New program at REALM School gets students’ hands dirty

When students at Berkeley’s REALM Charter School started their academic year today, there was a new creative space waiting for them at their campus on 8th Street, and a challenge: how might you get your hands dirty? Shortly after the semester kicks off, the students will spend a day and a half working on projects, either for the school or the local community, which they will dream up themselves, and then make.

The class is part of a course created by Studio H, a program run by Project H Design, a nonprofit that has brought its high school design/build curriculum to Berkeley after operating in North Carolina for two years. In a school that already puts an emphasis on technology, research and action, Studio H will be getting students involved in even more hands-on assignments. The projects aim to develop areas such as critical thinking, teamwork and citizenship, as well as practical skills such as construction and design.

“It’s project-based work on steroids,” says REALM’s Principal, Victor Diaz, who adds that when he first learned about Studio H, he knew they would make an excellent partner for the school. “We like to learn through doing,” he said.

REALM Charter School is at 2023 8th Street in Berkeley, part of the West Campus. Tracey Taylor

Emily Pilloton, co-founder of Project H with Matthew Miller, says the underlying concept of the program is to put design and architecture into practice on school campuses: whether that means students create a bus stop or a chicken coop, build a climbing wall, or map out a city block — all projects that have been tackled through the organization.

The key is that the ideas originate with the students. “The power of the program comes from the students’ response to context,” says Pilloton.

Pilloton is a designer who studied art and architecture at UC Berkeley and taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Miller has designed and built houses and schools in Detroit and Uganda, has taught architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design and at Cal.

Farmers’ Pavilion in Windsor, NC, designed and built by Studio H high school students. Photo: Studio H

As well as the “dirty hands” challenges that will happen on the quarter, REALM students are being offered two periods of a Studio H basic class which will include fabrication and digital design as well as making concrete public furniture. “We  are going to give the results to families and businesses around the area,” says Pilloton. “Then we’ll have one other period that is a year-long, advanced Studio H class where we’ll be working up to a full-scale architectural project for the surrounding community, probably looking at housing,” she says.

In Bertie County, North Carolina, junior-year students designed and built a pavilion to house a new farmers’ market in the town of Windsor, something of a fresh-food desert. The project enabled small rural roadside farm stand owners to gather in one sheltered community space, and it was embraced by the town and its Mayor.

REALM Charter, a BUSD-approved middle and high school, opened in Berkeley in 2011. It is housed in a newly renovated portion of the West Campus site, located at the corner of University Avenue and Bonar Street. At capacity, the middle school will serve 300 students, 100 per grade. The high school will serve 400. Diaz says currently 50-60% of the students are from Berkeley.

Project H is only the latest of many partnerships REALM has established to provide specialized programs for its students. Diaz says they work with Berkeley Youth Alternatives for health services and the UC Berkeley School of Welfare, as well as the L.A. based non-profit Game Desk and the K-12 Laboratory at Stanford.

For REALM students it’s been a jazzy summer [08.15.12]
Willard School will not be site for REALM Charter School [03.24.12]
Site decisions for Berkeley’s new charter schools [03.17.12]
A matter of principal: Meet Victor Diaz, head of Berkeley’s first charter schools [07.02.12]

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  • Anonymous

    Bravo REALM! It’s a crime that courses like this aren’t standard in the district and paid for with BSEP funds.

  • EBGuy

     However, $6.7 million of Measure AA funds are being spent to refurbish West Campus for use by the charter school.

  • Anonymous

    Well, that’s how charter schools work (or don’t).  Too bad BSEP funds tend to spent on “unfunded mandates” instead of things like this. I’m not particularly fond of the idea of charter schools but I’m disgusted with the lack of accountability and transparency with BUSD.

  • Anonymous 2

    There is no transparency or accountability at REALM, either!

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    Yes but Realm is renting the space from the school district, not getting it for free

  • EBGuy

    For those of you who are interested in which buildings will be fixed up at West Campus, see this document for the REALM/CTE Rehab.

  • Anonymous

    Really? I guess I don’t understand how charter schools work. If you don’t pay tuition where does the money for the rent come from?

  • guest

    Why is this a problem?

  • EBGuy

     They get around $12k per pupil (ADA) from BUSD (which gets its money from the state).

  • bgal4

    Realm is independent of the school board and union, and dependent on state ADA allocation determined by October enrollment numbers.

