Schools

BHS science lab controversy: A parent’s viewpoint

Susan Helmrich has been a parent at Berkeley High for the last six years. As co-chair of the Development Group and a former member of the school site council, Helmrich is very familiar with the workings of the high school. Yet last night’s school board meeting left her – and many others – confused about which science lab proposal is on the table. The following is her report of the evening.

There was a tremendous amount of confusion around last night’s school board meeting.  Despite the fact that Superintendent Huyett stated he had worked out a compromise plan with science teachers in January to retain labs for some of the IB and AP science classes, Principal Jim Slemp appeared to be pushing ahead with his original plan to eliminate 0 and 7th period science labs altogether.  The Board packet for last night’s meeting included Principal Slemp’s plan and not Superintendant Huyett’s.  All of this was extremely confusing as the BUSD’s own homepage stated that a compromise had been worked out.  However, the superintendent’s proposal was nowhere to be seen in the packet, and he apologized profusely at the meeting for the omission as he tried to clarify the agenda.  Supt. Huyett assured everyone in attendance that “we are looking for high standards for all students and he had no intention to bring the top down in trying to close the achievement gap”.

As a parent very involved at Berkeley High and a former member of the School Governance Coucil, I remain extremely confused.  Which proposal is being considered?  Does Principal Slemp need School Board approval for his plan?  Does the Superintendent’s plan trump the Principal’s? Does either plan need BSEP P & O (Process and Oversight Committee) approval?

I was hoping to speak at the BUSD Board meeting last night. However my card did not get picked. Here are some of the points I would have made:

1)  When would these so-called “equity” classes on note-taking and study skills be offered?  If (as some have said) kids aren’t showing up for interesting classes like science labs, what makes anyone think they will show up for a class on study skills and how to take notes?

2) We need to invest this kind of time and effort in the middle schools so students can come to BHS already knowing how to take notes and manage their time. Also, can’t these kinds of things be incorporated into every class already being taught — or what about the advisories?  I thought this was going to be one of the goals of advisories.

3) Who will teach these classes?  Will we use valuable resources like trained chemistry, history or language teachers to teach study skills?  Also, would these classes be full-semester classes?  These should be workshops — not classes.

4)  BSEP money currently funds a full-time Student Support Coordinator.  Is this position being used to its fullest potential?

5) The Berkeley High School Development Group has invested many thousands of dollars over the past few years to support an After School Tutoring Program.  Currently we are paying more than 30 teachers to offer free tutoring for all classes across the board, Mon- Thurs afternoons.  Is anyone looking to see how this program could be used more effectively? Possibly expanded?  How about making it mandatory for students with Ds and Fs to attend at least one tutoring class per week?

6) The Development Group has also invested thousands of dollars over the past few years to pay Classroom Matters, a local business that specializes in helping kids with note-taking skills, time management skills, etc.  These workshops are held several times throughout the year — free for any student to attend. Can’t we use this system, already in place, more effectively?

7) I do not understand how we can be looking to cut science labs – one of the best programs at BHS and clearly, one of the best in the country.  The whole world is looking at ways to increase science and math skills in our students – how can Berkeley be trying to take it away?

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  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Mr. Helmrich,

    I think that I can help answer some of your questions although, obviously, I can’t do so authoritatively. A couple of your several good questions I have no answer for, but a lot of them are already answered “out there” in the chaos of documents and reports and so forth. So….

