Berkeley High School’s revolving administrative door spun again this month with the unexpected departure of Clare Davies, director of the school’s special education program, and Kenneth Purser, one of the school’s two deans—re-igniting concerns about stability at the 2,700-student school.
Davies will leave next week to accept a promotion as Director for Special Education for the Benicia school system. Purser, who left without giving notice, wrote administration officials that he planned to seek opportunities at an area experimental school. His wife is the principal of an Oakland small school, said BUSD Spokesperson Mark Coplan.
Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp said that while losing two administrators after the first month of school wasn’t typical, the departures did not signify continued instability at the high school.
“It’s a loss,” Slemp said, calling them both fine administrators, adding that other officials would be able to carry their load until replacements were found.
Stability at the high school has been an ongoing concern, and this year has seen significant changes at the top. In May, Co-Principals Mary Ann Valles and Laura Leventer resigned. They were to serve as vice-principals this year under newly-hired principal Patricia Christa, but Christa shocked district officials by resigning eight days after Valles and Leventer, paving the way for Slemp to take over.
Purser’s resignation leaves the bulk of student discipline to first-year Dean Denise Brown, who had previously taught in the district. “People know it’s just me for now , so everyone on the safety team helped out to take the load off of me,” said Brown, who in addition to being in charge of discipline for tenth through twelfth graders, must now handle ninth graders and members of small school programs within the high school.
Despite Purser’s resignation and the loss of the school’s two locker room attendants due to budget cuts, parents say they can’t remember the high school ever being safer.
“Four years ago the place was insane,” said Laura Menard, who sits on the PTSA Safety Commission. “Now it’s so much better.”
Deans at the high school were reintroduced three years ago after a scathing report from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) threatened to rescind accreditation if the school did not address 11 problem areas, including student safety. Since the report, the school has devised a safety plan that it is now implementing.
Brown didn’t have fight statistics for the new school year, but she estimated that there have been only three, way down from previous years. She credited reductions in fights and truancy to two things: a new policy in which the school’s nine security guards roam the campus instead of standing at fixed check points, and staff familiarity with the six-period day implemented last year.
This is the first year that all students have classes from second to fifth periods, which means that hall monitors know that from 9:36 a.m. to 2:14 p.m. students have no excuse not to be in class, she said.
Ken Jacopetti, district director for special education, said Davies’ departure would be a blow to the program. “It’s a mixed blessing,” he said. “We’re all happy for her promotion, but she’s going to be tough to replace.”
Davies arrived at the high school three years ago, and supervised 18 special education teachers who instruct 270 high school students. Jacopetti said she played an important role on the school’s ongoing special education task force which will present proposals to improve the program.
Jacopetti said finding a replacement in the middle of the school year should not be difficult because Berkeley has a good reputation as a leader in special education. Candidates interviews will begin next month, he said. In the meantime, teachers and guidance counselors will pitch in to do Davies’ work.