BUSD alternative schools resist big cuts

The student body at Berkeley Technology Academy has dwindled to 50, prompting BUSD to consider major staffing cuts. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

It was first-period hip-hop class at Berkeley Technology Academy (BTA), and teacher Will Tinson was trying hard to preach the gospel of MC Hammer to students who were born 15 years after the rapper’s debut album came out.

“Hammer wasn’t doing no cussin,’ wasn’t talking about shooting all day,” Tinson told the class as a music video played in the background. The teacher gestured to the infamous billowy “Hammer pants” on the screen: “If you’re looking for a fresh Halloween costume…”

Many of the 10 or so kids in the class spent the period staring at their phones, tuning in now and then. But after the class let out, they said the material in the elective resonates with them.

“It’s a form of English,” said Tre, 18, who didn’t want to give his last name. “It can relate to us.”

This is the first year the course has been offered, and it might be the last. The Berkeley Unified School District has proposed eliminating three out of the eight teaching positions at BTA in 2018-19. Tinson does not teach a core subject class, so his position is likely to be among those cut. The district is also considering cutting one of the site’s two safety officers and merging the principal positions at BTA and Independent Studies (IS), currently held by two different full-time employees. The current BUSD proposal is less radical than the initial proposal, which included reductions of clerical and counseling staff.

Lastly, the proposal would re-classify BTA as a straightforward continuation school, meaning it would no longer be able to equip students to attend a four-year state school straight after graduation and would be allowed more flexibility in its staffing structure. Currently BTA offers all the required prerequisites for UC and Cal State admission, more than what is typically provided at a continuation school, which are usually meant to help students graduate with a basic high school diploma — enough for admission to a community college or an institution without prerequisites.

Students in a hip-hop elective at Berkeley Technology Academy. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

School Board members have indicated they are receptive to all pieces of the district proposal, though some have qualms about rebranding BTA as a continuation school. They will hold a vote on Jan. 10.

Members of the alternative high school programs have rallied in opposition to the proposed cuts and consolidations, arguing that the district’s most vulnerable students should not weather the biggest blows. They question the logic of combining the principals at BTA and IS, saying the two programs may share a campus and a mission to help students who don’t make it at Berkeley High, but that they perform different complex functions and serve distinct populations.

For BUSD, the proposed cuts — totaling about $400,000 in savings — are just pieces of the painful $1.8 million in reductions it is preparing to make district-wide. As security guards, counselors and administrators face uncertainty, district administrators say it would be irresponsible and unfair to maintain a program that serves around 50 students — the BTA population has been shrinking for years — staffed with eight teachers and its own administrator. Such a staff-student ratio is unheard of elsewhere in the district, where many classrooms are over-crowded.

The looming decision has brought up larger questions about the role of BUSD’s alternative high school programs. Who should they be serving, and to what end? Could the precipitous drop in enrollment at BTA have been prevented, and whose responsibility was it to do so?

BTA teachers say they have more to offer

Over the past several years, the high school located at 2701 MLK Jr. Way has undergone changes to its name —from East Campus to BTA, and colloquially “B-Tech” — as well as its program and recruitment strategy. For years, BUSD reassigned credit-deficient kids to BTA both by the students’ choice and against their will. The district was sued in 2004 in a class-action case alleging BUSD excluded African American and Latino students from comprehensive education by transferring them to alternative programs without their consent. The district settled, agreeing to halt the involuntary transfer practice. California Education Code only permits involuntary transfer to continuation schools due to behavior or attendance problems, not credit deficiency. Staff at the initial school — Berkeley High, in this case — are also prohibited from making the decision to transfer a student out.

The state also tells districts to “strive” to ensure that no one demographic is overly represented at continuation schools. Most of BTA’s students are African American, though they make up only 17% of Berkeley High’s student body.

As a result of the lawsuit, BTA enrollment dropped from 141 to 97 over two years, but remained around 119 from 2007 to 2011, and grew to 136 in 2011-12. From then on, enrollment dropped each year.

Teacher Will Tinson extolls the virtues of MC Hammer. His position could be eliminated next year. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In 2006, BTA was restructured as more than just a continuation school — as a program that also enabled kids to graduate with the “a-g requirements” necessary for UC and Cal State admission, such as two years of a foreign language. The reality, says district staff, is virtually no BTA students have ended up completing a-g requirements — though Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi has often said graduating itself is “no small feat.” By reclassifying BTA as a continuation school, some staff certified for one subject would be able to teach courses in other subjects, softening a staffing reduction.