  • EBGuy

     True.  But even a very generous $3million over 30 years at 3% is $12.6k per month.  The figure I’ve seen for rent is $6.90 per sq.ft.   The one document I dug up showed approx. 5,000sq.ft. being rented from the district at West Campus, so we’re looking at $35k — which covers maybe 3 months of bond payments.  And double it again as the school is currently at half capacity. 
    Then again, its hard to put a price tag on fixing up the West Campus disaster zone — though I’ll probably draw the line at the pools measure.

  • Anonymous

    Surely you mean they get about about $7k per pupil in ADA about $5k BESP?

  • Anonymous

     BSEP I meant.

  • Jdhughes122

    Piaget WAS right!

  • Greg

    Am I completely misinterpreting or does this mean they’re paying $6.9/sf per year?  That would be ~58 cents/sf (monthly)!

    That can’t be right, can it?  Looking at the Gordon Commercial site market rate is  ~2.5-5 times that.  Granted, this space doesn’t have the overhead of property tax, but the one NNN property on the site is still going for $3.05/sf.

    Unfortunately I know next to nothing about how the charter schools are supposed to operate.  Can you explain what you mean by:

    “And double it again as the school is currently at half capacity.”?

    I *think* you’re referring to the capacity of the West Campus and not the capacity of the charter school.  That is, the charter school is only covering  about 10% of the cost of the West Campus project. 

    Is that right, or does the capacity of the charter school somehow affect the rent it pays?

  • EBGuy

     REALM Charter receives NO BSEP funds.
    As I pointed out above, they do receive some of the benefits of Meaure AA bonds.
    I did a hasty calculation last night with an incorrect figure, so $12k is wrong (editors feel free to delete that post).  For last year, Realm received total funding of $606,446.17 (200 students: 100 middle school and 100 high school).  So BUSD funds Realm at about $3000 per student. (The rest of their funding is from the state).

  • EBGuy

     Greg, to be clear, the $6.90 per sq.ft. per year is for reimbursement of district maintenance costs.  By law BUSD has to supply a charter with “reasonably equivalent” space.  I got the square footage (for 2012-3 school year from this document (see Section 6 a.) with a bit of hand waving (this is a year and a half old, I’ll try to find something more recent).  Note also this document seems to indicate the bond  expenditures devoted to REALM (West Campus) are $5,075,000.

  • Anonymous

     Ah, thank you.  This clears things up, the school is not restricted to Berkeley residents so it makes sense that BSEP funds wouldn’t be available.  It’s interesting to note that BUSD holds the charter school to a level of auditability that it would never submit to itself.

  • Guest

     Because Measure AA funds never specified fixing up West Campus for classrooms for a charter school. Honest and well-run school districts with a master plan state which specific projects each bond measure will fund, unlike BUSD and its various measures.

  • Greg


    To be clear, I really don’t know enough to have an opinion on the charter school.  Your comment just intrigued me is all.

    I think your original point was that it wouldn’t be fair to externalize the cost of the West Campus project when evaluating the charter school, right?

    The ~$3K a month the charter school pays is actually for maintenance, so the comment by Frances that the school pays rent to offset its contribution to the district’s bond debt is incorrect (or at least very misleading)? 

    Given the $5M figure the charter school portion of the bond debt would be closer to $21K a month using your 3% rate and 30 year amortization schedule.  

    The link gives total interest at $225K, so the interest rate/amortization period is off.  Any idea how it is done?  Is it ~3% at ~3 years?  ~.3% at ~30 years?

    After skimming the document it isn’t entirely clear to me what the $5M covers.  I *think* it is for the cost of the portion of the West Campus project that is used by REALM, but I’m not 100%.  Is that your reading of it?

  • EBGuy

     I’m charter neutral at this point, but building more classrooms in Berkeley — while BUSD refuses to put in place common sense measures to prevent illegal out of district students — is not a good policy, in my view. 
    When Realm was first proposed, they had some spreadsheets that laid out the finances nicely, but they’re nowhere to be found at this point (perhaps my Google-fu is failing me).  At this point, I’m cobbling together info from school board meeting packets (sigh…).  After reading some more on line about the districts responsibility to provide ‘reasonably equivalent’ facilities, I don’t believe REALM will be paying rent at West Campus (only reimbursement of district maintenance costs).
    Bond interest rates were WAGS and I may have been off on amortization periods (text of Measure AA  says bond maturities are not supposed to to exceed 25 years).  Given that the West Campus rehab will address CTE and Realm, I read the $5million figure like you did — that is the portion allocated for Realm.