    You asked about the omission of the “compromise plan” for the packet. Although the reasons for the omission are unclear, the reason for its likely irrelevance are a bit more clear: money. Mr. Huyett and most in depth news reporting on the compromise have made clear that it is viable only if funding levels for next year continue at levels that were originally projected, that for now still remain the nominal projections, but that are widely regarded as not realistic. Here is how it was reported in the East Bay Express:

    “Since the priority for the parcel tax money is class-size reduction, Selawsky and Huyett said there is a sad, but increasingly likely possibility that all of the special funds could end up being used to backfill the looming cuts from the state. [....] Huyett said that Berkeley schools are still anticipating more cuts from the governor, and called the current financial projection from the state a “fantasy budget” because it includes $7 billion from the federal government that “no one has promised” as of yet.”

    http://www.eastbayexpress.com/92510/archives/2010/02/02/berkeley-science-labs-compromise

    Here is how Mr. Huyett put it in the BUSD newsletter:

    “While I am in support of these [compromise] recommendations,and believe thoughtful work has gone into developing them, at this time, I can only pledge that these recommendations will be seriously considered during the District’s budget development process for the next school year. [....] Therefore I want to emphasize that we must use our District process to determine whether there will be sufficient BSEP monies to provide additional allocation of teachers for all supplementary programs.”

    http://www.berkeleyside.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/BUSD_A+_News_Feb_2010.pdf

    You asked if Slemp’s plan or Huyett’s compromise requires School Board or BSEP P&O Committee approval. As nearly as I can tell from the relevant state code and city ordinances, the answer is “no, but…” I’ll explain:

    There does not appear to be any legal requirement or established BUSD policy requirement that would prevent BHS administration from unilaterally enacting the plan, at least as far as changing the schedule, canceling some classes, etc. (I am uncertain about BUSD policy for personnel actions such as hiring and firing.) Legally, for example, Slemp is free to unilaterally order BHS staff to implement his plan by revising the course catalog, creating new classes, canceling classes, etc.

    As a practical matter, the situation is very different. As you know but I’m mention for completeness, the Board has absolute authority to reverse any action taken by Slemp or to preemptively order him not to take a given action. If course they can even fire him, subject to the terms of his contract. So he needs their approval in that sense, he just legally doesn’t appear to need them to take a vote and sign off on his plan.

    The BSEP Committee is strictly advisory. Their prior approval is not needed for Slemp to act. And, if they find that Slemp’s plan would violate the parcel tax ordinance, their sole recourse is to report their findings to Board. So, similarly, Slemp does not legally require their assent to act. On the other hand, if they felt his plan would violate the ordinance they could raise a stink and (as a practical matter) likely put a stop to it.

    You asked: “When would these so-called “equity” classes on note-taking and study skills be offered? If (as some have said) kids aren’t showing up for interesting classes like science labs, what makes anyone think they will show up for a class on study skills and how to take notes?”

    In all accounts, that skill-building is part of the advisory program which is to take place during periods 1-6. It is expected that student attendance will be better than if advisory were scheduled during periods 0 or 7 because it is observed that many students are unable to attend those periods.

    You remark: “2) We need to invest this kind of time and effort in the middle schools.”

    I don’t think anyone disagrees and, indeed, that is also being actively worked upon especially as part of the “2020 Vision” that the City is supporting. See, for example: http://www.berkeleyalliance.org/

    And you ask: “Also, can’t these kinds of things be incorporated into every class already being taught — or what about the advisories? I thought this was going to be one of the goals of advisories.”

    I believe that those things are supposed to be part of the advisories.

    You ask: “3) Who will teach these classes? Will we use valuable resources like trained chemistry, history or language teachers to teach study skills? Also, would these classes be full-semester classes? These should be workshops — not classes.”

    The plan states that they are full year affairs, part of a sustained relation between advisors and students. I’m not sure, off the top of my head, the number of course hours intended.

    (As an editorial aside: I can only hope that highly trained teachers in all fields with both regard and be required to contribute to advisory-type programs as a duty. All of the best teachers I’ve known over the years do that kind of thing. And it makes them better teachers, with better students, in their areas of academic specialization.)

    You asked about the “Student Support Coordinator” and I have no clue what the answer to that question is.

    You asked about the effectiveness of the After School Tutoring Program and, again, I have no idea except on one small point: You asked if the program could be made mandatory for students with Ds and Fs. The answer appears to be that, no, the school has no authority to make an after school program mandatory.

