real mission? Where’s the real conversation about what’s best for the kids?”

Then there are the senior projects, which can be worth up to 15 credits and are supposed to demonstrate a comprehensive approach that brings together the student’s expertise in English, history, science and math. Students present their work before a small panel of teachers and non-credentialed staff members who then discuss the presentation privately and agree by consensus about how many credits to award.

What often happens is that a student, without doing much research, speaks briefly on a topic of interest after printing out some materials and slapping them on poster board. It’s not uncommon for students to receive 10-15 credits after putting in a minimum amount of work, teachers said, particularly if the student needs those credits to graduate.

Some students just re-use work they have already turned in for other classes, teachers said, which is not supposed to be allowed. In one case, a teacher recalled a student who spent perhaps an hour on a project, which had been completed for another class, reformatting it slightly for the senior project. The student spent several minutes talking about the topic, then left the room. The panel agreed to give the student 10 credits for the project.

“It’s a joke,” one teacher said. “But some teachers just say, ‘We don’t want him here. Give him 15 credits and he’ll go back to Berkeley High.’”

Another teacher said the project, and how credits are granted for it, “is in need of some serious revision,” adding that the project, despite how it is pitched, is “not rigorous.”

The more motivated students have asked for direction about how best to approach the projects, but teachers say BTA students too often are given vague or inconsistent explanations. And teachers say it is the students who are harmed in the long run, by those who seem to think the teens are unable to achieve at a higher level. This was described by one teacher as “the soft racism of lower expectations.”

“There are a lot of good students,” said the teacher who described the projects as a joke. “You can tell they have had times in their lives they’ve been great students and want to still do well. And they get the answer: ‘You don’t have to actually work that hard, just put something together.’ And that’s just a disgrace.”

At a school assembly earlier this year, the empty seats appear as numerous as the ones that are filled. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

Attendance at record lows, teachers say

Teachers told Berkeleyside that fewer and fewer students have been showing up to class during the 2014-15 school year. The problem has only grown throughout the current semester.

Said one, “You come on campus at any given time and it’s like a ghost town. I have never seen it so bad.”

At a January staff meeting, according to notes taken by that teacher, the question arose of “How can we stay as a school with 86 students?” The principal told teachers, according to the notes, that she would have to cut the number of teachers at BTA if teachers could not get their students to show up.

The teacher wrote that Quintana told those at the meeting: “You need to try to boost attendance. The job you save may be your own.”

In recent years, the school has at times experimented with having an open campus, or earned off-campus privileges, so students could leave at lunch. But Quintana told Berkeleyside earlier this year that the approach had not worked, because the students were coming back “extremely late, or not at all, or in a state they didn’t leave in.” In September, according to the meeting notes, Quintana declared at a staff meeting that “The open campus experiment has closed.”

According to data submitted to the state Department of Education, the school’s truancy rate declined last year, but is still much higher than district, county and state averages. There were 170 reported cases (88%) in 2011-12, 181 cases (105%) the following year, and 116 (74%) last year. (Again, students with multiple incidents are counted only once.) The district average was 26% last year, similar to the county average of 28%, and state average of 31%.

BTA has a full-time attendance clerk who monitors student truancy and contacts parents when students are absent. According to a 2013 report about the school completed by an outside agency, that staff member “targets students with severe attendance issues” and works with students and guardians to come up with a plan to improve.

According to that report, students receive a phone call home if they miss the first or third block of the four-block day. Students who miss the whole day receive a second call. A truancy letter is sent after three unverified absences. After six absences, a second letter goes out, and a meeting with school staff is required. At that time, students must sign a contract committing to better attendance.

“Students, who continue in their truant behavior, will receive a third letter of truancy,” according to the report. “They must attend a Student Attendance Review Team (SART) meeting with their families, [are] placed on another contract, and [are] referred to the district-level Student Attendance Review Board (SARB). SARB will hold a hearing with consequences that may include a fine paid by the parent or guardian and/or referral to the District Attorney’s office.”

Teachers said this year that, despite the school’s stated approach to attendance, many students simply are not showing up. One teacher estimated this semester that perhaps only 45 students have been there on a regular basis.

