Issues Confronting Berkeley High School, BUSD and California

By Andrew Wilde-Price

Photo by Madeleine Luckel

State of the District
Berkeley High is changing. From a lack of desks in classrooms to arguments over schedule changes and the more recent science lab debate, something is always going on at Berkeley High School. By the following week, some new event or issue has emerged.

2020 Vision Plan
Two years ago, the City Council and the School Board banded together to create a plan to significantly lower the achievement gap in Berkeley schools. The aim is to do this by the time current second graders graduate high school in the year 2020. The reins of the project were given over to the Berkeley Alliance.

“The fact that the school board and the city allowed for the Alliance and Nicole Sanchez to speak for them says volumes,” said Mark Coplan, the public information officer for the BUSD. The job of the public information officer is to act as a liaison between the district and the district office.

The Berkeley Alliance is a non–profit organization, “responsible for convening all the partners around the 2020 Vision Plan,” said Nicole Sanchez, the executive director of Berkeley Alliance. Accoding to Sanchez, the Alliance was founded ten years ago by the school district, Berkeley, and UC Berkeley as an independent organization, “in order to build a independent non–profit that would bring them together to work on issues of importance to all three and, to date, 2020 Vision is the largest project Berkeley Alliance has ever worked on with these partners.”

On March 24 the Alliance will present the first pilot program to the City Council and the School Board. This will show display two years of hard work and dedication. “We have learned a lot in the last two years. It is very easy to be frustrated and to say the progress has been slow, but one of the things we have learned from other communities that are facing this is that the slow part is getting up off the ground is between two and four years, before people can see something tangible on the ground ready to go,” explained Sanchez.

Once the plan is presented at the end of March, the City of Berkeley, the University and the District will decide how many resources they can devote to making it a reality.

Science Labs
Recently there has been some debate over the future of science labs. In order to be “college preparatory,” science needs to do labs with the class. The afternoon and morning labs are funded by the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP), a local tax initiative. The BSEP is a tax on Berkeley that pays for a variety of different programs within the Berkeley school system. BSEP is the main reason for smaller class sizes at BHS, where classrooms only hold around 28 students on average. Besides addressing issues of classroom size and funding for non–essential programs, BSEP has found itself at the forefront of the science labs debate. Regarding the science lab controversy Mark Coplan remarked, “The debate has to be addressed.”

Some within the community claim that it is harder for minority students to get to lab because it’s hard for them to get up in the morning or they have obligations after school like work. “I usually get [to lab], but it’s hard to wake up really, really early,” said BHS sophomore Kelechi Okereke, a students in AP Chemistry. “Sometimes, I mean, we will do homework and stuff, sometimes we will have lab, but most of the time twice a week is too much for us, the work load that we are getting just seems too much,” Okereke added.

AP Chemistry is known as a challenging course that is taught around labs and has been for a very long time. Many opponents of the elimination of science labs argue it would be very difficult to teach at the fast pace needed to prepare for the AP tests without the extra two hours every week to do labs and go over homework.

This controversy has attracted many state newspapers; the school district got a lot of attention for a few weeks. The issue remains unresolved.

California is strapped for cash and education has been severely affected by recent budget cuts. There was a $6.3 billion projected deficit for 2009–10 school year. BUSD is no exception to the districts across the state that are feeling the pinch.

More budget cuts are anticipated for next year within our district. “This boils down to a projected $2.7 to $3.0 million loss from the Berkeley Unified School District Budget, in addition to the cuts that have already been made,” commented Coplan for the 2010–2011 school year. This is expected to get worse the year after that. The district will also run out of stimulus money in the 2011–2012 school year, only worsening the situation.

“I want to know what the cuts are going to, are they funding the war? Education seems like the most important thing and the thing that we need the most, so why, why are we cutting education, yet prisons still have less cuts then education, but we are putting more people in prison which is a lot more money then they are giving to education,” asked Okereke.