Mixed Reactions for Berkeley High Development Plan

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday November 26, 2008 - 10:33:00 AM

Berkeley High School’s proposal to develop a new small school, create advisory programs and block schedules following a $1 million federal grant in July received mixed reactions from the community during a public forum on Monday. 

The plan, crafted by the Berkeley High School Design Committee—comprised of Berkeley High teachers, principal Jim Slemp and a parent and a student—was presented to the School Governance Council last week and to the Berkeley Board of Education on Nov. 19. At Monday’s meeting in the school’s library, Slemp stressed that the time was right for Berkeley High to ride the wave of change. 

“Berkeley High is a great school. I can say it’s one of the best 10 large urban high schools in the country,” he said. “Our attendance rate is going up and our discipline and drop-out rates are going down. We have an excellent faculty of any high school of our size, but, we still have an achievement gap. Our black and Latino students are not achieving as well as our white students. Most of the people in this room—your children are succeeding, but I need you to think about all children.” 

Slemp said that the high school had been debating the prospect of introducing some kind of reform on campus through block schedules and advisories, which received momentum through the Smaller Learning Communities Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, something that supports the expansion of small school programs, advisories and alternate schedules. 

Under the grant, the high school would also train its teachers to use the advisory program to help students develop individual learning plans. 

“Advisories will personalize the BHS experience by providing a safe, caring and cooperative community that evolves over four years,” Slemp said, adding that the program had been implemented nationwide and had gone on to be successful in some cases and a complete waste of time in others. 

One parent of a ninth-grader said that she liked the idea of an advisory period as long as students didn’t end up fooling around during that time. 

“We want them to be advisories with academic and social content, which will benefit students and help them grow as a person,” said Angela Price, a parent and a college advisor at Berkeley High. Price said she would like to see the new plan include more parental involvement, including those from African American and other minority communities who often feel unwelcome on campus. 

The block schedule would include red and gold alternating days, with student attending periods one through four on “red days” and periods five through eight on “gold days.” 

Classes would last 90 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 80 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday in order to include a 30-minute advisory period, something some school board presidents and parents said would deprive students of valuable instructional time. 

Berkeley High PTSA President Mark Van Krieken said that the proposed schedule would mean students get 25 percent less instructional minutes per week than in their current set-up of six periods during a regular school day and a 22 percent loss in overall instructional time when two 30-minute advisories were added. 

“The majority of parents are really interested to help students who are struggling,” he said. “Nobody has been able to explain how this kind of cutback in instruction time is going to lead to improving academic performance for all of our students.” 

Mary McDonald, another parent, said she liked the proposed scheduling because it was freeing up the students’ mornings. 

“A lot of people are concerned about it but I think it’s great,” she said. “Also if you miss class you get an extra day to turn your homework in.” 

School Board President John Selawsky said that he was concerned about the loss of instructional time. 

“Part of it is contractual issues,” he said. “The high school should not be bringing forward all these changes when the school district is negotiating with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers.” 

The Berkeley teachers union is discussing a contract renewal with district officials. 

“These are big ideas that are being put forth,” BFT President Cathy Campbell said of Berkeley High’s proposal. “The school board will have to approve them and authorize district officials to approach the union with the changes. There’s a real momentum in our community for change but the question remains what degree of change do we want. It may be that the current proposal is too much too fast.” 

The next community forum is scheduled for Tuesday at St. Joseph's the Worker Church, 7 to 8 p.m. The School Governance Council is scheduled to review input from the various groups and vote on the proposal on Dec. 9, following which the school board will have the opportunity to review the proposal and judge it in Jan. 2009. The school plans to implement the program in the 2009-2010 school year.