Another teacher said recently that, “if you walked onto our campus at 9:15 and did a headcount, you could be lucky to have two dozen kids.” That teacher estimated that 50-60 kids come to school “on a good day,” despite an official school enrollment, according to Quintana, of about 100 students (as of March).

An instructor with more than a dozen students enrolled in class said it’s not uncommon to have just four there during first block. Added another: “A lot of them will trickle in an hour later,” with 25 minutes left in the block.

Teachers say they are mystified as to how BTA’s actual attendance correlates with the policies that are ostensibly in place to address the issue, because they don’t see any results in the classroom.

School officials have said previously that attendance issues can often be the result of problems at home and in the neighborhoods where students live, and that it can be a challenge to get students invested in the idea of academic success.

“Due to the impact of violence and truancy in their lives, most students arrive at Berkeley Tech often detached from the idea that school is their responsibility and that there is a place that wants them to be in the classrooms,” according to a report published by the district last June about the school. “Our goal is for them to learn how to handle the stressors caused by violence and other situations in their daily lives.”

Geography may play a role, too. Teachers say “lots of students” at BTA — some of whom are fraudulently enrolled — come from Richmond, Oakland, Hayward and other cities outside Berkeley. Some split their time among numerous households. One teacher estimated that only a third of the students at BTA actually live in Berkeley, though another cautioned that — at least districtwide — “at least as many, if not more, are coming in from Montclair and Rockridge and Temescal and Kensington and El Cerrito as from Richmond and the rest of Oakland.” So just getting to campus may be prohibitively expensive or logistically challenging. And many BTA students are unlikely to have reliable rides to campus due to socioeconomic challenges faced by their families.

Berkeley Technology Academy Principal Sheila Quintana. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Principal: “We’re going to give them everything we have”

Principal Sheila Quintana describes Berkeley Technology Academy students as both “brilliant kids” and “traumatized.” Most of her students, she said, need “immediate, intensive intervention” if they are to succeed academically.

To help figure out how best to address their needs, Quintana set up weekly meetings with a group she launched, the Behavior Intervention Support team, which includes an academic counselor, a special education instructor, a teacher focused on intervention, a mental health therapist, and a staffer focused on addiction issues. The group finds ways to “cocoon” each student, staying in touch about problems that arise and strategizing about how to resolve them.

The school also uses its lower student-teacher ratio — 15-to-1 versus 32-to-1 at Berkeley High — to try to offer support.

“What we give them won’t be enough, but we’re going to give them everything we have,” she said.

Quintana said 90% of her students come from Berkeley High, while another 10% are referred from outside BUSD by the district’s Office of Student Services. Students must be at least 16 to attend BTA.

The alternative high school serves students in two categories: those who need to make up credits and choose to attend its classes, and those who need an “involuntary placement” due to suspension or expulsion elsewhere. More than half of the student body is in 12th grade. More than half, about 56%, are in the federal free or reduced price lunch program. Quintana estimated that, if everyone eligible actually filled out the paperwork, that number would be nearly 100%.

Nearly 74% of the student body is categorized as socioeconomically disadvantaged. And one-third of the student population is reportedly homeless, though some have questioned whether that number is inflated as a tool to skirt district residency rules. Quintana said BTA has tightened up its approach to verifying that status so that fraud is now less of an issue than it was in the past.

Students are also predominantly minority, at least 60% black and 23% Hispanic. According to the district, nearly 100% of the student body qualifies for “compensatory education,” which is designed to help students who are at risk due to cognitive challenges or low achievement due to other factors.

Getting more students on campus who are credit deficient, and fewer who have criminal backgrounds, along with increasing the racial diversity on campus, would be helpful in terms of desegregating BTA, teachers said.

The focus on attendance numbers — which help determine state funding — should be emphasized less, and the district should “be a lot more careful about what kind of backgrounds we allow at our school,” said one teacher.

Berkeley Technology Academy. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A struggle for resources

Teachers have said the school leadership is more interested in rebranding the campus as a college preparatory and credit recovery program than in dealing with the significant issues that crop up on a regular basis.

“The student population we’re dealing with has so many impediments to being in front of instruction that it’s almost impossible to do your job,” one teacher said.

