Berkeley's school board approved the city's first charter schools Wednesday night, a victory organizers say will help better educate the city's black and Latino students.

By a vote of 4-1 with John Selawsky dissenting, the board approved the Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement, which plans to open middle and high schools serving 200 students each starting in September 2011.

Victor Diaz, a Berkeley school principal who spearheaded the drive to start the schools, said he hopes to put the middle school in an empty district building at University Avenue and Bonar Street called the West Campus.

He said organizers are looking for commercial space somewhere west of San Pablo Avenue in the city's industrial zone for the high school.

Diaz said he wants to break a cycle of academic failure he sees in Berkeley's public schools by using technological immersion and by recognizing that people from different cultures learn in different ways.

Belen Pulido-Martinez, an organizer who rallied area parents to support the plan through Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, said many Latino students do not do well in the Berkeley schools because they and their parents are intimidated. That is especially true at Berkeley High where there are 3,400 students, she said.

"Berkeley High School is way too big, it's a monster for them," Pulido-Martinez said. "When parents send their kids there, they are scared because they don't have enough people who speak Spanish. What I've heard from parents in the last five years is that it's very intimidating for them to go and try to talk to teachers and counselors there."


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She said Latino kids "have been dropping out of high school in Berkeley for 15-20 years and nothing has changed. So when we started organizing for this, the parents got very excited. This is real change for their community and their kids."

Diaz called the approval of the new schools, in which he will take an administrative role, "monumental."

"This is the first charter in Berkeley, it's going to be a big deal," Diaz said. "There's only two choices for students now, public and private schools, and we hope kids from both of those see us as an option."

Berkeley School Board President Karen Hemphill said school board members had to put aside their personal views on charter schools and consider the application based on narrow factual criteria set in state law. If the application met the criteria and the board denied it, the district could be sued by the applicants or they could simply win approval through Alameda County or the state, Hemphill said.