There are a number of theories — and likely a number of reasons — why it is difficult to grow enrollment at BTA. Tinson, who used to teach at one of Oakland’s multiple alternative institutions, said having just one high school and one continuation school in Berkeley doesn’t help. Many teenagers wouldn’t be keen to leave the center of the city’s social life. Others say BTA’s bad reputation, and the leftover stigma around a school where kids used to be forcibly sent, makes recruitment a challenge.

Many connected to BTA believe it’s been set up to fail through the lack of a concerted district effort to promote BTA as an option for kids at Berkeley High who are struggling and might benefit from a change.

“They’re not leveraging us,” said Sherene Randle, a BTA English teacher who used to teach at Berkeley High. “We can get them their credits recovered and send them back to Berkeley High. If you’re not utilizing us, how can you assess what we have to offer?”

Some BTA staff were surprised to learn about another credit-recovery option at Berkeley High, called Cyber High, which they say could dissuade kids from transferring to BTA. Through Cyber High, Berkeley High students can take digital courses to make up credits. According to Scuderi, the program serves a different set of students than BTA — around 50-60 each year, who just need to make up a course or two while continuing to attend regular classes throughout the school day.

But the suspicion around Cyber High represents a tension at the heart of this, and many other, BUSD decisions. Should the district focus its limited resources on ensuring its schools and programs can serve all students — or do they need to better acknowledge that some students will not thrive at conventional schools or programs, and put more money and thought into alternatives?

Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi (in suit) discusses the proposal with parents and staff from BTA and IS at a meeting in December. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The district says it has ramped up BTA recruitment efforts in recent years, to no avail. But throughout the decision process, at two School Board meetings and an emotional joint BTA and IS community meeting, parents described the transferring policy as piecemeal, some saying they had no idea BTA was an option until they serendipitously heard about it.

BTA Principal Ardarius McDonald, who served on an interim basis in 2016-17, and was officially appointed this year, told Berkeleyside there should be “a very clear way students are identified and counseled about academic options at BTA. That piece right now is not clear.”

According to Scuderi, “The district has almost exclusively used counseling and voluntary transfers for BTA enrollment since the mid-2000s with some exceptions for mandatory, behavior-driven involuntary transfers.” He wrote in an email that BUSD will likely have to consider bumping up involuntary transfers, even if the proposed reductions go through because BTA would still be left 40 students short of a standard staff ratio.

Tre, the hip-hop student, said he would have transferred before his senior year if he’d known about the option. At BTA, “I’m learning and passing. I’m home. The teachers give you more freedom. They let you be you, they get to your level.”

At a School Board meeting, Benita Darden-Taylor said her son Jordan underwent a similar shift. The family had to move a handful of times over the past few years, and Jordan became severely depressed and was failing school. When they got an apartment in Berkeley and enrolled him at BTA, the transition was striking, she said: “He loves coming to school. He loves chemistry and he wants to go to college.” If resources are removed from the program, “I’m afraid to lose my child like I have before,” she said.

Madeleine, 17, told Berkeleyside that BTA helped her so much that she is graduating early in January.

“I know if I stayed at Berkeley High, I wouldn’t have graduated,” she said. “Some people learn in different ways.” She did not want to give her last name.

Teacher Tinson is the first to admit those success stories are not everyone’s, and that not all students are doing well at BTA. In 2015, a number of BTA teachers spoke to Berkeleyside on condition of anonymity, sharing concerns about violent incidents on campus, serious behavior issues and a lack of academic rigor at the time.

“They might come here and not do better,” Tinson said. “We’re not miracle workers. But they do develop more friendships and develop relationships with adults. You see such a change in them. You’re not disappearing in a class of 30. There’s an opportunity for people to feel a sense of community.”

Berkeley Technology Academy students head to class. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Some who are opposed to the proposed cuts believe the students, many of whom have experienced trauma and are on the brink of dropping out, deserve all the support and investment they can get. Around the time of the 2015 Berkeleyside article, 90% of BTA students who were screened by a city mental health counselor were found to have complex traumatic stress disorders. The majority receive free or reduced-price lunch. Opponents of the BUSD proposal say disproportionately high resources and staffing are called for when working with extremely vulnerable students. The teachers at the site are not dispensable, they say, because many have unique extensive working with populations like BTA’s, or have been trained to do so.

World languages teacher Dawn Williams, for example, taught at BTA from 2007-10, left to finish her dissertation on serving youth who have experienced trauma and fostering a healing classroom environment, and came back in 2015 with a doctorate and renewed excitement about teaching at BTA.