Getting resources for the school has proven a challenge as well. Until this year, students received the same cold breakfast the district provides to grade school kids. One BTA staffer took it upon himself to launch a morning “guerrilla oatmeal program” featuring nuts and fresh fruit, and other healthy ingredients, which proved exceedingly popular with students. Ultimately, the district shut down his program saying that any food on campus had to come from approved vendors. As of this semester, the district is providing a hot breakfast to BTA students, but many say the food isn’t as good as the oatmeal program it had earlier in the school year.

Teachers also said there is a critical need for a third safety officer on campus, as well as more secondary-level activities and school-wide assemblies. But they say the district has been slow to respond.

“When we ask for resources [from the district], they kind of ignore us,” one said. “Everything the kids get in terms of enrichment, a teacher at the school has somehow brought it in.”

Said another: “We have traditionally been seen as a kind of a dumping ground for Berkeley High. We don’t get a lot of the same resources as Berkeley High gets.”

The district cut funding for BTA’s after-school program in recent years, saying not enough students were participating to justify the expense. And, because BTA is a now a separate school — it used to be Berkeley High’s east campus — students are not able to participate in Berkeley High programs such as athletics or other after-school activities.

Quintana said she has managed to get some degree of support from the district when she’s pushed to address specific needs. She was able to get the district to fund a mental health counselor for students, and hopes to bring back the after-school program to keep students off the streets.

Since she began, she’s put in place the violence prevention program Alive & Free, along with a Youth Court to allow peers to help resolve issues among the student body and, this year, “restorative justice circles” — an approach to conflict resolution that involves all the parties to disputes — in lieu of suspension.

BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans said the district has been looking closely at restorative justice practices to see “how we can best meet the needs of all our students.” He mentioned a recent restorative circle that took place at BTA, and included Berkeley Police officers, after an incident involving a student and police. Evans said the approach had been been very effective.

“We’re setting the stage to having those conversations earlier so that we can prevent things from happening later on, and that’s big for us,” Evans said. “And it’s tough. It is not easy. But I think Sheila has done a very good job with her students, and it’s just a matter of us refining the type of support that she needs.”

Evans said the circles will continue next year, but that the district is still in the process of determining what other types of support would be best at BTA.

“That school has a lot of resources already,” he said. “We’re just looking at all the resources that they have so that we can come up with the best program, maybe moving some things around.”

In addition to the restorative circles, there are also groups on campus dealing with trauma and gender issues, and help with recovery from addiction. In addition to the groups, the school offers one-on-one interventions. All of that is aimed toward creating a more supportive environment for students, Quintana said.

“The kids come here for safety,” she said. “They’re beefing all over the Bay Area but this is Switzerland.”

Teachers say the district has insisted on putting students “with varying levels of psychosis and violence” at BTA, even over the principal’s attempts to reject some of them. In other instances, school leadership has filled out paperwork for student expulsion or suspension, only to be told by the district that it won’t accept it, according to teachers.

According to data provided to the state, BTA expelled just three students in 2011-12, no students the next year, and two last year.

In one case recalled by a teacher, it took three attempts for the district to allow the expulsion of a student who showed an escalating pattern of violence on campus. The first time, the paperwork wasn’t done right. The next time, after striking someone with a wooden 2-by-4, the student was able to challenge the proposed expulsion and return to BTA. It was only after the student was caught on video slamming someone onto the concrete and fighting with several other people that the district confirmed the expulsion.

BTA students listened closely to presentations and performances during a Black History Month assembly earlier this year. Photo: Emilie Raguso
BTA students listened closely to presentations and performances during a Black History Month assembly earlier this year. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Principal: “There was darkness, but we don’t have darkness now”

The district established goals at BTA for the current school year of reducing by 10% the number of students with 10 or more absences, and reducing by 5% the total number of annual suspensions. Those numbers are expected to be reported after the school year ends next week.

Craig, the Student Services director, said the school appears on track — according to preliminary data — to have a lower suspension count for the current school year than it did last year. She said having lower numbers “is definitely the direction that we want to go through using other means of correction to address conduct, whenever feasible.”

Examples of those “other means” used at BTA include restorative justice circles, mediation, substance use counseling, and participation in Alive & Free.

