School Notebook: Electric buses; B-Tech on lowest-performance list; Berkeley High accreditation

Berkeley Technology Academy is considered among the state’s lowest performing schools, due to its graduation rate. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

B-Tech graduation rate earns it unwanted spot on state list

Berkeley’s continuation school has made a newly released list of California’s lowest performing schools.

The state is required by federal law to identify schools with low graduation rates or poor outcomes in other areas. Berkeley Technology Academy, better known as B-Tech or BTA, was included in the group because its average graduation rate over two years was lower than the 67% threshold.

Districts with schools on the list are flagged for what’s referred to as “comprehensive support and improvement” (CSI), and are eligible for federal funding. The approach is part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal accountability system that replaced the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. The identified schools must come up with a plan to address the noted issues.

A BUSD spokesman said administrators were not available to comment on BTA’s CSI status by publication time.


BTA has plenty of company, with 781 schools total — about 6% of California’s public and charter schools — making the CSI list. About a quarter of those institutions are continuation schools, perhaps unsurprisingly, as those schools are designed for students at risk of dropping out. (The state also released a list of model continuation schools this month.)

The school’s graduation rate in 2018 was 66.7%, according to the California School Dashboard database, a big jump from the reported rate of just 21.1% the year before. After publication, the district said the discrepancy can be attributed to a change in the way California calculates graduation rates for alternative schools.

The Berkeley High graduation rate, by contrast, is around 88%, above the state average.

BTA’s enrollment has steady declined over the past several years. Recently, the district has tried to court more students to transfer to BTA — BUSD was sued years ago for forcing students to switch — and has presented the school as a welcoming alternative for all kinds of students who find Berkeley High overwhelming.

When enrollment continued to drop nonetheless, the district cut teaching positions at the BTA and consolidated its program with Berkeley Independent Studies, already hosted at the same site on Martin Luther King Jr. Way at Derby Street. The Independent Studies coordinator, Heidi Weber, now oversees both programs, and the former BTA principal, Ardarius McDonald, works in special education at Longfellow Middle School.

There was fervent pushback against those changes last year, with BTA families and teachers saying the school offered something special, and accusing the district of neglecting it. In previous years, there had also been concerns around safety and violence at the school.

Diesel vehicles thrown under the bus

BUSD will get eight new electric buses like this one. Photo: Courtesy Blue Bird

The big buses that schlep students to and from Berkeley schools daily will soon create less pollution while doing so.

Berkeley Unified’s transportation division, headed up by Sheila Collier, has secured grants for eight new electric school buses. The fleet will likely roll into Berkeley this summer, after the district sets up charging infrastructure, according to BUSD.

The district doesn’t have much extra cash lying around these days, but it was able to purchase the buses with $1.4 million from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and $1.7 million from the Hybrid Voucher Incentive Program.

Members of the public who’ve been advocating for the district to go electric for years will likely applaud the buses’ arrival.

Other potential upcoming changes to the transportation department are more contentious, however.

The district is proposing eliminating one of its three vehicle mechanics as part of its $2 million budget-cut package. Current mechanics warned staff that the cut could put young bus riders in danger, but district leadership cited the new electric fleet as one reason the position is unnecessary.

So what will happen to the eight vehicles the electric newcomers will replace?

“We have to actually destroy the old buses as a term of the grant,” said Pauline Follansbee, assistant superintendent of business services, at a recent School Board meeting.

The board’s Beatriz Leyva-Cutler put forth a more creative alternative in jest: Turn the vehicles into tiny houses. (Or Burning Man sculptures?)

Eight existing, smaller gas-powered buses will remain in service.

The new buses will come from maker Blue Bird, but despite the company’s name, they still appear to be painted the iconic school-bus yellow.

Berkeley High gets six-year accreditation

Berkeley High School is accredited, again — and for the next six years. The school received its standard visit from the Western Association of Schools and Conferences, better known as WASC, in November. Friday, the school heard the results, staff said.

BHS received a six-year accreditation with a required one-day mid-term visit, a positive status. WASC can also require two-day visits partway through the term or give schools probationary accreditation.

“They did well,” said Barry Groves, president of WASC. The status BHS received places the school “among the top tier,” he said.

The WASC visitors rely heavily on a “self-study” conducted by the school, as well as their own observations, to determine accreditation. The lengthy report from the study, coordinated by teacher James Dopman, noted a number of significant changes at BHS since the previous WASC visit — the development of a universal ninth grade and freshman physics, new career technical education programs and restorative justice.

Previously WASC visitors had pinpointed student achievement in English and math, and racial achievement gaps in those subjects, as areas needing improvement.