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Berkeley school district rejects charter school proposal

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OCTOBER 13, 2011

A proposal for a charter school was turned down by the Berkeley Unified School District’s Board of Education this week.

The board followed with the staff recommendation at its Wednesday meeting to reject the proposal for Integrity Education Center, an earlier version of which the board denied earlier this year.

“It was pretty clear that we thought they had good intentions, their proposal just didn’t meet the requirements set by the state,” said Karen Hemphill, a director of the board.

Districts must consider every charter proposal brought to them against certain guidelines outlined by the state and technically, if a proposal complies, the district must approve it. Wednesday, the district rejected the Integrity Education Center proposal — which would have focused on dropout recovery — on the same grounds that it did when it rejected the original version in June, citing “an unsound educational program” and its unlikeliness “to successfully implement the program set forth” in the petition.

The board has rejected all charter school petitions brought to it in the past several years, except one. The district approved its first charter school, the Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement middle and high school, last June, which opened its doors in August.

“There’s still a need for more alternatives,” said Victor Diaz, principal of the REALM school and the man behind their creation.

Before REALM was approved, the Berkeley community made clear its desire for something other than Berkeley High School. Nearly all students in the district end up at Berkley High School, which serves nearly 3,500 students — a third of the district’s total student population. Several attempts have been made to prevent kids from getting lost in the shuffle at the school, like those efforts spearheaded by the high school’s former principal Jim Slemp to divide the school into smaller, more manageable schools with their own teachers and counselors.

Although he said he thinks the district could benefit from more options, Diaz said he thinks the district carefully and fairly evaluates all proposals it receives. The REALM school is the only charter school that currently operates within the district, while neighboring Oakland Unified School District has accumulated dozens of charter schools — now around 30 — since the charter school movement began more than 20 years ago.

Hemphill said she thinks the charter school movement advances most in large districts where parents or students get frustrated, feeling that it is “so large that its difficult to break through.”

“I dont know that there’s such a huge push for a charter school (in Berkeley),” she said.

James Madden, the lead petitioner of Integrity Education Center, could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Madden has said before, at the district’s public hearing last month and in interviews, that his goal was to target students who had “fallen by the wayside.” He said he would have provided practical career skills to help students get jobs after graduation.

The staff recommendation was approved with no opposition from board members, and no one from the community showed up at the meeting to support the proposal, according to Jessica Hilton, the district’s interim spokesperson.

“The smaller districts, its less likely (to want charters), there’s more of a feeling that if something is broke you can change it,” Hemphill said.

Soumya Karlamangla is the assistant city news editor.

OCTOBER 14, 2011