Quintana noted, too, that just having data has been a step in the right direction.

“When I started, kids were leaving at 12:30 p.m. every day. And so did staff,” she said. “No one was getting suspended. No one was referred. Because they didn’t have any records.”

During a visit by a guest in March, Quintana seemed to have a comfortable rapport with students. When she was out in the courtyard, she called them by their first names and asked how things were going. (Teachers said, however, that this is rare to see.) When Quintana was in her office, a student knocked to ask for snacks he knew she had on hand.

A major focus for her is to get more students enrolled at the school, which she said continues to be underestimated by the community at large.

She points to the “extreme makeover” of the campus itself, which has been painted, and received a new roof and floors since she started in 2011. She now has an upgraded chemistry lab, and fought to get textbooks on campus, which previously were not readily available. She replaced sheets on the windows — used to keep out the light — with real shades, and helped bring in the hot breakfast program this semester, as well as an expanded lunch menu and new salad bar. Quintana said she hopes those improvements will have a psychological impact, both on campus and off, in addition to a physical one.

There’s also a brand new computer lab, which was outfitted with nearly a dozen new Macs in December after someone stole all the computers from the lab during the 2013-14 school year. The campus also has a 3D printer, which helps with a BTA program focused on computer-assisted drafting and design. In January, Quintana applied for about $250,000 from the state to invest in infrastructure improvements, as well as the school’s culinary arts and IT programs. (A decision has not yet been made about the grant, Quintana said in May.) The school’s overall budget is $1.3 million, she said.

Quintana put the enrollment numbers this semester, as of March, at about 105 students, but said the campus could handle up to 150 students. Ideally, she said, she would be at full capacity with a waiting list. She said she’s in regular contact with Berkeley High counselors to try to catch students, particularly seniors, who are at risk of not graduating due to credit deficiencies. Students who make up credits at BTA are able to return to Berkeley High when they complete the work.

But Quintana said she knows she’s up against a mindset that Berkeley Technology Academy is the city’s “throwaway school.”

“There was darkness, but we don’t have darkness now,” she said earlier this year. “It’s a constant uphill battle to let them know things have changed.”

Quintana points to a number of improvements on campus in recent years to help make it a safer environment. Unlike when she started, she said, school staff now have walkie talkies to be able to communicate immediately about issues on campus, and the district installed nine security cameras on site, which Quintana is able to monitor from her office. If she had her way, she said, she’d prefer to be out on campus among the students. But she’s often tied to the desk, she said, due to conference calls and other duties, and the cameras help her stay in touch with happenings outside her office walls.

Quintana said she’s been pushing for funding to hire a school resource officer — a Berkeley police officer focused on schools — for BTA. In the past, Berkeley had as many as four school resource officers but now it has only one, who is stationed at Berkeley High. Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said, on average, 3-4% of a department is assigned to the schools. If Berkeley followed suit, that would be as many as seven officers.

BTA has two safety officers, but Quintana said more support is needed.

“They know I never stop asking,” Quintana said, of her lobbying efforts with the district. “I’m going to keep letting everyone know that there is real value here. It’s part of the fabric of Berkeley.”

Read more about Berkeley school safety issues in general, and past Berkeleyside coverage of Berkeley Technology Academy

Berkeley schools, police, city join forces on youth crime (06.03.15)
BUSD poised to adopt tougher school enrollment policy (05.28.15)
Teen now faces murder, attempted rape and robbery charges in South Berkeley killing (11.14.14)
BUSD superintendent: ‘We have much more work to do’ (11.06.14)
Woman killed in South Berkeley remembered as artist, humorist, lover of plants and pets (10.24.14)
Op-ed: After fatal stabbing, be the change in South Berkeley (10.08.14)
Berkeley teen, recent grad, shot to death in Oakland (07.14.14)
Illegal enrollment is boon and burden to Berkeley schools (04.08.14)
Berkeley schools implement $2M safety plan (01.27.14)
B-Tech graduation rate soars under inspired leadership (06.13.13)
Truancy high, but improving, at Berkeley High School (12.13.11)
Students see security changes at Berkeley High School (09.02.11)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...