“Somebody else is going to get these great teachers — teachers of color,” Randle said.

At the community meeting, math teacher Ramal Lamar said it is a mistake to restructure BTA without a-g eligibility.

“We know everybody’s not necessarily going to college or getting a job right out of high school,” he said. “But we need to make sure each of the students still has access to a quality education. I want to make sure my services are being properly utilized….I don’t have a master’s degree in mathematics for nothing. I’m challenging the district…give me some students.”

During Lamar’s first year as a BTA teacher, a student of his was shot 12 times over spring break, he said. He lost a lung but survived. Lamar recounted visiting him at Highland Hospital and bringing him a stack of math work. The student ended up graduating and going to Texas Southern University.

“Many staff have an understanding through their own background,” said McDonald. “You have people who know enough to onboard a kid. We know how to engage certain access points. We do what we love and the kids know it. We eat together, we laugh together, we’ve cried together.”

But he acknowledged the complexity of the situation and admitted the reduction proposal “didn’t just show up” out of nowhere.

“It’s a lot at play,” McDonald said. “There’s truth in it all. There’s been a decrease in enrollment consistently since 2011. It does hit hard when there’s three” teachers cut at once. Ahead of this year, BUSD already cut two teacher positions at BTA, knowing additional cuts would be needed in 2018-19 if enrollment did not increase, Scuderi said.

“To be mindful, there’s definitely a need for a low teacher-student ratio at this site,” McDonald said. But “as it goes past a certain tipping point, you have to be fiscally responsible about how you’re allocating resources. Not to say I would dismiss responsibility on our district, site and Berkeley High to increase enrollment.”

While McDonald wishes there was a stronger transfer system in place, he has adopted an “if you build it, they will come” mentality, he said.

“If you can say, ‘This is what we’re offering,’ then you have some more leverage,” he said. However, the principal is disappointed that he hasn’t had much time to boost the offerings.

“I’m one year into the program and I have a lot of confidence in my ability to stabilize B-Tech,” McDonald said. “That’s taking a lot of energy, a lot of bandwidth. It hit its lowest point in enrollment — and that’s when I got it. Then to be faced with, ‘You might be doing this and a whole other program…,'” he said of the plan to merge the coordinator jobs.

BTA Principal Ardarius McDonald (left) and IS Coordinator Heidi Weber. Their positions could be combined next year. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The hip-hop class is not all that has been introduced at BTA in the past couple years. There is also a new women’s studies elective, and the beginning of a career “pathway” program, where students would take a series of courses in a certain professional field. Through the media arts pathway, students have created the “Real Talk TV” broadcast, worked with BUSD’s health center to film a public service announcement about sexual health and designed a new logo for BTA. The goal is to introduce additional journalism, audio production and graphic design units. Tinson also teaches a leadership class. Along with the electives, BTA provides basic English, history, math and science courses.

This year BTA and BHS entered into a multi-school agreement through the California Interscholastic Federation, allowing BTA students to play on BHS sports teams. The hope is the agreement will encourage more students to transfer to BTA, and increase interaction between the two student bodies, combatting the stigma around BTA.

McDonald does question the foresight of cutting one of the school’s two security officers. The officers know the students by name and, during a recent passing period, went around encouraging them to get to class. Despite the reports of violence in previous years, McDonald and others said there have only been two fights in past year. In both cases, the principal said, two adults needed to hold the kids apart. If there is only one safety officer, a staff member could have to put themselves in harm’s way, he said.

Independent Studies has been through cuts in the past

Berkeley Independent Studies is also reeling from the proposed changes. With new coordinator Heidi Weber, some staff say, the program has finally found its footing after dealing with leadership turnover and staffing cuts over many years.

“I’ve worked with 10 administrators in 20 years,” said IS teacher Christina Balch. “It’s just demoralizing.” Teachers are “losing sleep” thinking about how the proposed consolidation would be implemented, she said.

Students at work in the Independent Studies courtyard. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

IS is comprised of four different programs, which students can enter or leave at almost any point in the school year. Those who work at IS say they have difficulty imagining how one principal could run all the programs, each of which comes with its own stream of constant paperwork, as well as BTA and its own challenges. There is the high school program, which has a waiting list, the Herrick Hospital program for adolescent mental health patients, the home hospital program for students physically unable to attend school and the K-8 homeschool program. Altogether, they have served a little over 300 students so far this year.

