In the latest high-level shake-up at Berkeley High School, newly appointed principal Patricia Christa abruptly resigned Thursday, stunning parents, teachers and administrators.
“It’s pretty devastating news,” said Joan Edelstein, president of the Berkeley High School Parent Teacher Student Association. “As one of the parents said, it feels like Berkeley High has been sucker-punched again.”
Christa’s resignation came just eight days after high school co-principals Mary Ann Valles and Laura Leventer announced their resignations, effective at the end of the school year. Valles and Leventer had been slated to serve as vice principals under Christa next year.
Valles refused to comment on Christa’s resignation, saying that any statement on the matter had to come from the superintendent’s office.
The rapid-fire resignations have raised questions about the stability of the troubled, 3,000-student high school, which is preparing for a major reform effort that would place half its students in a series of schools-within-a-school by the 2005-2006 school year.
Christa did not return calls for comment, but Superintendent Michele Lawrence said the erstwhile principal felt overwhelmed by the challenges at Berkeley High and bombarded by parents and staff who focused on all the problems at the school.
“To immediately tell her about all the warts and not the beauty marks is unfair,” said Lawrence.
Christa, officially named principal May 7, swept into town pledging to bring much-needed stability to Berkeley High, which has seen four administrations in the last six years.
“To me, it’s a travesty that principals have left,” Christa told the Daily Planet last month. “That’s absurd.”
Christa will return to her current job as director of educational services for the Newark Unified School District. Lawrence said she has no timeline for filling the vacancy.
“I’m moving with deliberate speed,” Lawrence said. “But this will not force me to make a quick decision. I’m not going to put anybody in there just because we don’t have someone.”
Lawrence said she is talking with other finalists from this spring’s principal search. She has also contacted retired administrators around the state who might fill in as temporary or long-term replacements.
Students said they were not surprised by Christa’s decision, given the sprawling high school’s history of rapid turnover at the top.
“We’ve had a billion principals,” said 15-year-old sophomore Rhiannon Mariani.
The changes at Berkeley High come just weeks after all three of Berkeley’s associate superintendents announced that they will resign at the end of the school year, two to take jobs as superintendents elsewhere. In a cost-saving measure, the cash-strapped district has only replaced one of the administrators, Associate Superintendent of Business and Operations Jerry Kurr. Eric Smith is the new business chief.
Lawrence cautioned against reading too much into the parade of resignations, arguing that leadership changes are common in public education, particularly in high-stress urban school districts.
Joe Jones, assistant executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, said the game of musical chairs often picks up during budget crises. Veteran administrators with hefty salaries often retire to save their districts money, he said, opening up a host of positions around the state.
“I’m not sure that Berkeley is in a unique situation,” he said.
But Berkeley High history teacher Annie Johnston said the district will suffer from the loss of so many experienced administrators.
“These connections to what has gone on before are all gone,” she said. “Many, many mistakes are going to be made.”
Johnston raised particular concern about the shift to “small schools” at Berkeley High, worrying that it could be “severely impacted” by the shake-up in the principal’s office.
Lawrence said she has concerns about the small schools transition, the development of next year’s class schedule, the hiring and assigning of teachers, and the success of this year’s summer school program.
Board of Education Director Shirley Issel said the resignation is particularly difficult for staff to stomach at the end of the year.
“It’s sad, because the school year’s ending and the kids are graduating and you’re separating from the organization without leadership and there are unknowns,” she said.
Berkeley High librarian Ellie Goldstein-Erickson said staff was particularly struck by Christa’s passion for education.
“She impressed me as someone with a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm,” she said. “It seemed to be contagious.”
But parents said constant problems with everything from scheduling to student safety to the “achievement gap” separating white and Asian students from blacks and Hispanics are enough to scare off any administrator.
“The problems at that school seem so endemic, that you just can’t imagine someone coming in to fix it,” said Stephen DeGange, the parent of a senior and coach of the Berkeley High junior varsity baseball team. “I think your best bet is to just level it and start over.”