    You asked about “6) The Development Group has also invested thousands of dollars over the past few years to pay Classroom Matters, a local business that specializes in helping kids with note-taking skills, time management skills, etc. These workshops are held several times throughout the year — free for any student to attend. Can’t we use this system, already in place, more effectively?”

    The proposed advisory program is far more intensive and comprehensive than anything the Development Group does. Also, a key point of the advisory proposal is to make it universal to all students and a part of the regular school day. Perhaps BHSDG can help, as they appear to help with so many other BHS projects.

    You ask: “7) I do not understand how we can be looking to cut science labs – one of the best programs at BHS and clearly, one of the best in the country. The whole world is looking at ways to increase science and math skills in our students – how can Berkeley be trying to take it away?”

    Such a question invites only an editorial answer:

    While the BHS advanced science curriculum has some of the best outcomes around, there are problems with looking at it that way.

    a) BHS also scores a lot of “one of the worsts” in the area of the achievement gap. Alongside the arguments that this is unethical, it also raises questions about BUSDs liabilities, especially under state educational equity laws.

    b) Let’s assume for the moment that Mr. Huyett’s grave concerns about the budget prove justified and that, consequently, there’s a good chance we can’t afford these extra-period labs whether Mr. Slemp’s proposals are enacted or not. Let’s pretend, for the moment, that Mr. Slemp’s proposals weren’t even on the table and the only thing before us was the necessity of canceling those labs. I think we’d have a challenging but definitely solvable problem, as a City and as a community, to sustain our great outcomes for high achieving students who pursue science with such vigor. The classroom is far from the only way such students learn and it is among the more expensive ways that they learn. The loss of the extra lab periods is a serious concern but it is a problem we can overcome.

    In contrast, ignoring or failing at closing the achievement gap sets up the City (and those high achieving students) for much more difficult problems in the short and medium term future.

    In other words, it’s a bit of a “triage” mentality that makes some sense here.

  • CB

    Mr. Lord,

    Once again, while you condescendingly try to school others, your logic falls victim to blind acceptance of BHS’ definition of “achievement gap” and “equity”. The dictionary defines “equity” as being just, fair and impartial. That’s not particularly helpful when trying to determine how we allocate precious resources towards educating Berkeley students.

    When you talk about equitable, perhaps you’re talking about all students achieving at the same level. If so, you’re on a fool’s mission. We should no more expect all the students to perform equally well in art, music, theater or sports, even if we had unlimited resources, than we should expect it in math or science.

    A second and more straightforward interpretation of equitable might mean spending the same amount of money on each student. That is clearly not one of the options being considered since BHS already disporportionately allocates resources and would like to widen the “investment gap”.

    A third interpretation of “equity” might mean trying to have all students achive some minimal threshold of competency. Just who or how such a threshold would be set is unclear. What if we did not have the resources to achieve that goal? Would you continue the “triage”? Just how much more are you willing to sacrifice? Or should we just accept your gratuitous suggestion that we continue to do it because it just might work no matter what the collateral damage.

    As a concerned parent, I am interested in understanding BHS’ analysis of its “achievement gap” and its definition of equity. I would be intereted in hearing from the school about a sustainable and affordable plan to address the education needs of all of the children rather than witnessing random acts of political correctness.

  • Peter Rose

    Thank you for sharing the comments you would have made at the school board meeting, Ms. Helmrich. I watched the proceedings on ch. 33. I was struck by several things. First, Ms. Hemphill continued to state the false notion that 0 and 7th periods are outside of the normal school day.
    When will she give that up? Her vote on the bell schedule last year is public record, and that schedule includes those two periods. The bell schedule defines the school day. Second, I was very surprised that Mr. Halpern was so tone deaf as to request equity grants to reduce his already small classes to 20 students. How can he even consider this when other classes have 38 kids? Wow. I wish the BFT would explain why they refuse to support equal class loads for all teachers at BHS, or for that matter, why they are not supporting science teachers. Finally, I was sadly not surprised that Mr. Huyett continued to say there was some ambiguity over College Board recommendations for APES. There is no ambiguity–he can go to their website and read their recommendation for 2 double periods a week for lab time. These people are shedding credibility like snakes in molting season.

