Berkeley High School Principal Jim Slemp, whose tenure was sometimes marked by controversy and contentious relationships with parents and teachers, announced Wednesday morning he was going to retire in June.
Slemp was in the news recently for proposing to slash Berkeley High’s before-and-after-school science labs in favor of what were described as equity-based programs aimed at closing the school’s high achievement gap.
His last appearance before the Berkeley Board of Education was Feb. 3, when he presented the Berkeley High School Redesign Plan with a host of other teachers and staff, but was criticized by several members of the public, some of them his own students.
The news about his retirement came during the school’s regular morning announcement, according to his assistant Richard Ng, and was followed by a curt email to staff, which simply read:
“Dear Berkeley High Community,
I want you to know that I have decided to retire effective June 30, 2010. I look forward to continuing to work with you through that time.
Rumors were circulating on email lists all morning, and although Slemp couldn’t be reached for comment immediately, Berkeley Unified spokesperson Mark Coplan confirmed that the news was true.
“I knew that he was contemplating making that decision,” Coplan said. He added that the high school was getting ready to embark on a search to find a replacement.
A message on the Berkeley High E-tree listserve ran a brief summary of Slemp’s accomplishments at Berkeley High School:
“Mr. Slemp came to Berkeley High in the fall of 2003. Under his calm and steady leadership, Berkeley High moved to its current configuration of six small learning communities including the renowned International Baccalaureate program; the school obtained a coveted six year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC); and the rundown physical plant was transformed into a place of beauty. Mr. Slemp’s focus has always been on the students of Berkeley High—their well being and their education. He has provided stability and leadership during a time of difficult budget cuts to education. The Berkeley High School community deeply appreciates the talents and dedication he has brought to his work on behalf of our student body.”
Slemp couldn’t be reached for comment immediately. Among Berkeley Unified administrators, Slemp was unique because he rarely returned phone calls, especially from the press. He once told the Daily Planet that he preferred meeting with people in person because his busy schedule prevented him from returning phone calls.
Reactions ranged from surprise to shock to relief in the Berkeley High community, which is split between those who idolize Slemp and those who don’t.
Science Department head Evy Kavaler said the news came to her both “as a surprise and not a surprise.”
“Nobody knew anything,” Kavaler said. “A lot of people were hoping that something like that would happen. They were wishing for new leadership.”
Kavaler said that Slemp went about business as usual at the High school’s Shared Governance meeting Tuesday night.
“He didn’t say anything—he was acting like he was not gone,” she said. “He may have told other people, but he didn’t tell me. I am not one of his closest friends anymore.”
Slemp’s relationship with the Berkeley High Science Department soured badly in the last year, especially because of the science lab issue.
“It’s been very frustrating to deal with the administration,” Kavaler said. “Even the vice principals have not been very supportive of the science labs. But it’s not just the science labs, there were other things going on in other departments.”
Kavaler said she had heard a bit of good news from one of her colleagues--that Superintendent Bill Huyett was ready to support science labs at the high school.
Apart from the science lab controversy, Slemp’s relationship with Berkeley High science teachers has been one disaster after another..
A group of science teachers recently protested Slemp’s recommendation not to renew a science teacher’s contract because of performance issues.
BHS science department teachers walked out of their staff meeting last week and marched en masse first to the principal's office and then to the office of the district superintendent protesting the decision.
Slemp was also in the news after some parent complained that the Berkeley High School Governance Council lacked transparency and was not in compliance with federal, state and local guidelines. The board formed a two-member policy subcommittee last June to investigate the issue.
When reached by the Planet Wednesday, Huyett said he could not immediately comment on Slemp’s retirement because it was a personnel issue.
He added that the retirement would be discussed by the board in closed session at the school board meeting tonight.
Huyett issued a statement lauding Slemp for his efforts to improve Berkeley High, especially campus safety, student environment and development and implementation of new programs, including small schools.
“As a new Principal at Berkeley High School, Jim Slemp immediately developed positive relationships with students,” Huyett’s statement said. “His commitment to students was obvious and visible. He could be seen talking to seniors, laughing with freshmen, and generally making students feel safer and more comfortable on campus. Jim has continued to maintain a great relationship with students throughout his tenure. Jim developed a leadership team of vice principals to assist him in carrying out the task of running a large urban high school. He can be credited with encouraging the same team spirit among support staff. Under his leadership, BHS created the small schools and the American Baccalaureate High School and brought back student activities such as assemblies, all school spirit rallies, and school dances.”
Huyett also assured community members that their input would be heard when the district begins its search for a new candidate. Before Slemp arrived at Berkeley High, his predecessors went through extremely short stints as principal.
Kavaler, whose time at Berkeley High started before Slemp’s, recalled the principal’s early years at the school.
“When he came into Berkeley High School, it was a mess,” she said. “I was not going to send my children there if they didn’t get a new principal. He turned Berkeley High School around. In his first couple of years, the tenor of the high school changed. Teachers felt like it was a place where they could belong. The problem was that tension started arising between different groups—between the small schools and the big programs.”
Another teacher, who did not want to reveal her name, said that the science department at the high school was probably having a party after hearing the news.
“He wanted to destroy the science program, so teachers were saying, wouldn’t it be great if Slemp retired?,” the teacher said.