A month into the school year, opinion is sharply divided on Berkeley High School’s controversial move from a seven- to a six-period day, and a looming teacher’s union vote threatens the very existence of the new schedule.
Supporters of the six-period day, in place since September, say the new schedule has saved the financially-troubled district money, increased class time for students and substantially reduced gaps in pupils’ schedules, which cuts down on the number of students roaming the hallways and streets of downtown Berkeley.
“I see a calmer campus than I did last year,” said Superintendent Michele Lawrence, who pushed the Board of Education to approve the six-period day in February.
But critics say the increased class time has taxed overworked teachers. They also argue that the move to six periods, which eliminated hall duty for instructors, has actually increased the number of students wandering school buildings.
“The hallways are certainly not as clear as they were,” said science teacher Aaron Glimme.
But Lawrence said the move to take teachers off hall duty and boost their time in the classroom ultimately serves students.
“I would much rather pay these well-trained people to impart their knowledge [than to monitor the hall],” she said.
This summer, six months after the board approved the shift to a six-period day, an independent arbitrator ruled that the district could not unilaterally implement the change without consulting the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT.
In six grueling sessions that concluded Oct. 7, the district and the union came to an agreement that included BFT acceptance of the six-period day.
But if rank-and-file members of the union do not approve the deal during a two-week voting period from Oct. 14 to Oct. 25, the high school will have to return to the traditional seven-period day in the spring semester.
District officials warn that the move to a seven-period day would be costly and present significant scheduling difficulties.
In an informal poll this week, Berkeley High teachers approved of the deal by a narrow 62-46 margin.
BFT President Barry Fike said some of the opposition is rooted in general concern about the six-period day. Other teachers, he said, simply have problems with the labor agreement, arguing that the union did not win enough in exchange for its support of the six-period day.
Last year, as the board weighed the shift from a seven- to a six-period day, several community critics said they were concerned that the move would significantly reduce the number of electives available to students.
But, according to district numbers, the shift has had a minimal effect.
“We have more electives this year than we did last year,” said Berkeley High co-principal Laura Leventer.
According to the district, Berkeley High has increased the number of classes available in six areas – creative arts, ceramics, beginning photography, acting, computer art and computer programming.
Leventer said the high school has eliminated two courses altogether, a chorus offering and a multimedia course, and cut one class in five separate areas: production and acting, African-American journalism, beginning Swahili, word processing and jazz band.
The co-principal said the high school made the reductions based upon students’ class choices, cutting when there was not enough demand to justify a class.
But Robert McKnight, chair of the African-American Studies department, disputes district numbers. He said that, in addition to the African-American journalism and Swahili cuts, his program lost classes in three other areas – black psychology, black male-female relations and black economics.
McKnight said the impact on students has been significant.
“I think anytime you narrow down the classes that are available to a student, you have an impact,” McKnight said.
Critics also raised serious concerns, last year, that the move to a six-period day would harm the high school’s successful double-period science program.
Students attend science labs less frequently this year, but Glimme, the science teacher, said the change has been manageable.
“I think things are going OK. It’s clearly not as good as it was last year,” he said. “But it’s a system that’s workable.”
Students interviewed Friday did not have any major complaints about the switch to a six-period day. But tenth-grader Maya Cohn-Stone said the longer classes are not as effective as they could be because student concentration begins to wander after 20 or 30 minutes.
Lawrence said most high schools in the state have a six-period day and urged the community to be patient during the transition and ride out the kinks.
“I just encourage everyone to give this time and it will be getting better next year,” she said.
But Board of Education candidate Derick Miller, who has been a vocal critic of the six-period day since last year, argued that just because the system works elsewhere, Berkeley should not necessarily adopt it.
“We have a different community here, a different set of values,” he said.
In the next two weeks, Berkeley teachers will decide whether they agree with the critics or supporters, and their vote will determine the ultimate fate of the new schedule.
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