Why did about 400 students at Berkeley High get shut out of classes in one of the school’s most popular programs just eight days before the start of school?
It depends on who you ask.
According to the official version, the students were primarily the victim of a giant scheduling snafu. But others believe the last-minute scheduling edict by Principal Jim Slemp amounts to drawing a line in the sand against Academic Choice, the controversial program praised by some for trying to restore academic rigor to Berkeley High and decried by others who fear the program’s majority white-classes will further segregate the school.
“Blaming scheduling is a rhetorical device to ignore the issue,” said Academic Choice teacher Doug Powers. “It’s Berkeley’s version of attacking Saddam Hussein to get rid of terrorism.”
Academic Choice, since its inception in 2001, has been at the heart of a simmering debate over how education reform ought to be accomplished at Berkeley High.
The program, which includes some of Berkeley High’s most experienced and respected teachers, focuses on higher level classes and teaches some of the school’s AP courses with the goal of offering students a more challenging curriculum.
Although it’s open to all, its ranks have been filled disproportionately with white and Asian students. Last year Powers said about 400 students in tenth through twelfth grades took the program’s classes in a variety of subjects. About 56 percent of the program’s students were white, he said.
Academic Choice’s demographics have made it a target for community members whose top priority is diversity in the classrooms, especially supporters of small schools, the district-approved reform drive to bridge the achievement gap between white and Asian students and African American and Latino students.
By next year nearly half of Berkeley High students are scheduled to attend four autonomous schools inside Berkeley High, all of which must reflect the ethnic diversity of the student body, which is about 37 percent white and 32 percent African American.
Since Academic Choice opted not to seek small school status, it will remain in the big school, where critics—including the majority of parents on the influential Berkeley High School Site Council, comprised of parents, students and faculty—have warned it could further segregate classes, especially in social science and history, where students aren’t tracked based on aptitude.
When class enrollment figures, released last spring, showed a surge in enrollment for Academic Choice classes—initial figures counted as many as 1,200 students, although the number was later pared down to over 600—the School Site Council voiced its displeasure.
“We were concerned that if half the school was Academic Choice and Academic Choice was largely white and Asian, then the school would be essentially split in half,” said School Site Council President Claudia Wilken.
To prevent that possibility, last spring the School Site Council proposed a diversity requirement for Academic Choice and passed a site plan calling on programs in the large school to reflect the diversity of the high school at large.
Powers said Academic Choice parents had sent letters over the summer encouraging minority students to enroll in the program and that Principal Jim Slemp had assured them in July that the controversy wouldn’t affect the program this year.
But then at an Aug. 24 meeting of the Site Council, Slemp announced that scheduling problems had forced him to cut Academic Choice classes and consolidate Academic Choice students into regular classes. In all of the more than 600 students who requested an Academic Choice class, fewer than 250 received one.
“It was mostly scheduling,” said Slemp, explaining that trying to divide class sections between Academic Choice and the regular school meant classes in neither grouping would have enough students. The consolidation of classes didn’t cost any students the opportunity to take an Advanced Placement class, he added.
Although Slemp insisted “there was no intent to get rid of Academic Choice,” he acknowledged that political infighting played a role in his decision and that school “needed to take a year to find out what its mission will be.”
Powers sees Academic Choice partly as a bulwark against a perceived movement to turn the high school exclusively into small schools partially funded with money from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
“This goes to the whole philosophy of Berkeley High,” Powers said. “Are we really planning to be a Gates guinea pig school? If that’s true we need to know it so a lot of us can go on and do something different.”
He said Academic Choice teachers opposed forming a small school because it wouldn’t have been fair to group so many top teachers in a school of just a few hundred students.
On the race issue, Powers said the program was starting to do more outreach and wasn’t as segregated as its critics claimed. While whites comprised over half of Academic Choice students, African Americans accounted for 12 percent and “mixed” students for about 30 percent, he said.
“If we can recruit 20 Latino kids and 50 African American kids we’d be at the school average,” he said.
Powers, though, doubted the program’s critics wanted to see that happen.
“When close to 700 kids chose more rigorous and difficult program that was clearly a signal of what Berkeley wanted and it made the site council try to undermine us,” he said.
Site Council member Michael Miller insists Academic Choice opponents didn’t want to kill the program, but were trying to ensure it doesn’t reduce equity in the name of choice.
“We need all our master teachers teaching all of our students,” he said, pointing to a past policy, dumped by the district in 2001, that allowed students to pick their teachers. Opponents of the policy had argued that in practice wealthier, better connected students ended up with better teachers.
The next chapter in the struggle will likely come Thursday when elections will be held to pick the four parent representatives on the Site Council. A slate of four Academic Choice parents will seek seats, in the caucus style election, where any Berkeley High parent who shows up can vote.
Meanwhile Academic Choice teachers are still simmering over the school’s schedule, not released until the third week of August. “It was the latest it’s ever been done in my history at Berkeley High,” said veteran teacher Steve Teel.
“You can’t have teachers prepare for one course and walk in and find they’re teaching something different. That’s unprofessional.”