Berkeley High School Principal Jim Slemp took some time off from his busy schedule recently to answer a few questions as he begins his fourth year as principal at BHS.
Where did you work before you were at Berkeley High School? Did your original expectations of BHS turn out the way you that they would?
Jim Slemp: Before I came here, I was deputy superintendent at Eugene, Ore. There were 24,000 students. I deliberately wanted to come to Berkeley High School, because I wanted to be principal of a large school. I love it. I absolutely love it. Probably the biggest thing is the students. We have amazing students. It brings me joy everyday. It’s one thing that I don’t like about summer. I just miss being around high school students.
What was your high school experience like, and has this shaped how you view your job as principal?
Slemp: I loved high school. I had a good time. I was involved in athletics. The longest time I was in one place was two years, which wasn’t very hard for me but was for my sister. It affects me in that I know how hard the transitions that kids make are.
What are three of the biggest problems at BHS?
Slemp: I guess first is that we have an achievement gap that falls along racial lines, particularly African-American males and Latino males. I think we have some things in place to help with that and we’re making progress. But it’s not fast enough for me.
Second is that not all students are leaving here ready to go to a four-year college or university. I think that it is our job to get students there.
Third would be attendance, because it relates to the other two.
What are three of your goals for the coming year?
Slemp: First, we have a new governance model that involves more students and parents on our school governance council, a combination of the School Site Council and the Shared Governance Committee. That’s kind of exciting for me, because it really distributes leadership and involves people more in the leadership process.
Second would be implementing the international high school, because I think that this is a good thing.
Third would be that we will have a school-wide advisory program a year from now, where all students have an advisor. The advisor will build relationships, monitor attendance, and help students be successful.
Could you elaborate on your ideas for the International High School program? Is it a new small school?
Slemp: No. It is a program like Academic Choice. And beginning with this year’s ninth-graders, students have six choices: four small schools (Communication Arts Sciences, Computer Partnerships Academy, School of Social Justice and Ecology, Art and Humanities) and two programs within the comprehensive school (Academic Choice, International High School). So there is no more straight comprehensive school.
What are your plans regarding small schools at BHS? Is your idea that every student should be in a small school?
Slemp: No. I don’t think that every student should be in a small school. I think that a school of 3,200 kids is too large. Part of the research around why some students aren’t successful is that they don’t have any connection—their school is too big, they are too hard to monitor and to be helpful to students. I don’t think that everyone should be in a small school. That’s the reason that I like that we have more than one option or one way to go.
Has Berkeley High’s truancy problem improved over the past year?
Slemp: It has improved a little, but not enough. There are two concerns. Concern number one is that [truancy] is the number one reason students, who fail, are failing. There are students who don’t go to class and know how to get by, that are successful. A lot of students can’t miss class. It leads to students not doing homework and then they fail the class.
Second is that we lose money. That’s secondary on my mind. Obviously the superintendent and the school board would have a different view. It’s just how do we help all students to be successful.
Are there going to be any new policy changes at Berkeley High this year? What is the new AP class switch-out policy? What is the reasoning behind the teacher rotation for AP classes?
Slemp: There is no teacher rotation policy. The only thing is that teachers must have gone to AP training to teach the class. The AP policy has not changed. It has been that way for three years. It basically says that if you’re in an AP class, you need to take the test to get AP credit. If you don’t take the test, you still get credit for the class but just not the AP credit. You don’t have to pass the AP test; you just have to take it. Are there any new policy changes? Not that I remember at the moment.
There have been rumors that if kids don’t return their books or replace them by the beginning of the school year that they won’t receive their schedules. Is that true? Are there other repercussions?
Slemp: That is true and the purpose is that each of our textbooks costs about $100. They need to return it or pay for it. Then they can receive their schedules.
What happens at orientation days next week? Are they important? What if a student is absent when their scheduled orientation day takes place?
Slemp: They can come to attend another day. Orientation days are important in that you get your ID, get your pictures taken, get your locker, get textbooks (which we have not done before), and get your schedule. It’s kind of all that “get ready for school” stuff. If you don’t get it any of those days, or the Monday or Tuesday of the following week, you end up waiting all day, or half of the day, on the first day of school. It’s a pain and it’s boring.
Describe one of your favorite moments at Berkeley High.
Slemp: I like graduation, because it kind of culminates things. Watching seniors in that life-changing event is inspiring, seeing the quality of students that we have.
Describe one of your least favorite moments at Berkeley High.
Slemp: I suppose it is when we there are fights, and we don’t have too many fights, but when we do there are these masses of students racing after it. I find that very sad, because it is demeaning to other human beings. It’s one that gets to me the most. I have no particular solution to it, but it bothers me.
There used to be school gardens down at the G and H-building. What happened to those garden programs?
Slemp: They are still here. Actually the AP Environmental Science classes still keep them up. The other garden is the flower garden, which is kept up by the special education students. They are still there and looking pretty good really.
Are there any plans to add any cooking programs at BHS?
Slemp: No. Not at this point. We had one when I first arrived, but it was a joke.