  • laura menard

    CB, the history of Berkeley’s ongoing failure to discuss and define “educational equity” is linked to the ascent of various political groups currently controlling the school reform agenda.

    I found it particularly amusing and refreshing to hear public comment the other night from Yvette Felarca, King Middle School teacher. She chose to frame the issue using the widely accepted notion the “opportunity gap”.

    Focusing on opportunity allows for an action oriented planning process, if undertaken within the local context has greater potential to both address individual and community needs.

  • laura menard

    http://www.examiner.com/x-37696-Berkeley-K12-Examiner~y2010m2d4-Berkeley-High-science-labs–complaint-filed-as-debate-comes-before-boardSGC-compliance-questioned

    pretty good reporting in the Examiner which begins to discuss why local control of education through Site Councils is not working.

    remember I posted earlier a message explaining how BUSD was recently spared scrutiny due to the state budget cuts when the CDE monitoring was canceled. BUSD was listed because of my numerous complaints about compliance for SB 187 Safe School plans. Safety plans and school improvement plans (SIP)are the responsibility of the School Site council (SSC).

    Berkeley hybrid called governance committee adds in BSEP oversight.

    Unionize SSC’s !!

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Hi CB,

    I can understand having a beef with the definition given to “achievement gap” but you should be aware that it isn’t BHS’s definition.

    The U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences measures and reports on achievement gaps at the national and state level. Within the state, the gap is measured for individual schools (which is why the comparison is often drawn that the gap at BHS is among or even the worst in the state). See:

    http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/studies/gaps/understand_gaps.asp

    http://www.cde.ca.gov/eo/in/se/agfactsheet.asp

    Your complaint about the definition of the achievement gap should really be directed at the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, and the California Dept. of Education.

    About “equity”: I agree that it is a hard philosophical problem to define equity in some cases. However, BHS is not “making up” its own definitions. BHS is obeying, among other things, state law. For example, see the California Education Code § 52052(5)(2) which reads:

    “(2)A school shall demonstrate comparable improvement in academic achievement as measured by the API by all numerically significant pupil subgroups at the school, including:

    (A)Ethnic subgroups.

    (B)Socioeconomically disadvantaged pupils.

    (C)English language learners.

    (D)Pupils with disabilities.”

    That section goes on to require school boards to develop and implement plans improve that performance. See:

    http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/cacode/EDC/2/d4/28/6.1/2/s52052

    On the philosophical side, you say: “When you talk about equitable, perhaps you’re talking about all students achieving at the same level. If so, you’re on a fool’s mission.”

    I am not talking about all students achieving at the same level. Nobody is. I agree with you that that would be a fool’s mission. What we are talking about, though, are ethic, socioeconomic, linguistic, and disability subgroups of BHS students who, on average, perform well below their other peers and below state and federal standards for basic proficiency. We also know that those groups are often in de facto segregated academic tracks.

    For better or worse, legally speaking, that’s evidence that BHS and BUSD could be construed as in violation of various civil rights legislation, at least if BHS and BUSD were to shrug their shoulders and say “sorry, there’s nothing we can do”.

    In other words, if you argue that the definition of “equity” being used is a bogus definition – and reasonable people can certainly disagree about that – I think your real fight isn’t so much with BHS or BUSD as with the federal and state governments, including the courts.

    You write: “A second and more straightforward interpretation of equitable might mean spending the same amount of money on each student.”

    Federal courts have many times rejected that definition of equity. As a simple example, schools have often been ordered to spend more on disabled students than on other students. But that’s a technical quibble.

    Is this is a fair to you if I understand you to mean: “CB suggests one strawman possibility: that allocation of school spending could be ‘blind’ with regards to ethnic groups and socioeconomic class?” I’m not trying to put words in your mouth I’m trying to make sure I understand your intent.

