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School Board to Tackle BHS Science Labs Feb. 3

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday January 14, 2010 - 09:17:00 AM

Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Bill Huyett said Wednesday that the controversial proposal to reconfigure science labs at Berkeley High will come before the Berkeley Board of Education Feb. 3. 

Huyett’s announcement provided some amount of relief to parents and teachers at the high school, who worry that the Berkeley High administration is rushing through the plan without addressing their concerns. 

The superintendent, who has already met with parents, teachers and Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp a few times to discuss the pros and cons of eliminating extra science labs from before and after regular school hours, said he would continue to talk to the group to figure out ways to bridge lost instructional time, something that lies at the heart of the controversy. 

Since last year, Berkeley High has been in the middle of a major redesign, focusing on advisory programs and bell schedules, among other things. 

When plans to start a trimester schedule at the high school failed in the fall, Slemp decided to re-allocate some of the BSEP funds now going to enhanced courses—which include the extra science labs—toward as-yet-undefined programs intended to ensure equity and bridge the achievement gap. 

“Every year Principal Slemp tells us that there may not be money available for the extra labs, but this year they are saying we want to take it away from you,” said Evy Kavaler, who heads the Berkeley High science department and sits on the School Governance Council, which approved the proposal to slash the extra science labs last year. “There’s no fixed plan about how that money will be used. The question is, why is this happening now? Why are the funds being reallocated?” 

Slemp was not able to find time for an interview with the Planet this week. 

Huyett said that the School Governance Council has said that enhanced course offerings “should be used for other classes, not only science.” 

“The SGC believes that the six additional teachers funded by BSEP should help all students, not only those preparing for college,” Huyett said. “But people have turned it into a zero-sum game—somebody wins and somebody loses,” he said. 

Former Berkeley High Parent Teacher Student Association President Mark Van Krieken said that parents were feeling angry, confused and helpless. 

“If this were the only money available to address the achievement gap, then no question, but what about the other money out there?” he asked. “I think someone should come forward and explain how all the other money is being used before jumping onto something.” 

Students at Berkeley High currently attend science labs either before or after school for Advanced Placement and most college preparatory classes. 

Almost every other school in California holds labs during the regular school day, avoiding conflicts with sports or extracurricular activities, Huyett said.  

But at Berkeley High, two thirds of science teachers don’t have access to labs during the day and thus turn to after- and before-school periods to teach these classes. 

Huyett stressed that contrary to what has been reported in various news media, Slemp’s proposal would integrate labs into the regular school day, not get rid of them entirely. 

“Typically in California, college prep science classes meet only five times a week instead of six times, as many Berkeley High science classes do,” Huyett said. “The proposal would bring instructional time in line with the rest of the state. However, this would decrease instructional time over the current practice at BHS, especially for AP classes.” 

It would reduce AP classes from seven periods a week to five. 

It is common for AP classes to offer more learning time by extending a course over two years or through summer. 

Huyett said Slemp and the SGC believe that by offering “a full science program” during regular school hours, Berkeley High would make science classes more accessible to students, thereby improving overall attendance and performance in science. 

“They have turned it into a lab issue, but what it really is, is a time issue,” Kavaler said. “Even if the district wants to hold labs during the school day, they will first need to construct more labs and facilities.” 

SGC member and Berkeley High parent Margit Roos-Collins, who voted against cutting the extra labs, said that the superintendent’s decision to slow down the proposal made a huge difference. 

“Even the talk of putting the labs at risk is insane,” she said. “Turning AP science into more of a grind than it already is, is not the way to tempt more kids into it ... We are trying to do everything we can to improve achievement. We don’t need to fly blind here.” 

Huyett, who previously taught AP physics, said that he was taking a personal interest in sorting out the Berkeley High School science curriculum. 

“We have been doing a lot of talking, but haven’t come up with any kind of an agreement yet,” Kavaler said. “The science program is very successful the way it is, especially the AP programs. I think the money should stay where it is.” 

About a third of the students at Berkeley High take AP classes. 

Kavaler cited an 85–95 percent success pass rate for AP students at Berkeley High, compared to 50 percent nationally. 

“Not quite as flashy as the Jazz Band ... but a pretty good indication of the effectiveness of our AP science program,” Kavaler wrote in an e-mail to parents. She told the Planet that getting rid of the extra labs would be a disservice for students who benefit from it, especially those struggling in biology, chemistry and physics. 

Kavaler said that the regular science program is also quite successful although harder to gauge because SAT scores are not always easily available. 

“I am not saying we shouldn’t budge an inch, but teaching the same amount of material in less time makes no sense,” said Peggy Scott, another parent member on the governance council. “I appreciate the fact that the superintendent is willing to negotiate, but I am personally very tired of the high drama at the high school. It’s pretty dysfunctional—we are seeing the same thing year after year. It’s getting really old.”