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BHS Problems Fading After a Year of Slemp

Tuesday June 29, 2004

What a difference a year makes.  

Thirteen months ago Berkeley High appeared as unmanageable as ever. Freshly appointed Principal Patricia Christa, the school’s sixth since 2000, resigned after one month on the job; the school year hadn’t even started yet.  

Like her many predecessors, she fled from the prospect of dysfunctional administrative systems, cynical students, unsafe hallways, and demanding parents who fall on all sides of the debate over how to improve academic standards while solving the gap in academic achievement among racial groups at the school. 

In Christa’s stead arrived Jim Slemp, a tranquil deputy superintendent from Eugene, Oregon who in short order has instilled a semblance of structure and good cheer not seen in recent memory at the 2,750-student campus.  

Parents have received notices on time, staff is more available and visible to students, Berkeley police report that campus violence is down, and the school even had a spring dance.  

Slemp’s impact has not gone unnoticed by students. At the commencement ceremony two weeks ago, graduating seniors, never shy about unleashing a Bronx cheer, gave Slemp a standing ovation. 

“That was just unbelievable,” said Steve Brick, the parent of a senior. “Whoever heard of Berkeley High students giving such a warm reception?” 

Slemp has dispensed plenty of warmth to students this year and proved it doesn’t take a taskmaster to get a handle on Berkeley High.  

He was a visible presence in hallways and classrooms, learning names and making eye contact with the students he met. On occasion, Slemp even commandeered the public address system to tell students how “awesome” they are. 

“We felt we were getting more respect and that made us willing to listen to what he had to say,” said Baily Hopkins, a graduating senior. 

“Past administrations were intimidated by students,” said Michael Miller, a Berkeley High parent and member of Parents of Children of African Descent. “Kids believe he’s there for them. It’s nice to have a principal who engages all kids.” 

So how has he done it? Lounging on his Aeron chair, flanked by a shelf of books that included titles such as High School on a Human Scale and Warriors Don’t Cry, the six-foot, seven-inch Slemp said it was equal doses of good will and good management. 

“I try to treat people with dignity and respect,” he said. “I thought if I focus on the positive things and worked to change the culture, people would see hope.” 

At Berkeley High, hope starts when students arrive on the first day of school with complete six-class schedules, and warnings about failing grades arrive to parent’s homes before the end of the semester. 

“There were a number of things that weren’t working the way they ought to be,” Slemp said. Upon arriving at the school, Slemp said he asked the staff about how they made decisions and no one gave the same answer. “My sense is that there was a lot of top-down leadership. We’re trying to pull the pieces together and get people to talk,” he said. 

While no one argues that Slemp has made strides this year, Berkeley High remains a work in progress. Some families complain that classes aren’t challenging enough and the school is still trying to solve the achievement gap between higher scoring white and Asians and lower scoring African American and Latinos. 

The two goals aren’t mutually exclusive, but advocates for each agenda continue to butt heads, leaving Slemp in a precarious position. 

This year Slemp resisted a proposal from the school site council to place a diversity requirement on Academic Choice, a voluntary program in the school that promises tougher classes and attracts mostly white students. Critics of the program argue it further segregates the school without adding rigor to the curriculum. 

For the coming year nearly 50 percent of students—the vast majority of whom are said to be white—signed up for Academic Choice, a higher percentage than previous years. 

Slemp acknowledged that the swelling ranks of students flocking to the program raises questions about the quality of the school’s curriculum. 

“Some kids tell me teachers think that they treat them like they’re stupid,” Slemp said. “We need to make the curriculum rigorous and relevant and we need to have higher expectations.” 

To make classes more challenging, Slemp has pushed through two new Advanced Placement classes, which can count for college credit if students pass an exam. He wants all students to take at least one AP class, and plans to recruit minority students for the classes and offer them mentors. 

“The research is clear that kids—especially minorities—who take AP classes in high school do better in college,” he said. 

Slemp also assured that students at Berkeley High’s two small schools, neither of which offers AP classes, would have the option to take AP courses at the big school. 

As part of his plan to enroll more students in AP classes, 21 AP teachers are being trained to teach simultaneously to students at different levels. That is one facet of a summer teacher training drive that will send many Berkeley High instructors back to class. 

The school has also received a $450,000 grant to train algebra teachers. The subject has been a problem area for years at Berkeley High, which this year continued its policy of waiving algebra as a requirement for graduation. 

Another chronic problem has been the ninth grade academic program, especially the social studies component. 

Slemp opted to keep the ninth grade class focused on ethnic diversity, but he hired a consultant to overhaul the curriculum and has promised to review the merits of the class next year. 

Some students argued last year that the course, previously known as Identity and Ethnic Studies, worsened racial tensions and complained that keeping it would limit the number of electives available to students. 

With students now required to take four years of mandated social science classes, Berkeley High had to cut approximately seven history electives, Slemp said. He couldn’t give a list of the classes no longer offered, but said the school kept the popular Politics of Power and didn’t drop any sections from the African American Studies department. 

Berkeley High’s biggest project to address the achievement gap is placing half of the student body in ethnically diverse small schools by the fall of 2005. Two programs, Communication Arts Sciences (CAS) and the Community Partnership, have already achieved small school status.  

Two additional schools, one focusing on performing arts and the other on social justice and ecology, are in the planning stages, Slemp said. The focus of a fifth small school remains undetermined. 

In gearing up for the conversion to small schools, Slemp said the administration has already assigned the schools contiguous classroom space, their own stream of funding, and administrators who will share time between the small school and the main school. 

After working for a year to implement coherent systems at the high school, Slemp said he wasn’t concerned about handing over control of half the school to teacher-administrators running the small schools. 

“If I’m doing my job here it’s about diffusing power so ownership comes from the school,” he said. “That hasn’t happened in the past.” 

One of Slemp’s most ambitious and controversial reforms slated for this fall is a get tough attendance policy that connects attendance to grades. Five unexcused absences or 15 tardies will equal a full letter grade drop. 

Opponents have argued that the school lacks the technology to fairly implement a strict policy and that students with well-connected parents will be able to skirt the system, while other students will face stiffer consequences for tardiness and unexcused absences. 

Slemp said the new policy was part of an effort to place more importance on classroom lessons. 

“We had some kids, particularly white kids, doing just fine and not going to class,” he said. “We need a culture that says everyone needs to be in class to be successful.” 

To implement the system, Berkeley High has upgraded its automatic dialer, so parents will be told when their child was absent. In addition, the school has assigned a group of volunteers to call parents to inform them of unexcused absences. Having actual people call is pivotal, Slemp said, because many students, especially students from outside Berkeley, give fake telephone numbers, so parents are never alerted to attendance issues. 

If students arriving late to class has been a problem at Berkeley high, so has principals fleeing the school before leaving their mark. Slemp, however, promised he’ll be around for the long haul.  

“I’m not here for a quick fix,” he said. “I’ve only been around a year, but I love it.”