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?