Budget Cuts May Pose Challenge for Berkeley High Redesign Plan

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday January 14, 2009 - 06:51:00 PM

Calling the Berkeley High redesign plan “tough work in tough economic times,” Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Bill Huyett discussed some of its challenges at a School Governance Council meeting at the Community Theater lobby on Tuesday, where Principal Jim Slemp introduced a revised plan to the public. 

The redesign, approved by the Governance Council in December, would introduce changes to the high school, including advisory programs and an eight-period day to help low-achieving students, which district officials said are consistent with the 2020 Vision, a collaboration between Berkeley Unified and the City of Berkeley to address the achievement gap. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, the district’s director of evaluation and assessment, Rebecca Cheung, presented four cost scenarios for the redesign. Under the one favored by Slemp, science labs would get folded into science classes, instead of being a separate class, an idea that adds to the list of concerns some parents have about the plan. 

While those opposing the plan frown upon the loss of instructional minutes in the redesign, those in favor of it argue that extended periods and additional preparation minutes would help at-risk students. 

“We have an achievement gap at the high school,” Slemp said. “Reducing that is the why to this proposal. This is not a radical high school change. We have been talking about it for years.” 

The meeting came a day after Huyett sent out a letter to the Berkeley High School community, asking them to recognize the challenges involved in implementing change at a time when the state was making severe cuts to the district budget. 

The letter identifies the advantages of the redesign and outlines the barriers in cost and implementation that the School Governance Committee and the Berkeley Board of Education will have to consider before making up their minds about the plan. 

Huyett said that, although the plan’s four-year graduation requirement of advisory classes and Community Access Period have great potential to broaden a student’s high school experience, more work is required to support such a large change. 

The superintendent said that providing time for advisory programs is an important way to get students more involved in school and to provide support for academic success. He explained that similar community access periods, such as the Advancement Through Individual Determination (AVID) program, have proved successful, which has placed them high on the list of high school reforms publicized by the state superintendent of schools. 

He stressed that, before instituting new graduation requirements, it was important to develop thorough course syllabi and to give adequate time to the School Board for review and approval. 

The plan, among other things, would also change the format of the school day by having classes meet for four periods every other day instead of six periods daily. 

Students will have the advantage of taking eight classes under this plan. 

Huyett pointed out that, although the proposed schedule meets the requirement that high schools to provide students with 360 minutes of instructional time on average for 180 days in a year, it does so by increasing class size or adding more teachers—at an additional cost—to cover all the classes offered at any time during the day. 

The superintendent had no qualms in acknowledging that, given Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed state budget, this initiative will be difficult, if not impossible to implement. The budget calls for about an 8 percent cut to the district’s funding next year—which translates to a loss of $5 million or more 

“Last year we made cuts with a scalpel, this year we will be making cuts with a meat ax,” he told the audience Tuesday. “With increasing costs, it will cost us more to operate next year. But this is such important work, we need to consider this. There is a lot to do, and the board’s got to say we are going to let you go forward with that.” 

Some options that district staff are currently considering as solutions include increasing class size or taking “0” and “7th” period classes and committing them to the core day. 

Huyett said that, even if none of the redesign proposals ends up being implemented, some of these options may need to be considered in order to take care of the massive state budget cuts. 

The School Board is scheduled to hear the redesign plan at a public meeting on Jan. 28 at the old City Hall Chambers at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.