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Berkeley Science Labs Compromise?

The superintendent reached a deal with science teachers that may ease the controversy over the elimination of science labs in favor of programs designed to help close the city's racial achievement gap.

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A controversial proposal to slash science labs at Berkeley High School that serve mostly white students in order to redirect resources to struggling black and Latino youth grabbed national headlines and spurred allegations of reverse racism. But a new compromise proposal negotiated by Berkeley's school Superintendent William Huyett may help ease some of the anger generated by the original plan. The deal would still allow the high school to free up funds to address its huge racial achievement gap, while leaving in place more science lab instruction than originally proposed.

Huyett announced the proposal at the last school board meeting, saying it came out of three "extended" meetings with six science teachers and the high school principal. It leaves in place hours for two full-time science lab teachers where the original plan called for cutting all five of the high school's extra science lab instructors. Huyett said in an interview that the "healthy debate" over the science labs issue was a good sign that the community cares a lot about the academic achievement of all of its kids. He only hopes now that things can cool down and a "less intense dialogue" will follow with a "focus on the issues."

Aaron Glimme, a member of the science teacher negotiating team who teaches AP Chemistry at Berkeley High, said he was pleased with how the meetings were conducted and said the superintendent's work on negotiating between the parties was valuable. He noted that the outcome was a partial victory in terms of protecting the existing science program at Berkeley High, but it still represents a loss of instruction time. "I don't think anyone got what they wanted, which is the hallmark of a compromise," he said. Berkeley school board member John Selawsky also commended the superintendent for stepping in and brokering a deal, which he described as a "reasonable approach," but added that the school board has yet to see the full details of the plan in writing.

Both the new plan and the original, which was first reported by this newspaper, will come before the school board as an information item this week as part of a larger high school redesign plan, but no final decision is anticipated until April or May. The elected school board members may feel obliged to tell district staff and the public which parts of the two proposals they prefer, but the plans are scheduled to come before a citizen body that oversees the district's spending of Berkeley's local tax revenue. That citizen body, the Planning and Oversight Committee, will then send its recommendation back to the school board sometime this spring.

The special funding for the science labs at Berkeley High comes from parcel tax money approved by city voters, known as the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project. As written, the majority of the parcel tax money goes to class-size reduction, with parts left over for extras like the special college preparatory and AP science labs whose future is now in question.

A main concern for school officials is the time of day the science labs are now being taught — class periods that fall outside of the traditional school day, so-called periods zero and seven. Both plans to cut back on science lab instruction include bringing some of that class time back into the traditional school day.

Selawsky says that scheduling lab classes before and after school "is a serious problem," primarily with the later period seven, since students with commitments to sports teams, after-school jobs, or younger siblings are unable to participate. Selawsky has asked the superintendent for an attendance report on these early and late period lab classes, which should be a part of this week's school board meeting.

"The district can't afford to pay for classes if only ten to thirteen kids are attending," Selawsky said. He added that there is an unresolved legal question as well — whether the district can penalize students by giving them lower grades for not attending classes that are held outside the traditional school day.

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 spoke to the Express from Monterey, while attending an annual superintendent's conference. He described the atmosphere there as somewhat "depressing and worrisome" with the biggest topic being the terrible financial shape public schools are in throughout California. He was quick to point out that Berkeley's school district is in better condition than most, but that doesn't eliminate the likelihood of some more difficult choices in the coming year.

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.

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