By Doug Oakley - Berkeley Voice
01/14/2010 04:56:24 PM PST -- A charter school under consideration for Berkeley will bring either salvation or sorrow to students who would attend it, according to those who spoke at a public hearing Wednesday night.
On one side at the Berkeley Unified School District board hearing were parents and teachers who say the charter school is worth a try for 500 middle and high school students who either are failing in the mainstream schools or need alternative teaching methods.
On the other side were parents and teachers who said it will simply be a place to segregate black and Latino kids who make up most of those who are underperforming in Berkeley schools.
That gap between white students who do well on tests and black and Latino kids who don't is the largest in the state, according to school officials.
While board members did not weigh in Wednesday night, they will vote on the proposal Feb. 3.
"Change has got to come to Berkeley," said Nancy Williams a parent and member of Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, which supports the charter. "This is not about segregation. It's about a solution for this problem that the Berkeley Unified School District has had since I was in school. The people talking against it, I don't see them at the funerals of all the black students that drop out and get killed."
But Yvette Felarca, a teacher at King Middle School in Berkeley, spoke against the charter proposal.
"A charter school would take desperately needed resources from Berkeley High," Felarca said. "That makes no sense. Parents are being deceived and exploited by the charter school movement. Charter schools lead to more segregation and economic inequality. I know in two weeks you are going to vote on this. Let's have the courage to stand on our convictions." Felarca is an organizer for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Independence and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary.
That group held a news conference before the hearing opposing the charter.
The proposed school would take some students and money away from Berkeley Unified School District because some of its funding is based on how many students are in the district. Although the school would be open to any student in the adjacent areas outside Berkeley, if enough students come from the Berkeley school district, the district would be obliged by law to give it property and furniture.
The district has a large empty building on University Avenue called the West Campus that could be used for the school, said Victor Diaz, the Berkeley educator behind the charter.
If that doesn't happen, the school would be located somewhere in south or west area of town, he said.
While Diaz did not speak at the hearing, he did respond to comments that the charter would lead to segregation of black and Latino kids.
"The truth is by law charter schools cannot discriminate based on race," Diaz said.
"We have in our petition that we are going to try to match the Berkeley school district's integrated population."
Diaz said the school won't only be for black and Latino kids who underperform on tests but for kids of all colors who need a different, hands on, approach to learning.
"Those kids go across all race and socioeconomic lines," said Diaz.
School board President Karen Hemphill closed the hearing by saying the board can't make its decision Feb. 3 based on its opinion of whether or not the school will lead to segregation or even if it will improve the education of those it serves.
"We're waiting on a staff report that will focus on whether or not the proposal meets state criteria for starting a charter school," Hemphill said. "I expect to see many of you in a couple of weeks."