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Plan to Eliminate Science Labs Stirs Controversy at Berkeley High

By Raymond Barglow, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:33:00 AM

The Berkeley High School Governance Council (SGC) voted last week to approve the latest school redesign plan, including a controversial proposal to eliminate science lab instruction that is currently offered before and after regular school hours. 

The rationale for this elimination is that the funds required by the labs can be better spent on “equity grants” intended to narrow the achievement gap at BHS between higher and lower achieving students.  

The action plan that was brought to the SGC by Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp and BHS teachers states that, “This year Berkeley High was identified as the high school with the largest racial equity/achievement gap in the state. This is unconscionable. All students, regardless of ethnicity, deserve effective instruction with challenging and engaging curriculum. All students deserve to learn the skills and content needed to be prepared for college.”  

Berkeley public schools’ integration and attention to diversity has long been a model for other schools in California and nationwide. The intention of the action plan to reassess funding priorities by viewing them through an “equity lens” continues in this tradition. 

Approval of the plan by the SGC was not unanimous, however. Science department chair Evy Kavaler opposed several sections, and parent representatives Peggy Scott and Margit Roos-Collins voted against the plan. Following the SGC meeting, a letter signed by most of the faculty in the science department went out to the school community, calling the proposed cut to the science program a “squandering of parcel tax dollars on unspecified and scattered programs that do not nearly provide the same effectiveness as science labs in enriching curriculum, providing equity and preparing all of our students for college.”  

A letter being distributed among BHS parents says that dropping the labs will be detrimental to the scientific literacy of students: 

“The issues facing our students (global warming, the destruction of the ozone layer, urban pollution, health issues such as diabetes, cancer, etc.) require that our students be well-grounded in the underlying science behind these issues,” the letter says. “For many of our students, high school will be the last time they will take a biology or physics course. We cannot afford to shortchange them in these subjects.” 

Defenders of the science labs at BHS argue further that laboratory experience gives essential support to all students, including those who are struggling at the bottom of the achievement gap. If the labs are eliminated, the letter from the science faculty states, “it is the very students Principal Slemp wants to serve who will suffer. To close the achievement gap, students require more instruction, not less; more time with qualified instructors, not less.” 

“The labs help the struggling students most,” said physics teacher Matt McHugh in an interview with the Daily Planet, “because they’re the ones who need the most help.”  

“The most academically prepared kids will get by,” added Amy Hansen, who teaches chemistry and biology. “They’ll find tutors, they’ll learn the material one way or another. But the others won’t.”  

Hansen and McHugh also said that the labs, currently held just before and after regular school hours, cannot be folded into the regular school day since lab space is already being used for non-lab science instruction.  

“Laboratory space is also non-laboratory teaching space,” said Hansen. 

Advocates of the shift of resources from the labs to more directly targeted equity-enhancing programs point to an achievement gap that is wider at Berkeley High than it is elsewhere. Parent Peggy Scott agrees that it is essential to close this achievement gap, but doesn’t believe that shifting funds from science labs to other programs will advance this aim.  

Scott feels that the size of the gap at Berkeley High reflects the school’s existence in the shadow of UC Berkeley. “So many students at Berkeley High are from academic families,” she said. “The high end is very high. The low end is the same tragic achievement gap that exists all over the U.S. What’s wonderful here is that our kids all go to school together, and we chose that when we chose to live here. I see that with my daughter’s very diverse friends. It isn’t separate, like Danville and Hunter’s Point. Taxpayers showed we care about all kids by approving the local education tax measures.”  

State and federal cuts in education spending have led to increased competition for limited resources. Berkeley Unified School District Public Information Officer Mark Coplan said that there is no getting around the fact that resources at the high school are scarce. The funds that currently support the before- and after-school labs are open every year to re-allocation, according to Coplan, and the SGC is recommending this year that the money serve a different purpose. 

“The entire school has to make that decision,” said Coplan. “The science department does have input…. It is a hard decision that the school has to make, and one department or another is not going to be happy with the outcome.” 

The four Berkeley High teachers who were interviewed for this story all support changes that will help academically struggling students do better. Their question is not whether to help these students, but how to do so most effectively. They say that the current plan to cut the science labs, unlike other policy proposals in the past, has not been presented to or discussed by the school’s teaching staff, and that it will set back rather than advance equity aims.  

Economics teacher Brian Crowell believes students’ families need to be made more aware of the quality of education that their children are receiving. “Some parents think their children are doing well in school, when they’re not,” said Crowell.  

In the past, Berkeley High has taken pride in the performance of its students at all levels, and the school relies increasingly for its funding on the broad support of the local tax-paying community, including Berkeley families distributed across all ethnic backgrounds and income levels. The science department is asking whether this entire community is being well served by a plan that would substantially reduce science instruction in the school. 

Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp will present the action plan to the Berkeley School Board in January. He says he will do so for information purposes only, since the plan does not require board approval. However, district Superintendent of Schools Bill Huyett says the board may have the authority to evaluate the plan. 


Raymond Barglow is the founder of Berkeley Tutors Network.