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New Charter School Takes Project-Based Learning Where District Does Not

REALM, a sixth through 12th grade charter school, launches in the fall with 200 students.

If you designed a robot, what would it do?

, a new middle and high school in Berkeley, poses this question to all its applicants. 

The right answer is an altruistic one. Students admitted to REALM, which stands for Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement, gave their robots "some kind of social purpose, like to clean up the environment," said founder and executive director Victor Díaz. 

According to Díaz, REALM is focused on using and teaching technology in the classroom. The school will encourage students to design games, iPad and iPhone apps, to use social networking, and, of course, build robots. The inaugural middle school and high school classes of 100 sixth and 100 ninth graders "want to contribute to humanity and use the latest tools and technology," said Díaz. "They want the highest skill set to execute upon their dreams."

Half of the students are from Berkeley public schools, and the rest are from private schools, other charter schools, and the Oakland Unified School District. A few students were previously home-schoolers. There is now a waiting list for the school, Díaz said.

Right now, REALM administrators are waiting for their school, too. The building is still occupied by construction workers, rushing to put the finishing touches on 2023 8th St. by the Aug. 27 student orientation.

Until then, the REALM team is stationed in a conference room across the street at the La Quinta Inn, looking out the window at their emerging digs.

But why establish a new school in Berkeley? "I think, being a charter school, one of the things that's special is our government," said Díaz. "We're autonomous of a district. If the district adopts a curriculum, like a math textbook, everybody in that district gets that textbook."

REALM, however, is able to select whatever textbooks it decides are best for its students, Díaz said. And REALM plans to do exactly that.

For starters, REALM will integrate technology into the curriculum from day one, and focus on project-based learning methods rather than the lecture, textbook and test cycle emphasized in traditional classroom settings. "We're going to open the doors with iPads in the building," said Díaz. REALM's curriculum will also emphasize what it calls "design thinking." 

"It's a tool to problem solve in a process oriented way," said Díaz. If students wanted to reduce air pollution in West Berkeley, for example, "design thinking gives [students] a process ...that allows everyone to contribute equally," he said.

Students would set goals, brainstorm and learn how to solve the problem together — rather than learning from lectures and textbooks alone. 

Design thinking, coupled with project-based learning, will form the foundation of the school's methodology. Díaz said it allows for a positive school atmosphere, focusing on students' strengths instead of weaknesses, utilizing lectures and reading material to supplement what students don't know. He said this is similar to the innovative environments at new online technology companies like Facebook and online game developer Zynga, where team members bring their particular strengths to each project.

Equity is also an important aspect of the school environment Díaz hopes to create, without elevating some students over others. "We're not going to have AP classes," he said. "If we find something of value in AP curriculum, we will find a way to integrate it into our classes."

Díaz was formerly the principal of the , a continuation high school program populated by Berkeley Unified School District students who either fell behind their academic grade level or had behavior problems. Consequently, the school had a bad reputation and a negative atmosphere, according to Díaz. He started thinking about what could be done differently, to ensure that certain students don’t fall behind others and the school’s focus is on student achievement instead of the percentage of questions they got wrong on a test. "I think that's where the seed and the inspiration for the charter school was born," he said.

Parent Fred Myrick said Díaz's experience was one of the reasons he chose REALM for his 14 year-old son, Ryuki Uesugi.

"I needed an alternative to Berkeley High," said Myrick. "A principal like Victor who's dealt with the hardest students ... and the design thinking, a 21st century school, was very attractive to me." 

Uesugi is from Tokyo, Japan, and is learning English. "He just completed one year at King [Middle School]," said Myrick. "It was a good experience at King, but he was a little intimidated at Berkeley High in summer school."

Project-based learning is used in the Berkeley Unified School District, but only for kindergarten through fifth grade — where the district's STAR test scores are the highest, said Díaz. REALM will pick up where the district leaves off with project-based learning, continuing to use it in sixth through 12th grade. 

The California Department of Education encourages project-based learning in middle schools, highlighting research that says students in early adolescence benefit from channeling their abundant energy into educational activities and working in groups. But the method does have its weaknesses.

"In fairness to the people who oppose project-based learning, math scores tend not to continue to rise in a project-based learning atmosphere," said Díaz, who said the school will also offer a traditional math curriculum to reconcile any disparity.

Overall, Díaz said that working on projects students care about makes them want to be successful in school. "What we're seeing is kids are more eager to get to that [textbook] now, because they want their product to work," he said.

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