Six people sit in rows of seats. One has his head in his hands.
REALM supporters, including Executive Director Victor Diaz (blue button-up in back row), await the determination of their fate. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Just as California legislators are beginning to crack down on charter schools, Berkeley suddenly finds itself without any.

During an intense School Board meeting Wednesday, officials came out strongly — and surprisingly — against a merger between REALM Charter School and the online charter chain Compass. Then, after just nine minutes of discussion, they revoked REALM’s charter in a 3-1 vote, saying a once-promising school serving vulnerable students had turned into a financial disaster.

The few REALM staff and community members who came to the meeting and sat, anxiously, in the back of the room, looked crestfallen after the vote. Outside the meeting room afterward, two of them clung to each other and sobbed.

The proposed merger was a last-ditch effort by eight-year-old REALM to stay in operation after a few years of financial and legal issues. Under the proposed revision to the school’s charter, Compass would have essentially acquired REALM, operating the existing middle and high school campuses as well as its own virtual independent study program.

“I think REALM has a great curriculum and potential,” said board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, who said she received numerous emails urging her to vote against the merger. But “I don’t think Compass is the right partner.”

During previous lengthy meetings, board members had entertained the idea of the merger, suggesting a number of conditions for its approval. But on Wednesday, all but one, Ka’Dijah Brown, shut down the concept immediately.

The officials brought up recent rebukes of the Southern California-based charter system by Fresno and Monterey counties, agreeing with their characterizations of Compass’ online educational program as thin and insufficient.

Board member Ty Alper said both Compass and REALM demonstrated a “clear failure” to meet legal standards —including by providing minimal information about the proposed programs — in their initial applications for the merger.

“I’m not willing to disregard that failure in order to keep REALM afloat,” he said.

Alper also chastised Compass for withholding vital information from the district in some cases, and providing misleading information in others.

“We can’t afford to partner with an organization that is anything less than transparent and forthcoming. From what I’ve seen, I’m not impressed,” he said.

Board member Julie Sinai said she couldn’t support a questionable online learning program in Berkeley when the district already has a popular independent study option.

Brown, who called into the meeting, disagreed with her colleagues. She said emails from community members “attacking” REALM’s population — mostly low-income students of color — were “devastating.”

The school was worth saving, she said, and “the truth is REALM cannot continue without the merger.”

REALM will have to close both of its facilities — the high school on Eighth Street and the middle school at the Pacific School of Religion. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Alper said BUSD had given REALM too many chances already, including approving major changes to its charter last year.

Along with Brown, student board member Arvin Hariri, whose vote isn’t included in the official count, supported the merger. He said the board had made “impossible” demands of the charter schools, which they had agreed to try to meet.

After the vote on Compass, the revocation of REALM’s charter — a process initiated in April — was almost ceremonial. REALM Executive Director Victor Diaz had said his school could not survive financially without Compass’ help, and would have been forced to close after this school year anyway.

But the 3-1 vote, again with just Brown opposing revocation, put an official end to the homegrown project-based-learning program that first got authorized in Berkeley in 2010 and opened in 2011.

Diaz launched the Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement (REALM) after serving as the principal of Berkeley Technology Academy, the district’s continuation school. He envisioned a technology and social justice oriented school that could offer an alternative education not possible within the traditional system. He later supported his employees joining the Berkeley Federation of Teachers union. At its start, REALM enrolled many students from Berkeley, whereas hardly any of the current attendees live within the district bounds.

Board members have often praised the educational program at REALM, saying that wasn’t the issue — but Diaz has criticized them for rarely or never actually visiting the schools.

Many families have also raved about the hands-on curriculum and staff at REALM. A handful of the current students came to recent board meetings to gush about their schools and the support they receive there. Others have said the charter schools never met their promise and were chronically mismanaged.

Five people sit at a dais. Rainbow flag hangs in back, next to a screen.
The Berkeley School Board on Wednesday, June 12. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In recent years, REALM was put on notice by the district multiple times for incurring serious debt and violating state law. In the fall, the school illegally opened a temporary site outside of the county without notifying the district. This year, BUSD issued REALM a notice of violation for fiscal issues, including incurring $1.5 million in debt and failing to make required teacher retirement benefit contributions.

REALM’s recent actions “constituted not only a violation of its own charter, but a violation of the law as well,” said BUSD’s attorney John Yeh.

Districts have various legal grounds for revoking charters, and Yeh said several applied to REALM, including the fiscal mismanagement and California Education Code violations. Recent law says lack of academic improvement among all student groups is the most important factor for revocation, according to Yeh.

The lawyer presented data showing that no more than 17% of Latino, African American or low-income students at REALM met the state standard on math and English tests. There has been little improvement over the years, Yeh said.  (BUSD has also been criticized for low scores among some of those student groups at its standard public schools too.)

Throughout the meeting, the eight or so people who’d come to support REALM sat on one side of the room. A few who came to oppose Compass and support revocation sat on the other. That group included King teacher and activist Yvette Felarca and another member from the radical group By Any Means Necessary.

Leyva-Cutler scolded them for periodically applauding at REALM’s misfortune.

“It’s not something to clap about. These are students, these are parents, these are teachers,” she said.

Hariri said he felt for the REALM community.

“To every student at REALM that we failed to save today, I’m sorry,” he said. “I know that that was your sanctuary.”

The revocation will go into effect June 30. REALM still has the option of appealing the revocation to the county within 30 days — and then that decision can be appealed to the state too.

“In some ways, this is potentially just the first step,” Yeh told the board.

Outside the meeting room after the vote, Diaz said he wasn’t ready to comment on the night’s outcome.

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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,...