Enrollment has steadily declined at Berkeley’s continuation high school, and the district might cut staff significantly. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Enrollment has steadily declined at Berkeley’s continuation high school, and the district might cut staff significantly. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley Unified School District is considering major staffing cuts at its alternative high-school programs, where enrollment has taken a dive in recent years.

At Wednesday’s School Board meeting, district staff presented two options for restructuring Berkeley Technology Academy (BTA) and Berkeley Independent Studies (IS) in 2018-19, and encouraged the board to make a decision before winter break.

“This is a difficult discussion that has an impact on a lot of families, students and the people that do the hardest work in our district,” Pasquale Scuderi, BUSD assistant superintendent, told the School Board in a presentation. But “maintaining staffing is going to be dependent on enrollment growing.”

Otherwise, district staff said, it does not make sense to fund disproportionate resources at a small program while the many students who need extra help at Berkeley High are not necessarily receiving it.

Enrollment at BTA has declined steadily over the past several years, from a peak of 136 students at the school in 2011-12, to only about 50 currently, according to district data. (Additional students typically enroll at the start of spring semester, however.) Enrollment has not suffered at IS, which serves around 140 students.

One proposed approach would reduce the BTA staff from the equivalent of eight full-time teachers to five, and merge four management and support positions currently split between BTA and IS into two positions overseeing both programs. The two programs are both based at 2701 Martin Luther King, Jr., Way, but are currently staffed separately and serve different students. The initial proposal also cuts one of BTA’s two safety officers.

Another option would keep staffing as is, but increase the number of students transferred involuntarily from Berkeley High to BTA. The district has gotten in trouble for that practice in the past, staff warned.

By slashing the staff as suggested, BUSD would save an estimated $450,000 annually, significant savings for a district facing a deficit and aiming to make close to $2 million in budget cuts for 2018-19. The IS coordinator position was already under consideration for the chopping block.

But staff and families from BTA and IS came to the School Board meeting in force to protest the possible cuts. They described two programs that serve students with specific backgrounds and needs, including many who have experienced high levels of trauma, and teachers who are uniquely trained and willing to work with them.

“Our students are at a high risk for loss,” said Dawn Williams, who has taught at BTA since 2007. “Do we protect [BTA] and the way it’s staffed or take away from those that have lost so much already?” Cutting staff “means the loss of teachers, staff, security, resources and love,” she said.

Some from BTA said the district should be promoting the intimate program to other students who are struggling at Berkeley High rather than stripping the campus’s resources. Representatives from IS questioned how one principal could oversee both their multi-faceted program as well as the separate BTA school.

BTA Principal Ardarius McDonald on campus during the summer, when he was moving into his office. His position could be combined with the Independent Studies coordinator position. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

BUSD has long offered enrollment at its continuation school to students who lack sufficient credits to graduate or otherwise struggle at the conventional campus. Historically, the district forcibly transferred those students to BTA, more commonly called “B-Tech.”

But the district was sued in 2004, because state law prohibits the involuntary transfer of students except under very specific circumstances. Curtailing the involuntary transfer program caused enrollment to drop significantly at BTA, though it was built back up to a steady 115 for several years. Other contributing factors to BTA’s enrollment decline, said staff and board members, could be the advent of “small schools” at Berkeley High, which offered the same level of attention and intimacy BTA provides, and a pervasive negative perception of BTA and its students.

The continuation schools has taken different shapes and names over the past many decades, but the current BTA program was designed in 2006 not only to help its students graduate, but to also prepare them for admission at a four-year public college.

While BTA is doing a “great job” of graduating its students — “no small feat,” Scuderi said — very few have ended up eligible for University of California or California State University admission. The school was initially staffed to provide college preparation alongside basic courses, but it should be restructured to reflect the reality of the program, he said.

‘Let’s bring more to BTA that would draw students in’

School Board members seemed a bit caught off-gaurd by the tight timeline presented by staff, who recommended the board vote on the BTA and IS cuts on Dec. 6.

Scuderi said the district would hold community meetings for BTA and IS over the next month, but staffing decisions should be made “as early as possible” so the district can make other hiring and budget decisions in the spring.

Judy Appel said she recognized the time pressure and the fiscal issues with running an over-staffed school, but said: “I feel like we need to think it through a little more. Having one person oversee both programs may not be the right solution” and would require community input.

“This is one of those times when process is really, really important,” she said. “So much caring has been put into both these programs.”

Board member Josh Daniels said better data from Berkeley High students — on the general perception of BTA and why they are not choosing to transfer — could help inform the board’s decisions about staffing and program improvements there, and help with recruitment.

“My perception is there’s a pretty big stigma and lack of awareness around what BTA is,” said Uma Nagarajan-Swenson, the non-voting student representative on the board.

During public comment, a BTA parent said more could be done to draw at-risk students to the school. She told the board she had no idea about the possibility of sending her son there until a sports coach brought it up. At that point, unbeknownst to her, her son was already failing at BHS.

Since he transferred to BTA, he has been getting great grades and support, she said.

“He would have been a dropout,” she said. “B-Tech has saved my son’s career, his life, his education…They’re not going to come and tell you they’re failing.”

Board member Karen Hemphill put forth a suggestion supported by her colleagues to figure out a way to strengthen the BTA program and better integrate it with the BHS community, even while staffing cuts are likely being made. For example, she said, some of the district’s career technical education (CTE) programs could be moved to the campus, to make them available to BTA and bring more BHS students to the campus. The CTE coordinator, Wyn Skeels, said that would be possible. BTA already has funding for its own CTE courses as well, but the program has not yet been successful, in part because enrollment is too low, he said.

“I do like the idea of trying to bring more to that campus that would draw more people in,” Appel said.

The district and BTA have already taken some steps to connect BTA to BHS and boost the continuation school program, including allowing BTA students to play on BHS sports teams for the first time this year.

District staff said they would come back to the board with a new proposal addressing some of Hemphill’s ideas “soon.”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...