Page One

BHS to Keep Ethnic Studies

Friday December 12, 2003

Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp plans to keep the controversial Identity and Ethnic Studies (IES) course mandatory for ninth graders despite a petition reportedly signed by more than 1,000 students calling for its demise. 

In a proposal outlined to the high school’s Shared Governance Committee, Slemp recommended bolstering the academic content of the class, including instituting an honors curriculum and ensuring that it meets UC enrollment requirements and state content standards. 

Critics have derided the class for years as a fluff course that only satisfies the district’s penchant for political correctness. But opposition has intensified in recent months because next year BHS must implement a school board policy requiring students graduate with four mandated social science courses instead of the current three.  

To staff all four courses without funds to hire more teachers, Slemp has proposed axing 23 elective sections from at least six departments, including the Good Food Cafe, a cooking program primarily for developmentally disabled students that is one of the school’s last vestiges of vocational study. 

Bradley Johnson, high school senior and student representative on the Board of Education, circulated the petition this semester, calling on the school to dump ISE, which meets neither state standards nor UC admission requirements. He told the Berkeley High Jacket, “I don’t think IES is an academic class. I think students are bored.” 

The class has been controversial since the early 1990s, when a dedicated collection of parents, students and teachers fought to make ethnic studies a district requirement. 

Originally, ninth graders took the one-semester class. But in 2000, the school board moved their three required history classes—which had begun in the freshman year—to start a year later to align them with recommended state standards and corresponding English classes.  

To fill the gap for ninth graders who needed a full-year social science core class so the school could qualify for a grant that kept class sizes low, the board combined ethnic studies and social living—a health class—and mandated it as a fourth social science class. 

But with the cost-saving move last year cutting eight academic periods to six and the requirement for seniors to take American Government and Economics, there is little room for social science electives, which some teachers and parents argue are more useful than IES. 

“I don’t support IES as mandatory for ninth graders,” said Robert McKnight, chair of the African American Studies Department. “Berkeley is one of the most diverse cities in the country. I don’t see a crisis of identity,” He added that Principal Slemp had assured him that his electives would be spared. 

Parent Samuela Evans questioned why the school would keep IES and “cut classes that already meet UC admission requirements that students know and love.” 

The department has cut Women’s History, Sociology and Anthropology, and classes rumored to be targeted for the new round of cuts include Politics and Power, Theoretical Psychology, two sections of English, three of Fine and Performing Arts, three of Physical Education and three others yet to be decided. A spokesperson for Slemp denied that he had settled on any of the seven sections of social science electives slated for cuts. 

Slemp said a solution wasn’t simple. “People think that if we get rid of IES that would magically get rid of the problem. We’d still have 900 ninth graders who need a class. We don’t have the resources to offer everything we ought to be offering.” 

IES starts off exploring notions of culture and then delves into issues of race, immigration, psychology, liberation movements, media literacy and sex education. 

Students interviewed Wednesday were evenly split on the merits of the course, though most agreed it was an easy A or B. 

History teacher Annie Johnston, who helped design the course, insists the curriculum is already rigorous enough to meet UC enrollment requirements, and that complaints about its academic pedigree stem more from administrative neglect than a lack of rigorous course work. 

Budget cuts forced the district to remove Johnston as program coordinator and pink slip many of the teachers she had trained to instruct the class, she said. 

As a result, several teachers assigned to the class express no interest in teaching it. “IES was imposed on some people,” she said. “Certainly we shouldn’t be doing Social Living with history teachers.” 

While the debate over IES rages on the high school campus, parents have remained mostly on the sidelines of late. In November the School Site Council hastily handed on without debate Slemp’s recommendation to Shared Governance, a body of faculty, students and parents which has final say over the plan. 

[The council president] Claudia Wilken introduced the topic saying the site council supported IES and pushed it through in five minutes, said council member Cynthia Papermaster, who added that she wanted the site council to call a public hearing on the course. 

Johnston defended the merits of ISE, saying it helped students entering a racially diverse 2,700-student school develop a better sense of identity and examine delicate issues in a way that doesn’t increase antagonism. 

To protect that mission, Johnston opposes Slemp’s plan to introduce an honors curriculum as well as AP American History and AP or Honors World History because it would further segregate students who would be better served learning alongside each other. 

Many students, especially current freshmen backed ISE. Lawreece Cox, a freshman, said the class “teaches you about how to deal with each other,” and Pete Monfort said it’s the class he looks forward to most every morning. 

Upperclass students tended to recall negative experiences. Junior Chris Hamilton said it was one of his least favorite classes, too similar to the ethnic studies class he took as an eighth grader at King Middle School. 

Slemp’s plan calls for summer staff development time to develop the revised IES curriculum and train the new teachers. If approved at the January Shared Governance meeting, the revised program will be reviewed at the end of the following school year by an outside evaluator. 

“It’s easy to see how the school came to doing [ISE],” Slemp said. “We just need to look and see how we can make it better.”