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Victor Diaz, principal of Berkeley Technical Academy, talks to a student taking a test on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009. Diaz is petitioning the city's school board to start a charter school within the district to serve 500 under achieving kids from grade six through 12. (Doug Oakley/Staff)

The Berkeley school board is considering creating an alternative high school or charter school proposed by one of its high school principals for 500 kids who are falling behind.

Victor Diaz, principal of Berkeley Technology Academy, said the school would serve kids from grades six through 12 who traditionally fall behind: students of color scoring well below their white counterparts.

Berkeley schools have the largest gap between well performing white students and students of color in the entire State of California, according to schools spokesman Mark Coplan.

Diaz said he has developed a curriculum for the new school based partly on project-based learning and immersive technology with professors from UC Berkeley, Harvard and the University of Maryland.

If the school board decides to create a charter run within the school district, called a dependent charter, the new school would get money from state and federal sources and would pay the Berkeley school district for facilities and administrative services, he said.

That plan could face resistance from the school board because the district could lose money for each student who enrolls in the charter. And since charter schools are open to anyone, there are worries that it could fill up with students from outside Berkeley.

It also could face resistance from the teachers union. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers considered an official position on the charter proposal at its Sept. 24 meeting, but union President Cathy Campbell did not return phone calls.


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Berkeley Schools Superintendent Bill Huyett said he is open to new ideas but a charter "is putting the cart before the horse."

"At this point we're talking to the school board about changing our paradigm," Huyett said. "Some people would like to see it as a charter, but the district is not there."

Diaz said low-performing students in Berkeley need an alternative place to call home for several years, something that is codified like a charter that the school district can't change on a whim.

He said at his school under achievement is now deep rooted and multigenerational. Students with either academic or behavior problems are sent there to get help for about six months before going back to Berkeley High School.

"There's a group of kids who traditionally fail year after year, and we are now seeing the second generation of kids whose parents went to this same school," Diaz, said.

"I don't know how much more appalling you can get than that. It's not uncommon where a parent shows up and says 'I attended this same school.'"

Diaz, who grew up in San Jose with a single teenage mother, attended six different high schools before he was kicked out when he was 16. From that experience, he said he knows what kids like him need.

"If we can get them for six years rather than six months, think what we can do with them," Diaz said. "But when you get them in the second semester of their sophomore year or their senior year, there's not much left you can do."

Diaz, who is working on his doctorate in education from UC Berkeley, said he hopes to get the school board to approve the plan for what is called a dependent charter school by December. The school would open next fall if the board agrees.

A dependent charter would have its own mission apart from other schools in the district, and once it is created it can't be changed by administrators or the school board, he said.

He also has the option of taking his proposal, which he says is backed by parents, teachers and the Berkeley Organization of Congregations for Action, directly to the State of California and starting a charter school independently of the school district.

School board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said she likes the idea of the charter school, but she's worried about the district losing money.

"It is a great idea, and I certainly believe in bringing different kinds of curriculum, but our biggest concern is financial," Leyva-Cutler said. "For me the questions are: Who will it serve? Will it serve Berkeley students? Will it be staffed by Berkeley teachers? We have a lot to think about. We continue to see our African-American and Latino students failing, but do we need to do something as drastic as this?"

Leyva-Cutler agreed that Diaz could take his proposal directly to the state and seek an independent charter to run outside the Berkeley school district.

"That's always an option," she said. "In that case, I don't know what would happen."