BTA Principal Sheila Quintana. Image: BUSD
BTA Principal Sheila Quintana. Image: BUSD

Berkeley Technology Academy, the city’s alternative high school, was set to begin the year with record low enrollment, Principal Sheila Quintana told the School Board in late August.

Quintana gave the board an update on the school’s efforts at its Aug. 26 meeting, detailing recent successes and challenges since she was hired in 2011.

Quintana 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 in recent years.

“There’s been considerable progress,” Superintendent Donald Evans told the board.

Quintana reported to the board in August, however, that only 50 students had enrolled in her program, compared to an average of 86 in prior years.

“I have a whole staff, but I only have 50 students,” she told the board. “There’s a lot of reasons why, but I know certain articles that hit the news, parents are kind of upset about that.”

In June, Berkeleyside took an in-depth look at BTA, speaking with five BTA teachers who outlined their concerns about the campus environment. BTA, also known in the community as B-Tech, serves the district’s highest-need students, many of whom are minorities who come from challenging home environments. Data reviewed by Berkeleyside painted a stark picture of increasing suspensions and dangerous activity at the school site in recent years, including a spike in 2013-14 in suspensions related to assault or battery on school staff.

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.

The district did not respond to multiple interview requests in recent weeks regarding Berkeley Technology Academy.

Berkeley Technology Academy. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Berkeley Technology Academy (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

Quintana told the board in August she expected that more students, in time, would come to BTA. She said she had 10 teachers on campus, two in each of the core curriculum subjects, as well as numerous non-certificated employees who meet in a team to address the behavioral, mental health and substance abuse issues faced by students. She said having a full staff, and only 50 students, was “not good.”

Board members concurred. School Board Director Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said the board might have to reconsider the resources allocated to BTA if enrollment doesn’t change.

“That’s a lot of staff for 50 students,” observed School Board President Judy Appel.

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 in 2013-14, 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 in 2013-14. 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.

Board members noted that one teacher, who acted last year as an intervention coordinator, had been returned to the classroom, and asked if Quintana might put him back into the intervention coordinator role due to low enrollment.

Quintana said that was not possible, because she wanted to have two teachers working in each of the core subjects when an outside team that will assess BTA for updated accreditation visits campus later this year. She noted that labor rules also limited her ability to change the roles of accredited staff midstream.

She told the board what she really needs is an intervention dean, “because the psychosocial needs of the students are overwhelming for one person, the principal: myself.” She said a new dean would provide additional administrative support and help her with evaluations and other tasks that currently fall solely on her shoulders.

Principal: “The history that precedes us, it really is difficult”

The board and Quintana discussed how to boost enrollment, with board members wondering how well BTA collaborates with Berkeley High to recruit students who are credit deficient. Because of the 4×4 block schedule BTA uses, students are able to earn credits twice as quickly as they could at Berkeley High.

Quintana said the counseling staff at Berkeley High has been receptive and supportive as far as encouraging students who need credits to graduate to transfer to BTA. Assistant Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi said he wants to get more BTA staff onto the Berkeley High campus so students don’t feel they are being pushed out.

“You’ve got really good people making the case, but the dynamic is still set up such that kids feel like they’re being counseled out,” Scuderi told the board. “If we could flip that, and explore ways that we could have BTA staff on campus, selling the program, recruiting. You know, sort of flipping that in a way” so that the message is “‘We want you.’”

Quintana said she is struggling to combat a negative vision of BTA that she believes is entrenched in the community.

“The city has a view of BTA, and that view permeates most of the households in this city, so it’s really hard to convince the students,” she told the board. “The staff at Berkeley High is really trying hard to convince them. But the history that precedes us, it really is difficult.”

Quintana said, often, it is the students themselves who are the best advocates for the program. She said students get to BTA and are surprised to find an environment that works well for them and allows them to get the credits they need to graduate on time. She said they often return to Berkeley High to sing BTA’s praises.

Quintana acknowledged, however, that the campus environment can be a challenging one, and asked the board to make more efforts to broaden the demographics of the students who enter her program so as not to put so much pressure on the teaching staff.

“I would really appreciate having kids who are simply credit deficient to balance off those that have high trauma,” she told the board. “It would kinda not wear the staff out so much.”

