School Board Weighs In on BHS Science Lab Proposal

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday February 03, 2010 - 06:35:00 PM

The Berkeley Board of Education was scheduled to hear the controversial plan to eliminate before- and after-school science labs at Berkeley High School at its Wednesday night meeting, too late for the Daily Planet’s deadline. 

The Planet will report on the results of the meeting on its website today (Thursday). 

The plan to redirect parcel tax funds from zero- and seventh-period science labs toward struggling students is part of a larger Berkeley High redesign plan being funded by the federal Smaller Learning Community grant, which seeks to expand small-school programs, provide students with a personalized college preparatory education and close the achievement gap.  

In February 2009 the school board voted to approve late-start Mondays and staff development as part of this grant, and asked the high school to explore advisory programs and a new schedule that would provide additional course offerings for needy children, academic support, personalization and better student and teacher working conditions. 

When Berkeley High School Principal Jim Slemp proposed a trimester schedule to address this, the plan fell one vote short of approval by the School Governance Council. 

Slemp and governance council leaders came up with an alternative plan to redirect some of the parcel tax money allocated for enhanced courses—including the science labs—toward as-yet-unidentified equity grants to close the school’s achievement gap.  

Unlike Berkeley High, which started after- and before-school science labs after double science periods were cut, almost every other school in California holds labs during the regular school day. 

Despite protests from parents and teachers, who argued that slashing labs would lead to a loss of valuable instructional time, especially for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and college prep science classes, the School Governance Council approved the plan in December. 

Though District Superintendent Bill Huyett agrees that these concerns are not unfounded, he said there were others who worried that the current practice did not benefit all students. 

Huyett met with Slemp and Berkeley High science teachers on three different occasions in January to work out a compromise, which will be included in the redesign proposal. 

“There is evidence that attendance is poor in the before- and after-school labs and that achievement is negatively affected for students who cannot or do not attend,” Huyett wrote in his proposal. “There is a concern that if AP and IB science classes lose the extra time, students will not be taught the full curriculum in order to pass” those tests. 

The College Board recommends additional time beyond what is allowed for traditional science classes for Advanced Placement. 

Huyett’s plan recommends that the high school continue to provide extra time for AP biology, chemistry and physics classes and eliminate the additional time for AP environmental science because the two-semester program already covers the amount of instructional time required by the College Board. 

The proposal would also begin an enhanced science option in college prep biology, chemistry and physics for any students who wants it. 

The compromise would keep two of the five science teachers funded by parcel tax money for these programs, Huyett said. 

It would allocate the equivalent of four teachers for expanded course offerings, whose use will be determined by the high school.  

When Huyett’s plan failed to make it into the School Board agenda packet online this week, parents and teachers who oppose the high school’s science lab proposal panicked. 

But Huyett said Wednesday it had simply been a lack of oversight on the district’s part. 

“We should have had that in as information about the proposal,” he said. “It’s my fault.” 

For many people in the school district, the months of debate on the science lab issue opened up a broader discussion about how science is being taught at the high school. 

“I had no idea that most of the school was attending before- and after-school science labs,” said School Board President Karen Hemphill. “How can a required component of a core academic class only be offered before or after school? We have students who have jobs, who drop their siblings off to school, who prepare dinner for their family every day—whether you are black, brown or green, are you really motivated to get up at 7:30 a.m. or stay until 4:15 p.m.? 

Hemphill said that a recent survey on attendance at Berkeley High showed that half of the students never attended lab classes. 

“So, is it working?” she asked. “Is the way we are doing science the right way to do it? ... I think the superintendent’s proposal addresses that. Basic core classes should be done during the day, and there is also the opportunity to take an optional class.” 

Hemphill said she was hopeful that the money saved from the parcel tax fund could be “ploughed back into the science department.” 

“Very few African-Americans and Latinos are taking college science—maybe we can hire more teachers to help turn that around,” she said. 

Evy Kavaler, who chairs the science program at Berkeley High, said all the science teachers had agreed to support the superintendent’s plan. 

“Students who really want a lab experience will get a lab experience,” Kavaler said. “I think all science classes should have extra lab classes. So it’s really a compromise.” 

Berkeley High parent and School Governance Councilmember Peggy Scott said that, although she liked parts of Huyett’s proposal, she was waiting for the final plan. 

“The jury’s out,” Scott said. “I am glad he recognized that AP programs need to be supported, but just taking care of AP classes is not the whole ball of wax.”