The Berkeley Unified School District will not fill the vacant principalship at the high school next year, according to a letter released Wednesday by Superintendent Michele Lawrence. Instead, the district will build on its current co-principal structure, adding a fifth administrator to its present team of four.
The high school’s four vice principals have run the school as co-principals since October when then-principal Frank Lynch left abruptly to take a job as Superintendent of the Del Norte County Unified School District.
Last month, the district convened a principal search committee composed of staff and community members to fill the Lynch vacancy, but delayed the process when it did not draw a strong applicant pool.
Lawrence said at the time that the district might pursue an alternative administrative model rather than resume the search for a new head principal.
According to the Wednesday letter, co-principals Laura Leventer, Mary Ann Valles and Michael Hassett will return to BHS, while co-principal Larry Lee will take a position as a classroom teacher, at his request. Thelette Bennett, vice principal at Longfellow Middle School, will fill Lee’s position. Gabriel McCurtis, formerly principal of Foothill Elementary School in Pittsburg, California, will serve as the fifth member of the administrative team.
“I’m very hopeful,” said Board of Education member Terry Doran. “One, it’s exciting to get what appears to be a high quality new administrator (in McCurtis). And I’ve worked for years with Thelette Bennett and have the highest confidence in her.
“It’s a good interim stage,” Doran continued, noting that the leadership structure might change again in 2003 if the district, as scheduled, moves to small schools at Berkeley High.
In her letter, Lawrence acknowledged that she had circumvented the official screening process by putting the new structure in place and calling off the search for a head principal. But she said the move was necessary to get a solid team in place quickly.
“If a second round of recruitment (for a head principal) did not yield a suitable candidate, valuable time would have been lost, requiring someone to step in at the last minute,” she wrote. “That would have been unfair and disruptive to the opening of school.”
Lawrence also argued that the community did have an opportunity for input.
“Although it may appear that I didn’t take this recommendation through the formal screening process, I assure you that since our first review, many, many opinions about the principalship have been sought and have been freely given,” she wrote.
“Throughout this informal process, many community members spoke enthusiastically about and expressed confidence in the leadership of the current team.”
Community reaction was positive.
“I’m happy to hear that’s the decision,” said school board candidate Cynthia Papermaster, praising the current leadership team. “I’ve worked with these folks and I think this is a great opportunity to strengthen what we’ve already got.”
“I think, under the circumstances, it’s probably the best move we could make,” added school board candidate Derick Miller, who currently serves as president of the PTA Council, an umbrella group for all the district PTAs.
“The board’s very supportive of this,” said school board President Shirley Issel. “The time pressure (Lawrence) refers to really did require us to make these decisions at this level.”
Issel said it is “hard to know” whether an earlier start to the principal search process might have yielded a better candidate pool.
“We were not that late,” she said, arguing that stiff competition for administrators statewide makes it difficult to draw qualified candidates no matter when the search starts.
Issel said the current team has brought stability to the high school and argued that, after another stable year, the district might be able to attract a more qualified pool if it launches a new search for a head principal.
In her letter, Lawrence said maintaining stability at the high school during the implementation of school-wide reforms planned for next year was a key factor in her decision.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accrediting organization, prompted the reform effort by threatening to withdraw its seal of approval if BHS does not make improvements in 11 problem areas it first identified in 1999.
In May, a WASC team visited the school and reviewed the administration’s reform proposals. At the end of June, the WASC Commission will decide whether to terminate accreditation or extend it by one, two or three years.