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Software will help school schedules

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Thursday March 01, 2001

Anyone who wants to understand the heroic efforts it takes to keep the 3,200-student Berkeley High School running need only visit the school’s temporary administrative office – a collection of trailers plopped down in the middle of the campus, presumably by the swinging arm of a construction crane. 

Despite its modest appearance, the atmosphere inside the office is reminiscent of a major airport terminal on Thanksgiving weekend. Teachers, security guards and administrators hustle to and fro, sidestepping one another in the narrow corridor leading from one trailer to the next.  

By next fall new computer software custom designed for the school may spare these frenzied public servants at least one recurring logistical nightmare: The biannual ordeal of getting students scheduled for the classes they need and want. 

It is a more complex process that it seems at first blush, said Berkeley High Principal Frank Lynch. To begin with, the high school has an eight-period day, as opposed to the more typical six-period high school day. Students are supposed to sign up for six classes, but they often sign up for more, Lynch said.  

All the data is then entered by hand into a computer that calculates which teachers will teach which classes at what times, based on the demand reflected in the student requests.  

“This actually drives the schedule for Berkeley High School,” said Paul Monroe, manager of information technology for the Berkeley Unified School District. Monroe said the process is the reverse of most academic scheduling processes, where administrators and teachers decide which classes will be offered and then students compete for limited spaces in those classes. 

At Berkeley High, a number of elective classes are proposed, but it’s the scheduling process that determines which will actually be taught and to how many students.  

“(Berkeley High) students just have so many choices of what they want to do now,” Monroe said. “We’re really interested in meeting demand and knowing what the demand is,” Monroe said, adding it is part of the district’s philosophy that students be allowed freedom of choice.  

But the process does not run smoothly in the best of times, with students waiting in long lines at the beginning of each semester to get errors in their schedules corrected. Berkeley High student Megan Greenwell said her math and English classes – core classes that she has to take – were some how dropped from her schedule between first and second semester this year.  

While she waited to get her schedule changed, Greenwell said she “missed the first three days of classes sitting in the counselor's office.” 

Other students have similar horror stories.Berkeley High senior Dorian Peters said part of the problem comes when students cannot get electives they want and are randomly assigned to other electives instead. 

“If you don’t get into a class you thought they were going to offer, that’s when they spin the wheel,” Peters said, referring to a recent cartoon in the school’s newspaper, the Jacket, that shows school administrators spinning a wheel-of-fortune-like object to determine student schedules. 

“Instead of physics they gave me underwater basket-weaving,” exclaims one student depicted in the cartoon. 

With the new software, there will be far fewer errors, said BUSD public information officer Karen Sarlo. All students will have password access to a personalized Web page where they can learn exactly what classes they need to graduate, or what classes they need to apply for entrance into the University of California system, Sarlo said. They can then enter their class preferences for the upcoming semester right there on the Internet, Sarlo added, freeing school employees from the huge task of entering that data themselves from papers filled out by students, and reducing the risk that data will be entered incorrectly. 

Because the Web pages will answer many of the students’ questions, students will be less likely to request classes they’re not eligible for, Sarlo said.  

Another benefit to the plan, said Sarlo, is that the school’s seven counselors won’t have to spend so many hours fielding basic scheduling questions and can instead “actually do what they are trained to do,” like helping students develop better study habits or work through emotional problems. 

Berkeley High has computer labs and computers in every classroom where students can access their personalized Web pages, Sarlo said.  

School administrators hope to have the plan online this Spring so students can enter their scheduling preferences for next fall. If the system works as designed “it will cut anxiety and labor on the part of students, frustration on the part of parents and labor by the staff,” Lynch said.