Academic Choice Students Excused from Core Course

Friday April 21, 2006

It has survived heated criticism, a curriculum overhaul and a new name, but Freshman Seminar can’t stand up to Academic Choice.  

Following a 4-1 vote by the Berkeley Board of Education Wednesday, students enrolled in the Academic Choice enrichment program at Berkeley High School are no longer required to take the concentrated ethnic studies and social living course required of freshmen, known in recent years as Freshman Seminar.  

Instead, they will enroll in a year’s worth of ancient civilization and geography that will make time for a month-long social living segment as mandated by state law. Ethnicity and identity studies will be dispersed throughout the program’s four-year arc. The new curriculum goes into effect this fall.  

“We’ve been struggling for years to provide a meaningful social studies course,” said Berkeley High School Principal Jim Slemp. “Since I’ve been there, we’ve been working on it and not succeeding. … There may be better ways to meet those goals than what’s currently being offered.” 

Freshman Seminar, or Identity and Ethnic Studies (IES), as it was known pre-2004, provides lessons in identity, diversity, health. The curriculum has been a rite of passage for freshmen at Berkeley High since the early 1990s, but one that has earned mixed reviews. 

Some say the course lacks structure. Instructors are free to teach—or not teach—as they please. Bradley Johnson, who served as student school board director during the 2003-2004 school year, complained that the ethnic studies course victimized ethnic minorities, demonized white students and inculcated students to the teacher’s ideology. 

In 2004, the board approved an IES curriculum revamp and conferred the new name Freshman Seminar. But most agree the program is still flawed. 

“Some people like the program. Some love it. But a lot of people really hate the course,” said school board Vice President Joaquin Rivera. “It has been extremely controversial. We’ve tried to improve it in many ways and with a few exceptions, it has not been successful.” 

Susan Helmrich, one of more than a dozen Academic Choice parents who attended Wednesday’s board meeting in support of the new courses, described her son’s Freshman Seminar as “an absolute disaster.” 

Another parent quipped that her child watched movies and learned how to play poker in IES. 

Others expressed concern that the existing curriculum does not offer UC credit to Academic Choice freshmen. Academic Choice is a program within Berkeley High School for high achievers.  

The newly approved freshman course offers one semester of world geography and cultures, and one semester of ancient civilization, both of which are designed after UC-approved courses. There is no guarantee they will earn accreditation, however.  

Support for the curriculum is not unanimous. The proposed course was submitted to the Berkeley High School Shared Governance Committee, comprised of school site council representatives, faculty, staff and students, three times, and never received a two-thirds majority approval.  

On Wednesday, School Board candidate and Berkeley High School parent Karen Hemphill spoke out against the course.  

“I think the proposal is a short-sighted answer to a long-term problem,” she said, detailing the benefits of coursework that emphasizes identity development, ethnicity and diversity. “Lack of academic rigor is not due to course content, but due to lack of accountability for teachers.” 

Student Board Director Teal Miller agreed teachers make the course, but that doesn’t mean other possibilities should be dismissed.  

“I had an amazing IES teacher, however the more I talk to students at Berkeley High over the past three years, the more I realize I was in the minority in having a phenomenal teacher,” she said. “Taking it from a different perspective is important because of the other students I talked to who sat for a year and did nothing and I think that’s really unfortunate.” 

School board directors Rivera, Shirley Issel, John Selawsky and Nancy Riddle approved the new Academic Choice curriculum. Terry Doran opposed it, saying he did not feel world history was necessarily appropriate at the freshman level, and preferred a contemporary course. 

Only one other program at Berkeley High, the International High School—a small school slated to open this fall—provides an alternative to Freshman Seminar. Students at the other small schools and the comprehensive high school are still required to take Freshman Seminar.