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Protests Greet Berkeley High Science Teacher Dismissal Recommendation

By Raymond Barglow, Special to the Planet
Wednesday March 03, 2010 - 07:44:00 PM

Three Berkeley High School science teachers, Matt Bissell, Matt McHugh, and Kate Haber, say that they were astonished to learn that Principal Jim Slemp has concluded that a well-regarded fellow science teacher should not be re-hired for next year. They told the Planet that in protest of the principal's action, BHS science department teachers walked out of their staff meeting on Monday morning and marched en masse first to the principal's office and then to the office of the district superintendent.  

The school administration has not revealed any information about possible grounds for the dismissal of the teacher. Principal Slemp said that such personnel matters are confidential. The teacher is in her second year at BHS and does not have tenure, which means that protections provided by due process do not apply to her. Her colleagues have asked the Planet to withhold her name in order not to damage her prospects for future employment if she loses her job. She herself has declined to be interviewed.  

Her colleagues said that she told them that after a meeting on Friday Slemp informed her that he was giving her a "non re-elect" evaluation, which means that he will recommend to the school district that she be fired. In the absence of any other explanation, many of them say they regard his action as retaliatory.  

Bissell, McHugh, and Haber vouched for her excellence as a teacher. “[She] is a top-quality teacher, and everyone knows it," said McHugh. "This is a teacher who has good evaluations, and she has lots of support from teachers, students, and parents." 

Haber met with Principal Slemp on Monday afternoon and asked him to reconsider his decision. According to Haber, "This is a miscarriage of justice. I cannot imagine that there is any legitimate reason for this." She added that the teacher in question is "extremely well respected by everyone in the science department, respected for her teaching and her integrity. She is not only a good teacher, she is a mentor and facilitator of this program. Who sets the tone, who organizes meetings, who makes sure everyone gets the information they need? She's the one." 

The teacher's colleagues said that earlier this school year, the teacher's union filed a grievance on her behalf because of the large size of her classes, which exceeded the average class sizes at the school. They offered another conceivable reason why this teacher could be slated for firing: a collaboration initiated in the biology department last year.  

Four teachers in that department wanted to work on improving their own teaching. They decided to cooperate with one another in reflecting on their teaching methods, sharing their experiences, and seeking to understand what was working in the classroom and what needed improvement. All four were teaching a course in biology, and together they created a single final examination that was given in all four of their classes. The idea was to look at the exam results and see how students in different classes performed and how the learning of all the students might be improved. In order to discuss their teaching in a non-competitive, less ego-involved way, they identified their four classes as A, B, C, and D. 

The teachers said that Principal Slemp intervened and insisted that he be given the identities of the teachers of each of these classes, so that he could compare their performances. The four teachers opposed this request, and one of them -- the teacher whom Slemp now proposes to dismiss -- told him that she would not divulge this information. According to science teacher McHugh, her students did as well, on average, on the final exam as the students in any of the other three classes. 

McHugh is hopeful that the school board will look carefully into this teacher's situation, "We can make a strong case for her, based on her record. We are building a groundswell of support. There is a possibility that this decision will be reversed. The principal recommends to the board which teachers will be dismissed, but the board does not have to go along with the recommendation."