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Another New Principal for Berkeley High

Friday June 20, 2003

Two weeks after newly appointed Berkeley High School principal Patty Christa abruptly resigned, the school district named the runner-up from this spring’s principal search to the high-profile post Thursday. 

Jim Slemp, assistant superintendent of the Eugene School District 4J in Oregon, will become the fifth Berkeley High principal in six years when he takes the helm in July. 

Board of Education Director Shirley Issel played down any concerns that Slemp is not as strong a candidate as Christa, describing the new appointee as an “exceptionally good listener” who will serve “with a lot of heart and a lot of integrity.” 

Slemp, for his part, said he plans to stick around, bringing stability to the troubled high school.  

“I sort of make decisions four or five years at a time,” said Slemp, 56, in a phone interview Thursday with the Daily Planet. “Nothing could be worse than having someone there a short period of time.” 

But parents and teachers, shaken by Christa’s sudden departure and well-versed in Berkeley High’s tradition of rapid turnover at the top, took a wait-and-see attitude Thursday. 

“I think people are in such shock,” said English teacher Rick Ayers. “We’re always hopeful and we’ll just have to see what happens.” 

Slemp, who earned a Certificate of Theological Studies at Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion in 1971, worked over the course of 22 years as a principal at four different schools, including the American School in London, England, before becoming an assistant superintendent in Eugene in 2000. 

He was one of three finalists this spring for the top job at Berkeley High, but Christa edged him out. Slemp was weighing another job as principal of Gaithersburg High School in Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C., when Christa quit and Berkeley Superintendent Michele Lawrence asked him if he wanted the position. 

Lawrence said Slemp struck her as a calm, inquisitive figure who might bring stability to the troubled high school. 

“I think it’s perhaps exactly what we need,” she said. 

Slemp said his first priority, when he arrives in Berkeley in mid-July, will be developing a rapport with community and staff. 

“I enjoy bringing people together, talking, having good relationships,” he said. 

Slemp said he will also focus on a major reform effort, approved by the Board of Education June 4, that will place half of Berkeley High’s students in a series of schools-within-a-school by the 2005-2006 school year. 

Slemp, who oversaw a small schools transition in the late-1990s as principal of Eugene’s Winston Churchill High School, said small schools can be effective for many students. But he praised the district for deciding to place only half its pupils in the program. 

“I always worry when you’re talking about high school students and absolutes,” he said, arguing that not all students would thrive in small schools. 

The appointment of Slemp is the latest in a string of high-level changes in the Berkeley Unified School District. In late April and early May, all three of the district’s associate superintendents announced their resignations, two of them to take jobs as superintendents elsewhere.  

The cash-strapped district, in a cost-saving move, replaced only one of its top administrators, hiring Eric Smith to replace Jerry Kurr as associate superintendent of business and operations. 

Then, on May 21, Berkeley High School co-principals Mary Ann Valles and Laura Leventer announced their resignations, sending shock waves through the school. Valles, who took a job as a middle school principal in San Leandro, and Leventer, who is taking a leave to deal with a family medical emergency, were slated to serve as vice principals under Christa next year.  

Eight days later, Christa bailed, just a month after being hired. The move raised doubts about the stability of the high school, which faces continual problems with student safety, scheduling and the “achievement gap” separating white and Asian students from blacks and Hispanics.  

Christa did not comment publicly on her decision, but Lawrence said the erstwhile principal felt overwhelmed by staff and parents who bombarded her with meeting requests and focused heavily on all the problems at the sprawling school. 

Lawrence cautioned parents and staff against overwhelming Slemp. 

“Having him be successful is the responsibility of the entire community,” she said. 

Parent activist Michael Miller, of Parents of Children of African Descent, agreed that the community must back the new principal. But he chastised the superintendent for failing to heed a recent open letter, signed by Miller and more than 40 other community activists, and published in the June 13 edition of the Daily Planet, that called for an extensive, nationwide search, with heavy community involvement, in the wake of Christa’s departure. 

Lawrence defended the selection process, arguing that Slemp had already been vetted by a parent interview committee during the initial hiring process. But Miller, who served on the committee, said members got scant information about each of the candidates in advance of the brief interviews.