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School Governance Council Passes BHS Redesign Plan

By Kristin McFarland
Wednesday December 10, 2008 - 07:13:00 PM

After a daylong workshop spent honing the original proposal, the BHS Governance Council passed a redesign plan Tuesday that would put students on a new class schedule and incorporate an advisory curriculum into the school day.  

The plan will be presented to the School Board in January. 

As the council passed it, the new schedule includes alternating days, with every Monday as a late-start day for teacher professional development. Under the new block schedule, students would take half of their classes in four 90-minute periods on “gold days” and the other half on “red days.”  

Every student would have an advisory and a “student support community access” (SSCA) period incorporated into his or her schedule. Students would take six to eight classes, at least three per day, while teachers would teach six classes, including advisory/ SSCA, and have one preparation period per day. 

The new plan, designed to close the achievement gap and help at-risk students, would vastly alter the current school schedule of seven 55-minute class periods per day. Supporters of the redesign say that the current schedule, under which students take at least six classes per day and have homework for every class every night, leaves at-risk and minority students far behind and puts too much pressure on students with limited time.  

The new plan creates a longer instruction period and more time to do homework, as well as personal and professional support during the advisory period. 

To make room for the advisory and SSCA period, and to allow for teacher preparation and professional development, instructional minutes would be reduced by approximately 22 percent. (This number may be reduced slightly under the council’s new plan.)  

Nearly 30 community members and teachers appeared to speak for or against the proposal, some advocating the need for change and others condemning the council’s lack of transparency. All comments referred to the original plan proposed by the redesign committee, not to the refined plan passed by the council. 

Two community forums were held before Tuesday’s meeting, but the public had little role in reshaping or approving the design. 

Speaking in favor of the plan, Carol Dorf, a BHS math teacher and the parent of a seventh-grader, said, “It’s not just the raw minutes, it’s how we’re present with our students.” 

The teachers who spoke argued overwhelmingly in favor of the plan, claiming that extended periods, additional preparation minutes and professional development workshops would allow them to help students who need it most. Many of those in favor of the plan reminded listeners of Berkeley progressive politics to call for a change in how the achievement gap is addressed. 

Those against the plan spoke primarily against the council’s poor development process and the problem of initiating a school-wide change to help only a few hundred students. The overall reduction of instruction time could hurt students taking Advanced Placement courses, which have a nationally mandated curriculum. The new schedule could also negatively affect extracurricular activities like orchestra and the yearbook, which benefit from daily meetings and the additional period offered by zero hour, eliminated under the new plan. 

“We have 3,000 students: why do we get one-size-fits-all reform plans?” asked one parent. 

Others say that a sweeping change like this will not solve the fundamental issue of racial achievement gaps. 

“My opposition to this plan is not because I don’t think there is a problem,” another BHS parent said. “Systematic change doesn’t solve the exact problem. This is a big social issue that Berkeley High can only have a percentage solution for.” 

The governance council attempted to address concerns by slightly altering the new schedule. Under the original plan, advisory was held in a separate 30-minute period that all students attended simultaneously. The SSCA period, a required but undefined class during which students “receive guidance and support to increase their academic performance and/or to be involved with the community,” was a separate 90-minute class fit into the individual student’s schedule.  

After revisions, advisory and SSCA will fall in the same 90-minute period, preventing students from having excessive unstructured time. This revision also ensures that students receive advisor guidance during the SSCA period. It also slightly increases instructional minutes over the year. 

The new plan has problems of its own, however. This change prevents students from having the same advisor for four years. Because advisory and SSCA would be held during multiple periods, at any given time hundreds of students would have potential free time to roam around the campus. Advisors would have more control over how much time is spent in advisory or SSCA, which means that some students could receive far less counsel than others. 

Additionally, the advisory curriculum will not be developed until April 2009. The public will have no input after the general plan has been passed and therefore no part in developing the actual program. 

Principal Jim Slemp said that all the changes made on Tuesday and additional details about the SSCA/advisory period will be presented in early January. The governance council will meet again at that time to finalize the wording of the proposal to be sent to the school board. 

The governance council—comprised of five elected students, five school-elected parents, four teachers and the principal—is typically charged with allocating some school funds and setting the academic plan for the school. The redesign is being devised as part of the school’s federally-funded Smaller Learning Community grant. 

Although two council members proposed delaying the vote until January to allow the revised plan to be presented to the public, the remaining members declined the delay. Every member who did not abstain voted yes to passing the proposal on to the school board. Slemp declined to name individual members with their votes, saying that any decision made would be made as a unified body. 

The council’s next challenge will be marketing the plan to the public. 

“This is step one: we’re going to have to advocate for the decisions we’ve made,” Slemp said. 

The final decision on the new schedule will be made by the school board in mid-January. 

To view a copy of the original, unaltered Berkeley High redesign plan visit