School Board Approves Berkeley High Redesign Plan

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday February 13, 2009 - 08:49:00 AM

The Berkeley Board of Education voted 4-to-1 at a public meeting late Wednesday evening to approve the Berkeley High School redesign plan, as recommended by Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Bill Huyett and Berkeley High principal Jim Slemp, which aims to help close the achievement gap. 

Board director Shirley Issel voted against the proposal, citing the current economic crisis and the lack of substantial research to support the idea of advisory programs and other changes. 

Berkeley High senior Eve Shames, the student representative on the school board, voted in favor of the plan. Her votes are only advisory and do not count, as mandated by State Education Code. 

The board’s decision came after almost two hours of deliberation on the proposal, which has received mixed reactions from Berkeley High parents, students and teachers.  

Even as a large group of parents and teachers lauded the plan for offering a more intimate learning environment, there were those who complained that the proposal lacked community input and sufficient data to prove that it would work. 

One Berkeley High parent told the board: “I am all for change but I am not for change that’s not well thought through—that’s like George Bush going into Iraq.” 

Kate Trimlett, a science teacher at Berkeley High’s School of Social Justice and Ecology, said that she supported incorporating science labs into science periods—a subject of contention for many parents and educators at the high school—because it would mean increased attendance. 

Trimlett said that she was concerned that her current science lab class in advanced biology failed to attract students. 

Peggy Scott, another parent, criticized the lack of transparency of the Berkeley High School Governance Council, which approved the redesign in December, explaining that the very fact that the council was chaired by the school’s principal could prove to be a conflict of interest. 

Issel also questioned the constitution of the Governance Council during a subsequent board discussion, at the end of which board president Nancy Riddle asked district administrators to conduct a review of the council. 

Berkeley High math teacher Jessica Quindel read out a statement from one of her former professors at UC Berkeley, Pedro Noguera, who is now a professor and the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University. 

In his statement, Noguera recalled leading a study at Berkeley High called the Diversity Project from 1996-2000, which identified the underlying causes of the achievement gap and recommended changes which might help to reduce it. He said that relatively few of the recommendations were implemented by the district or the high school, largely because the school already worked well for some students, particularly high achieving white and Asian students from affluent backgrounds. 

“Too often, the parents of these successful students have regarded any reform aimed at furthering equity at BHS as a threat to their student’s interest, and because they are more powerful, their interests have determined the direction of the school,” he said, urging the board to approve the superintendent’s recommendations, explaining that the changes proposed were “sound and supported by a wide body of educational research.” 

Mark Van Kriekan, chair of the Berkeley High Parent Teacher Student Association, said that although the group endorsed the recommendations, the process of formulating the plan had left a lot to be desired. 

Slemp reminded the audience, as he has done several times in the past, that the redesign was not a “wild haired strategy pulled out of something,” but had instead been around for almost six years. 

“We certainly have been listening to the community—clearly the more we can tie this to research and case study the more stronger the case for it will become,” Huyett said. 

The changes recommended by Huyett and Slemp to the board to the original redesign approved by the School Governance Council include the implementation of late-start Mondays for professional development of teachers in the fall of 2009, “regularly scheduled” advisory programs in the fall of 2010, development of a new schedule which will provide benefits such as “additional offerings, academic support, personalization and better student and teacher working conditions,” and the development of a new small school which would start in the fall of 2010 or 2011. 

Huyett’s recommendations came after a study session with the Berkeley High administration and board members on Feb. 4 and a public forum hosted jointly by the high school and the Berkeley High Parent Teacher Student Association last week. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, Huyett asked the board to approve the plan with some exceptions, and to delay its implementation until the 2010-11 school year due to the crisis in the state education budget. 

Huyett told the Planet that postponing the implementation would give the district more time to engage the district staff and the public in the process.  

Huyett recommended that instead of adopting a block schedule, the board should endorse the concept of starting a different schedule from the current six-period model, which would provide opportunity for more courses during the span of a year and time on a regularly scheduled basis for advisory programs and academic support. 

The board voted to approve the recommendation, which also asks that the new schedule not be in place until the 2010-11 school year. 

The high school and the district will be working together over the next six months to figure out a schedule and a funding model, as well as to settle any contract issues with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers before Feb. 1, 2010. 

The union is currently on its 196th day without a contract renewal. 

Board vice president Karen Hemphill recalled the vandalism and arson Berkeley High had been subject to six years ago, placing it in danger of losing its accreditation. She said the creation of small schools has helped many of the students, particularly those of color, who felt alienated at school and added that the redesign would help to further personalize the high school experience for students. 

Issel objected to breaking Academic Choice into smaller groups under a core system, arguing that it was something each small school should be given the freedom to decide on its own. 

She said that she was against forming a new small school before getting more information about the district’s budget situation and she opposed late-start Mondays, explaining that they could lead to tardiness and increased drug use among students. 

Issel said that she was not convinced that advisory programs would close the achievement gap, reminding the board that she had been the only director to vote against the federal Smaller Learning Community grant last August, which aims to expand small school programs, provide students with a personalized college prep education and work on closing the achievement gap. 

“You say it has gone on for six years but mercifully I can only remember it being around for the last year and I don’t want next year to be absorbed with this,” she said of the advisory program, addressing Slemp. 

The lack of research to back the redesign, Issel told Slemp, had made her “cranky” and “grumpy.” 

“I am troubled and I lack confidence,” she said. “I have lost trust.” 

The school board also requested Slemp to brief them regularly about the progress of the redesign plan.  


To continue to get reports on key decisions made in the Berkeley Unified School District, contribute to the Planet's Fund for Local Reporting