At a School Board meeting, Balch implored the district to gather descriptions of the current duties of the BTA and IS principals before determining that the positions can be combined.

Before the BTA proposal, however, the district was already talking about cutting the IS coordinator entirely as part of its major reductions package.

Like BTA, IS is meant for students who would not succeed or be happy at conventional schools.

The course catalog enumerates the sorts of students who gravitate toward IS: “students who excel academically, who take Berkeley City College courses concurrently, who seek the flexibility of scheduling available at BIS because they have daytime jobs, must care for children, or have to schedule around major athletic or artistic pursuits. Some students have emotional or health-related issues and need extra support.”

Some students experience bullying or harassment elsewhere and ask to transfer. There is a large population of Muslim students at IS who can’t be in conventional schools because they take breaks to pray.

Advocacy signs from a School Board meeting remain on a table in an IS classroom. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

IS students depend on the accessibility of the already-strapped teachers and administrators, said Manal Nasser, 16, a junior who is graduating early this year. “IS students, some are not able to communicate as much,” she said. “They want to feel like they’re not left out.”

Given that their program has not been struggling to maintain numbers, some at IS see the blended coordinator proposal as an arbitrary grouping. Representatives from both BTA and IS said staff at both programs already perform roles beyond what’s in their job descriptions. The BTA counselor said she already acts as the campus registrar.

“If you only look at the numbers, it makes sense,” she said at the community meeting. “There’s no way anyone could be the registrar and the counselor for all those students.”

District exploring how to improve BTA and IS amid cuts

District staff members emphasize that the proposal does not threaten the programs at either BTA or IS. The staffing structures will change, to bring them close to standard district levels, but the fundamental offerings and schedules will not, they say.

Even if the BTA and IS coordinator positions are combined, that single administrator will still oversee fewer employees and fewer students than their counterparts at any other BUSD school. The blended principal model would result in an employee-supervisor ratio of around 25:1, whereas it is closer to 40:1 at elementary schools and more than 30:1 at Berkeley High. (The ratio is smaller at all the middle schools.)

The new staffing model would produce a 200:1 student-administrator ratio, half the administrator caseload at several other BUSD schools.

School Board members have said some level of staffing cuts at BTA is unavoidable, and have indicated comfort with the idea of combining the coordinators. But some have pushed for the district to instate programmatic improvements at the alternative school site to offset the impact of the reductions and set the stage for an enrollment boost in the future.

Theirs is a perspective echoed by many in the BTA and IS communities. “If you take more value from BTA away, you’re going to lose students,” only perpetuating the enrollment issues, said an IS student at the community meeting. Members from both programs have said they hope this decision prompts an overarching district plan to support the alternative schools.

The garden at the 2701 MLK Jr. Way site. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In response to the board’s request, the district presented ways to improve or expand the BTA program, even if it’s reclassified as a continuation school. The district has already obtained a $275,000 grant for career technical education at BTA, though the site’s initial implementation attempts were not successful. BTA is also looking at a program that would allow kids to travel to work on “project-based learning” initiatives. There is also the possibility of work-study programs for BTA students, the district says.

BUSD also explored concurrent enrollment possibilities for BTA students, finding it would be possible for them to take Berkeley City College courses with the right prerequisites, or even for BTA to host courses on its own site for BCC credit. BTA students could also access IS courses or take after-school classes at Berkeley High.

In the district’s view, the staffing proposal is the best case scenario under unfortunate circumstances.

“We’ve really approached this task from the fact that we’re looking at difficult cuts all across the district,” Scuderi said at a School Board meeting. “We’re not necessarily saying this is our optimal program design, but how could we manage these programs with a slightly reduced cost that’s more proportionate, in a way that allows these programs to continue to serve kids, and we think this has a shot at that.”

Along with the BTA and IS cuts, the budget cuts under consideration by the Superintendent’s Budget Advisory Committee include a vice principal at Malcolm X Elementary, a campus monitor at Washington Elementary, Berkeley High’s dean of attendance, four safety officers and counseling staff, and reductions to the district’s homelessness and transportation budgets, clerical staffing and more. The School Board passed its first interim budget in December and will finalize the 2018-19 budget in February.

At the BTA and IS community meeting, Superintendent Donald Evans said the staffing changes may be painful, but the alternative is worse.

“You would be so angry at me if I didn’t have a solvent budget and an outside entity came and took over this district,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story initially incorrectly said the interim budget passed by the School Board already includes the budget cuts that are under consideration.