BERKELEY -- Realm Charter School, the city's only public charter school, opened its doors in fall 2011 to provide students in grades 6 through 12 with a program centered on project-based learning, with an emphasis on technology, research and action.

The program is designed to increase student achievement and social responsibility, and Victor Diaz, Realm's principal and executive director behind the idea, described "Love, Grit and Action," the three principles on which the school is built.

"Love allows us to engage in students' personal development, and that's critical to their intellectual development," he said. "Grit is the academic component that gives them problem-solving skills that they don't give up. And Action is for students to go beyond these walls to give what we're learning a greater purpose."

With an eye toward broadening the school's universe and sharing Realm's story, the school is hosting its annual "In Conversation" fundraiser Feb. 2, when Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz will read from their latest books and hold an unscripted conversation about writing, creativity and education, subjects integral to the school's mission.

As a charter school, Realm has no residence requirements and functions like any other public school as far as standards and testing.

Operationally, it is more like a private school, with decisions made by its board and executive director. At present, the school at Eighth and Browning streets in West Berkeley has 100 students each in grades six, seven, nine and 10, building the school one year at a time. If all goes as planned, it will eventually serve 700 students on each of two campuses -- a middle school and a high school.

The sixth through 12th grade, seven-year stretch is a definite attraction for parents and staff. "There's a lot we learn about the kids, behaviorally, psycho-socially and educationally. It gives us a lot of opportunities to engage them," Diaz said.

The school builds on the successful foundation principles of elementary schools, using project-based learning, integrated curriculum, enrichment classes and strong parent participation to give students a hands-on learning experience.

Along with teacher collaboration, the school uses activities that engage students in solving problems.

Each quarter, students spend two full days resolving a design challenge. The challenge "how to celebrate each others' differences" engaged the entire school and resulted in the formation of a school newspaper, student government and student-run organizations.

In the Studio H design and build program, ninth and 10th graders are answering a "How might we" question by designing and creating a technologically cutting-edge student game and hangout space from three 20-foot shipping containers, combining precedence studies with physics, chemistry, geometry and environmental concerns.

Parents have recognized the value of what Realm is doing and are choosing the school's small setting and vision as desirable, recognizing that the future for graduates will require a different skill-set.

"Colleges and professions will be looking for graduates with experience in ideation, collaboration and innovation," Diaz said. "Our program is designed to get kids into college, but we want them to get there with more creativity and self-awareness."

That students and teachers are staying with the program and that parents are involved in the school culture is Diaz's first indication of the school's achievement, as are the strength of API and test scores, and the financial growth of the organization.

The purpose of the Feb. 2 fundraiser is to share Realm with a community not normally reached and to celebrate two authors who exemplify the ultimate goal of creativity as well as represent using their gifts to work within the community; proceeds will be used to develop classroom reading libraries and to purchase more hand-held technology.

"For us, it was important to bring in Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz, who embody the spirit of love, of grit, of action, and their writing reflects that," Victor Diaz said. "They hold us to an exemplar, broaden the narrative and show our students and teachers what is possible."

TO LEARN MORE
For more information about Realm Charter, go to www.realmcharter.org or call 510-809-9800.
In Conversation with Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz: 6-10 p.m. Feb. 2, Berkeley High School Little Theatre, 1980 Allston Way. General admission $40, VIP tickets $250; include books, reception and priority seating. Purchase tickets through the website.