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Berkeley High School – the Science Labs and Governance Council Controversies Continue

By Raymond Barglow,
Thursday April 01, 2010 - 09:18:00 AM

A rift between science teachers at Berkeley High School and the administration deepened at the end of 2009, when the School Governance Committee (SGC) approved Principal Slemp’s recommendation to eliminate science lab instruction being offered before and after regular school hours (in the 0th and 7th periods). This decision resulted in a campaign by parents and other members of the school community, including a group of parents calling itself “Science and Equity,” to preserve the labs. School district superintendent Bill Huyett intervened personally and met with school administrators and teachers, coming up with a compromise plan to reduce but not eliminate the labs. That compromise plan is currently not being implemented by the school administration, according to SGC parent representative Peggy Scott and science department head Evy Kavaler.  

Superintendent Huyett specified in the plan that a lab for the regular chemistry, biology, and physics courses would be made available to “any student who requests it.” But the administration is not honoring this provision, according to Kavaler, Scott and other parents. Scott said that counselors who are advising students preparing their fall course schedules are telling them that they cannot or should not sign up for the labs. 

Mark Coplan, the school board public information officer, explained this by saying that the district has not approved any funding for the labs, and cannot do so until it determines whether such funding will be available. Hence the compromise proposal that the superintendent worked out with BHS administration and teachers, said Coplan, cannot be considered as final, and has in fact not even been approved by the school board. 

In response, Scott says that this year’s handling of the lab sign-ups breaks with standard practice in the past, when students enrolling in science classes were automatically signed up for the labs. Scott said that even if there is some question about funding for the labs, students should be enrolling in them now, just as they have done in previous years when the district also faced funding uncertainties. Discouraging students from signing up for the labs creates a major problem, said Scott, because, judging from the past, it will be difficult for students to add them to their schedules later on. Because class sizes and resource allocations are made before school recommences in the fall, the school does not ordinarily allow students to add a course or lab just before the new term begins. 

Kavaler also pointed out that the compromise proposal, even if implemented, will do substantial harm to the school’s science program. Normally, she said, about two-thirds of BHS students participate in labs. This number will be sharply reduced under the new plan. Assuming that funding for the equity grants will continue next year, those that previously funded science labs will become available to support other courses at the school, and teachers will submit applications to receive them. It is possible for science teachers to apply for these grants, but Kavaler is doubtful that they will do so. “They took this funding away from us,” said Kavaler, so it seems pointless for us to apply to get it back.” 

With respect to the administration of Berkeley High, the current governance structure is currently being revised. The California Education Code specifies that there must be parity on public high school site councils, or any equivalent governance structure, between school personnel on the one hand and parents and students on the other. Berkeley High’s SGC, however, has 20 school personnel but only eight parents and students. In addition, the “small learning communities” into which the entire school is divided are currently not being given proportional representation. A restructuring plan is expected to be submitted to the school board at the April 14 meeting, and approval will be given by the board at its meeting on April 28. Information about this April schedule, which is tentative at this point, should be made available to the public at the BUSD website, at least 72 hours prior to these meetings.  

Scott said “I think the Policy Committee of the school board is making a very good faith effort to get this [governance restructuring] done before the student and staff elections for next year’s SGC. Those elections happen in the spring. SGC Parent elections traditionally happen in September.” Scott added that she has been assured that elections will not be held until the board has put new rules in place, even if this means delaying the elections for a short time. It is possible, according to Scott, that the board will increase the number of parent and student representatives on the governance council. 

Raymond Barglow is the founder of Berkeley Tutors Network.