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Off and Running at Berkeley High By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday September 02, 2005

Construction crews were still carting away trash by the forklift near the Donahue Gymnasium and in the newly refurbished Academic Building, many baseboards were still not in place and some of the wall tiles had not been cemented into place. 

But the first day of school at Berkeley High School on Wednesday was a far cry from the two previous days, when what was described as an army of workers swarmed over the C Building in an effort to finish the job. 

Late Monday afternoon, workers had been still hand-painting the red doors along the first floor corridor of the building, the most visible part of a project that included classroom remodeling and repainting, restoration of 12 restrooms, additional lockers, and new flooring. 

“I don’t see how they got it done,” BHS baseball coach Tim Moellering said on Wednesday afternoon. “It was pretty amazing.” 

“It used to look like a dungeon down on the first floor,” another teacher said. “It’s certainly an improvement.” 

Wednesday afternoon the refurbished hallways were empty, quiet except for the sound of a security guard speaking over a walkie-talkie, and the hum of activity coming from the classrooms. On the classroom doors were signs of the massive organizational effort it takes to move some 3,000 students around through a six-period day. 

Mimeographed class schedules were taped on the walls at interviews down the hallway, with teachers’ names and their location each period listed. On each doorway, a second set of handwritten notations showed the schedule modifications. On Room C131, a note told Mr. Hildebrandt’s Spanish 6-7 students to go to Room C106, and on Room C135, another note simply announced a “Room Change!” to C126. And one guidance counselor said there had been later modifications from the handwritten ones. 

“I came to one or two classrooms and the teachers weren’t there who were listed on the signs,” she said. “I’m not sure how it worked, but all of the students seemed to have found their way to the right classroom. None of them were wandering around in the halls.” 

In fact, on the first day of school, there was little evidence of students wandering anywhere without purpose. Shortly after the ringing of the bell to return to class, only a handful of students are left in the common area between the C Building and the theater. Within moments they are sent somewhere—to class, or off campus if they are seniors and their day is done—by Principal Jim Slemp, who can be seen crisscrossing the school campus throughout the day, seemingly all places at all times, without ever appearing to be hurrying. 

Teachers and administrators say that an increased organizational efficiency at Berkeley High is directly attributable to Slemp, who is entering his third year at the school. 

“The first year he was here, I think he did a lot of observation on the first day of school,” said Vice Principal Thelette A. Bennett. “And he said, ‘this can’t work that way,’ and began planning administrative changes. This is the best I’ve seen it.” 

Bennett said that one of the major changes is in student responsibility. “This is Berkeley,” she said, “so a lot of students were used to doing what they want to do. But that’s changing. It has to change. The whole world is changing.” 

One of the most visible changes Slemp has instituted, a teacher said, is ending what she called the school’s former “hang-out culture. There’s not a lot of hanging out going on now. Students know they’re supposed to be someplace.” 

That change was evident this year in the way the counseling department is handling course changes. Two years ago, students requesting course changes lounged in chairs in the hallways in front of the counselors’ offices while classes were going on, waiting to be seen. This year, counselors said that they are requiring that students fill out course change requests in writing, and then send the students back to class, where their revised schedules are later delivered to them. The obvious purpose, counselors explain, is to keep the students in class as much as possible while administrative tasks are being handled. 

Another innovation speeding up the first of the year organizational work is the computerized textbook checkout procedure. Instituted a year ago for history, math, and science textbooks, the procedure now includes foreign language and the 125-title English Literature section. 

Teachers walk their classes down to the textbook room, where students pick up their class book and have its bar code and their student ID number scanned into the library computer. The classes come to the textbook room on a prearranged schedule, four classes per period, with AP and honors classes going first, the rest of the school later to follow. 

While students stood in line the blazing sun of Wednesday’s first day, BHS Library Media Teacher Ellie Goldstein-Erickson was making a game of it, clapping her hands and saying “we’re going to set a land-speed record for this, okay?” to the students as they filed through. After timing the procedure, Goldstein-Erickson told subsequent classes that they had a six-minute, 30-second record to beat. Pumping her arms as the students left, she told a parent volunteer “anything to get teenagers worked up.” 

By midday, administrators said that most of the registration work had been completed, leaving only latecomers or students with schedule problems to be worked out on an individual basis. Clifford Blueitt, Director of Photography for ABC Harrell, the photographic service company handling the school’s ID photos, said that his firm had taken 120 ID photos on Wednesday and 400 the day before as part of the school’s registration procedure in the gymnasium, and that the bulk of the registration had actually taken place the week before.