Principal: “Only two fights on campus last year”

She said there were only two fights on campus last year, and insisted that the students often turn to staff and teachers for help intervening when issues arise.

She did not mention reports made by teachers to Berkeleyside earlier this year that described problematic behavior. One teacher said students recorded themselves getting fellatio and viewed those videos on school computers with peers. The teacher said, last spring, another student stuck a large ball of aluminum foil in a microwave and set it to run for 10 minutes. In another incident, 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.

In recent years, another 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.”

Quintana also did not mention a spike in 2013-14 in suspensions related to assault or battery on school staff. According to the most recent School Accountability Report Card for BTA, the school’s overall suspension rate rose from 13% to 21% to 29% in 2013-14. The 2014-15 document has not yet been posted online.

Board members asked Quintana to bring back more detailed demographic information about the students, as well as more information about what types of services the school offers to students.

“I haven’t gotten a real clear sense of BTA: all you offer, all your staff, and how many students” are receiving different types of services, Board Member Karen Hemphill told Quintana. “That to me is part of what I look at, looking at what your school needs to facilitate success for the students that are there.”

Hemphill said she understood that BTA’s high-risk population needs smaller class sizes to succeed, but said the board would likely have to reevaluate, come budget time, considering the current enrollment.

Quintana said, since coming to the Berkeley Unified School District in 2011, she has focused on empowering students by making sure they know what credits they need to graduate — which comes to many as a surprise — and providing a range of interventions for students. And she said the students, whom she described as “brilliant,” have risen to the task.

“They are actually quite capable of learning any- and everything that’s in front of them,” she told the board, “if they are given the right support and resources… And I’ve seen this time and time again.”

Intervention and trauma programs emphasized at BTA

She also told the board BTA jettisoned its Alive & Free program this year and has replaced it with a weekly restorative justice program that all students will take each Wednesday. Students also participate, she said, in a youth court program, mediation, community conferencing and other alternative intervention efforts.

She said the city of Berkeley has helped collaborate on a program in the school garden focused on trauma reduction, and that BTA had been awarded a $251,000 grant over four years to help flesh out three “career pathways” in culinary arts, building trades and construction, and information technologies.

She did note that the teacher who had run BTA’s PE program had been transferred to Willard, which meant her campus could no longer offer PE classes on site. She said she was hoping Berkeley High would allow her students to go to BHS to take PE during the last period of the day. The alternative, she said, would be for BTA students to take an online PE course through “Cyber High” focused on health.

Quintana said, too, that Berkeley Mental Health has increased its availability on campus in recent years, from one day a week initially to two days last year and five days a week with students this year.

“If the kids are occupied with trauma, they can’t learn,” she said. “Our goal is to identify the antecedents to trauma, and intervene … so the students can learn, and therefore you’ll begin to see the students begin to improve. And they’ve been doing that.”

Explained Quintana: "last year … some some things fell apart." Image: BUSD
Explained Quintana: “last year … some some things fell apart.” Image: BUSD
Explained Quintana: “last year … some some things fell apart.” Image: BUSD

Quintana said the last school year ended on a rough note, and that she had organized an all-staff session prior to the first day of school to get the 2015-16 year off on the right foot.

“We’re having an all staff retreat where we’re doing restorative justice practices for self support after the experience we had last year where some some things fell apart, as families fall apart and come back together,” she said. “We’re really looking to start fresh this year.”

She said she wanted to emphasize at the retreat agreements among staff that would limit the potential of students to manipulate behavior and set teacher against teacher “so that we can respect and support one another when things get tough.”

Quintana continued: “The staff at BTA, our staff, is so committed to these children that sometimes they wear themselves out, and that causes them to act in ways that anybody would act when they’re worn out.”

See Quintana’s presentation to the board, or watch the presentation on YouTube beginning at approximately 1 hour and 57 minutes.

Op-ed: BUSD Superintendent responds to story on Berkeley Technology Academy (06.19.15)
Berkeley Community Fund awards record number of college scholarships to students (06.15.15)
Op-ed: BTA teacher asks, how can we support our kids? (06.04.15)
Teachers at Berkeley Technology Academy raise the alarm (06.03.15)
Berkeley schools, police, city join forces on youth crime (06.02.15)

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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...