The dispute between Berkeley High School and Berkeley Alternative High School escalated last week, with principals of the respective schools differing sharply over which administration was responsible for the problem.
The disagreement, which has been simmering in the background for more than a year and is now being mediated by BUSD Superintendent Michele Lawrence, centers around charges that BAHS students are being excluded from BHS extracurricular activities. Early last week, at a standing-room-only parent-student meeting at BAHS called by BAHS Principal Alex Palau and attended by Lawrence, several BAHS parents blasted BHS Principal Jim Slemp for not being present, and for being the cause of the problem.
BAHS students say that the ban began as early as last school year, when a 2003-04 BHS cheerleader was told that she would not be able to come back on the squad this year because she was a BAHS student. Other BAHS students said they were turned away from tryouts this fall to participate in the BHS Spirit Week events. The ban also includes the BHS junior and senior prom (where BAHS students can go, but only as dates of BHS students), but does not include—at least for this year—the June graduation exercises at the Greek Theater.
Late last week, during his State of the School address to the Berkeley High PTSA, Slemp responded to the charges, saying that he had implemented a ban on BAHS student participation in “our activities” because “we do not get any support or any funds from Berkeley Alternative High School” to deal with what he called “a dangerous situation.”
Answering a written query from the floor following his address, Slemp charged that the BAHS administration and staff created the problem by “sending bunches of kids over to us without supervision. We don’t know who these students are. They don’t listen to us.” He said that while “we have not said that [the ban] is an absolute,” he said he was issuing a “challenge” to the BAHS administration to correct the problem.
Apprised of Slemp’s comments by telephone, BAHS principal Palau at first said quietly “wow,” and then flatly denied that BAHS students have been sent to BHS extracurricular activities without supervision. “My staff—including myself, my school safety officer, or my counselors—always participate and help to supervise,” he said.
Palau said that if Berkeley High had knowledge of specific instances where Berkeley Alternative students had caused trouble at BHS activities “these should have been documented and my office should have been notified.” He said that he knew of no such documentation or notification.
Noting that funds for student activities are available from the state and district “for all students in the district,” Palau also noted that while he had been aware of “some concerns” by the BHS administration about BAHS student participation, he had never been formally notified that a ban was going to be put in place.
He said that BAHS parents were “fairly indignant” about the situation.
At last week’s BAHS meeting, parents sharply questioned Superintendent Lawrence about the source of Slemp’s safety concerns. Several parents charged that BAHS was being discriminated against because it is a predominantly African-American and Latino school, and that it had once been—though it is no longer—the high school’s repository for students with truancy or discipline problems.
“We’re moving back into segregation,” one parent said, questioning why BAHS was being treated differently from Berkeley High’s Communications Arts and Science school and Community Partnership Academy, the two small schools that operate on the BHS campus.
Another parent said that other parents should not listen to what she called Slemp’s “hypocritical statements,” saying that while the BHS principal was barring BAHS students from participating in activities to cheer for the BHS sports teams, “he comes down here and gets students from our school to play on his sports teams to make the ‘Big House’ look good.”
BAHS staff confirmed that two BAHS students played on the BHS football team this year, one on varsity and one on junior varsity. Both were allowed to play the whole football season this year.
Palau told participants at last week’s meeting that the dispute was really part of a larger debate going on in the district about two competing visions for Berkeley Alternative High School.
“One vision is that we will continue moving towards a small school model, where students voluntarily attend because they believe they can learn better in our environment,” he said. “Another vision returns us to a time when we identified problem students at Berkeley High and moved them over here, voluntarily or involuntarily.”
Palau said that he obviously preferred the small school model, and would work to continue to implement it.
In keeping with Lawrence’s move to mediate the dispute, Palau said by telephone this week that he has already picked a committee from BAHS to meet with their counterparts at BHS. At last week’s school board meeting, Lawrence said that a meeting would be set up with Berkeley High’s Activities director and assistant principal in charge of activities.