BHS Redesign Attracts Critics, Supporters

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:57:00 PM

The group of parents, teachers, administrators and students from Berkeley High School who spoke in support of introducing block schedules and advisory programs during a Berkeley Board of Education meeting Wednesday were joined by an equally vociferous bunch who criticized the proposed overhaul, citing research, personal experience and an online petition to prove their point. 

Bill Huyett, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District, announced at the end of the meeting that he would consult with board president Nancy Riddle and staff before deciding whether the school board would vote on the proposal at its Feb. 11 meeting. 

Community members had a chance to comment on the proposed redesign at a public forum hosted jointly by the Berkeley High administration and the Parent Teacher Student Association Wednesday. 

Berkeley High principal Jim Slemp presented the redesign to the board during a study session, along with vice principals Amy Frey, Kristin Glenchur and Maggie Heredia-Peltz. Their presentation was followed by an analysis of its challenges and financial feasibility by Rebecca Cheung, the district’s director of assessment, evaluation and research. 

Slemp said that the Berkeley High community had worked on the plan for the past four-and-a-half years—adding that it had “not been pulled out of a hat”—and was based on the BHS small schools’ guiding principles, the WASC school-wide action plan, the BHS smaller learning communities grant and the 2020 Vision, a city-wide program aimed at reducing the achievement gap. 

“We have been struggling, talking and discussing with parents about this plan for a long time,” he said, stressing that it had the ability to bump up lagging test scores. “To continue to do the same thing and expect different results is not something wise.” 

The plan, which was approved by the School Governance Council in December and has undergone some changes since then, promises a more intimate learning environment for students through advisory programs and an alternating day block schedule, where four classes would be scheduled each day, alternately on “red” and “gold” schedules.  

The final school bell would ring at either 3:28 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. instead of 3:15 p.m., allowing students to take an additional elective class geared toward increasing total instructional time. 

Currently students receive an average of 1,650 instructional minutes a week. Under the proposed changes, students could receive up to 1,712 minutes of instruction per week. 

However, specific student time in each course would decrease by 22 percent, a fact that accounts for most of the criticism. 

At the meeting, a couple of students contended that longer classes would help them focus better and allow teachers to complete their lectures instead of cutting them short midway. 

Noah Teller, a junior in the school’s international baccalaureate program, said he represented a Facebook group of 400 Berkeley High students who were against the block schedule. 

“If our goal is to close the gap by personalizing student-teacher relationships, we should increase the amount of time students have in class, not cut it,” he said. 

Margit Roos Collins, a Berkeley High parent, said that the high school had dropped block scheduling after implementing it in the past because it had not met with any success. 

Peggy Scott, another parent, turned in 250 signatures of Berkeley High parents opposing the plan. 

“Don’t count every hour of the day, make every hour of the day count,” said Jessica Quindel, a math teacher at the high school who spoke in favor of the plan, explaining that the current schedule left her with very little time to explain homework to students. 

Evy Kavaler, who has taught science at Berkeley High for 16 years, disagreed. 

“There are no studies that show that change in structure of classes will help close the achievement gap,” she said, adding that AP science classes would be reduced by 46 percent, making it difficult for her to teach her syllabus in that time frame. 

Amy Burke, who recently joined the school’s math department, said that she was excited about the new schedule. 

“I really like the time in the day for academics,” she said. “It’s looking at students who need more support and gives teachers the time to de-stress and meet with smaller groups of students every day.” 

Some parents acknowledged that although the redesign revealed a concern for at-risk students, it was an experiment which lacked clear goals. 

Slemp said that smaller learning communities, advisory programs and a student-friendly curriculum would help to turn around “a highly impersonalized environment” and motivate students to get on the college track. 

He said that contrary to the fears of some parents about students running wild during advisory periods, they were classes during which students would engage in community service and resume-building, among other things. 

Cheung told the board that the most viable cost scenario included 29 students in every class, incorporated labs into science classes and would need around seven additional teachers, at a cost of $674,100. 

School board member John Selawsky questioned whether eliminating science labs made sense at a time when the Obama administration was stressing the importance of strengthening science and math education for high school students.  

Board member Shirley Issel said that it was a little far-fetched to say that the advisory program would close the achievement gap completely, something both Selawsky and Huyett agree with. 

“They will affect some students and not affect others,” Selawsky said. “However, there is something that would help, and that is professional development.” 

Huyett reminded the board that although the school district was facing tough times because of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget cuts to public education, it would have to make a decision on the redesign soon since waiting any longer would mean the high school would not be able to introduce the program in the fall.