    *If* that’s what you mean then, while I happen to personally disagree with that notion, I do recognize that that’s a point over which reasonable people often disagree. I don’t think we’re going to reconcile such views here, right now.

    It is important to note, though, that the non-blind allocation we’re talking about here isn’t something that BHS or BUSD made up. It is mandated in state and federal law and well established in state in federal court decisions. It’s not something that BHS or BUSD can simply decide to ignore. If you want to fight that, I think you have to take that fight to the state and federal level.

    You also suggest another possibility: “A third interpretation of “equity” might mean trying to have all students achive some minimal threshold of competency. Just who or how such a threshold would be set is unclear.”

    Basic levels of competency are (at this time) largely established by the federal and state governments and measured by standardized testing.

    I think that the “equity” goal of BHS and BUSD, and the state and federal Departments of Education is almost what you say there, but is really even more ambitious:

    1) Very nearly every student should achieve the basic competency levels.

    2) The numbers of higher achieving students should grow, not shrink.

    3) Factors such as sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, disability status, and linguistic community at home should not be strong predictors of achievement.

    Goal 3 is where BHS is really falling down. As things stand today, when a new freshman walks in the door you can just look at the color of their skin. If its a white kid, you can accurately say “You have a very high percentage chance of high achievement here.” If it is a black kid, you can accurately say “You have a very high percentage chance of low achievement.” If you place money bets on it, you’ll tend to win – its easy money. That that is the case is clearly not entirely BHS’ fault. There are many factors in history and society that contribute to that cirucmstance. As a matter of social policy, the federal and state governments have asserted that public schools have a responsibility to help correct that problem and problems like it.

    You raise a good point, though:

    “What if we did not have the resources to achieve that goal? Would you continue the “triage”? Just how much more are you willing to sacrifice?”

    You’re asking my opinion so I don’t mind offering it.

    I’m willing to shift some of the burden of creating advanced opportunities for the highest achieving students from BUSD and BHS to the greater community. I’m also increasingly of the opinion that the small schools system (in its present form) and BIHS (in its present form) should be dismantled. Based on evidence and (yes, limited) personal experience I think that the consolidation of the schedule is viable and I think that a comprehensive and intensive advisory component has a good chance of helping all students, quite a lot – at least if we can ensure that the faculty are up to to the task.

    I don’t think we can do as well as we would wish on the three goals of sustaining high achievement for some, getting nearly every student to basic competency, and erasing the ethnic, socioeconomic and other differences in performance. I do think that all three of those goals are equally important.

    If BHS and BUSD were a good corporation in the kind of budget and performance trouble they are having, it would be time to somewhat aggressively and energetically make cuts and changes to become a “lean, mean, fighting machine”. That is part of why I think the small schools and BIHS should be on the table: they create built-in faction fighting and administrative inefficiencies; they also make it hard to measure the impact on overall performance of any one change.

    You write: “I would be interested in hearing from the school about a sustainable and affordable plan to address the education needs of all of the children rather than witnessing random acts of political correctness.”

    What concerns me is not the same as but not too far off from what you say there. The schedule consolidation and advisory seem to me like great ideas. Really great. What does worry me is that I understand Mr. Slemp to be deeply and in my opinion irrationally married to the small schools notion, and I worry that there is some irrational community sentiment that is protective of BIHS’ accredited baccalaureate program. The small schools create an unmanageable scene in the presence of budget limits. BIHS represents “mission creep”.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Mr. Rose, you write: “The bell schedule defines the school day.”

    The administration has stated and the board seems to agree that, no, periods 0 and 7 are special. They conflict with extra-curricular activities. They conflict with after school work and with sibling care and other family responsibilities. There is, for example, some substantial doubt that BHS could *legally* give a student a lower grade for skipping periods 0 or 7, given those conflicts and the traditional use of those periods.

    It’s not as clear an issue as one might think.