Science teachers object to the superintendent’s proposed schedule
By David Scharfenberg
Daily Planet staff
The Board of Education, despite reservations, voted unanimously Wednesday night to make school capacity the top priority in deciding whether to admit out-of-town students to Berkeley schools on “interdistrict permits.”
The board also heard a proposal from Superintendent Michele Lawrence to move Berkeley High School from seven periods to six periods a day. Lawrence said the shift could save the district money, increase classroom time for each student and improve teacher-student ratios.
But high school science teachers are worried that the proposed shift would reduce or eliminate double-period science courses, and harm student achievement.
The interdistrict policy approved by the board on Wednesday is a general one. The board will not vote on the details of that policy for several weeks.
One detail in particular has become a sticking point. Berkeley High School, by most accounts, is overcrowded and the new policy will likely prevent any out-of-town students from attending the high school in the near future.
School board members Terry Doran and John Selawsky have argued that the 33 eighth-graders already in the system on permits should be exempted from the new policy because it may be too late, at this point in the year, to make alternate arrangements.
“We’re a compassionate city and school district,” said Doran, arguing for the exemption. “We’re affecting the lives of young people.”
But Joaquin Rivera, vice president of the school board, sharply disagreed.
“Our first priority is Berkeley residents,” he said, arguing that the board must deal with overcrowding immediately. “If that means we may have to deny some of the current middle school students coming into Berkeley High, well yes, and I feel very strongly about that.”
But Board president Shirley Issel, who has strongly supported the shift in policy, expressed sympathy. “I’m very moved by the idea of a panicked eighth-grade parent, and my mind is not shut on this issue,” she said, noting that the board will have some flexibility to include an exemption in the coming weeks.
High school schedule proposal
Under Lawrence’s schedule proposal, BHS would move from seven, 47-minute periods to six, 55-minute periods per day, aligning it more closely with the typical California high school.
According to figures presented by BHS co-principal Laura Leventer, the change would result in 40 extra minutes per class each week or the equivalent of six extra weeks of instruction per year.
Leventer also presented data showing that many students are taking more than the six periods of coursework per day that they are supposed to take. The extra coursework has contributed to an excess of 11.5 full-time employee positions at the school to cover the extra periods.
Limiting students to six periods, and cutting the excess positions, according to the figures, could lead to a savings of $747,500 at the high school, at a time when the district is in financial trouble. If the district elected to retain certain support services, the savings would drop to $370,500.
One result of moving to a six-period day could be a shift from double-period science, which has been in place since the 1940s, to a single-period program.
“Our current program works phenomenally well,” said Aaron Glimme, a chemistry teacher at BHS, citing high student scores on the advanced placement and Golden State Exam tests. “We don’t understand how breaking something that is working so incredibly well makes sense.”
Glimme said the extra period is necessary to conduct labs, and give students more time to understand complex scientific problems. He said this extra time has allowed the science program to enroll a full 20 percent of its students in advanced placement or honors-level courses.
Lawrence said she understands the concerns of the science department, and is seeking a compromise. But, she noted that there are many high-achieving high schools with single-period science.
The Superintendent also said a shift to more single-period science classes could lighten the load of teachers in other departments. A teacher with less students, she said, can spend more one-on-one time with those students.