Photo/Jeremy Franklin
Photo/Jeremy Franklin

We wrote last week about the debate over science and the achievement gap at Berkeley High School. There’s a stream of comments on that earlier post that are well worth reading, if you’re concerned about the issue.

Priscilla Myrick, a former Berkeley High School Governance Council parent representative and mother of two BHS graduates, weighs in with an open letter, arguing for the importance of the science labs:

Science education for all Berkeley students is too important for the community to ignore.  The achievement gap includes literacy, math and science. The following are some facts on BHS student achievement in science, how funding from the BSEP parcel tax works, science education as part of the national “Race to the Top” education agenda, and how the lack of good governance at Berkeley High in terms of compliance with the Education Code, board policy, and BSEP tax measure is leading to poor decision-making about a Berkeley High education.  Please voice your opinion to the BUSD board.

Issue:  The BHS School Governance Council recently voted to show their support of a proposal that will eliminate FTEs (full time equivalent) credentialed science teachers that are currently being used to fund science labs (approximately 4-5 FTEs) in favor of teachers supporting unspecified “equity” proposals.  The Principal has directed the SGC to review the use of these (public BSEP funds) through an “equity lens.”

THIS IS A FALSE CHOICE.  Berkeley High needs BOTH a strong college prep science program AND academic support for students struggling at the bottom of the achievement gap.  The BSEP parcel tax provides funding to do BOTH and has. In November 2006 the Berkeley Public Schools Educational Excellence Act (also known as BSEP/Measure A) was extended for ten years through June 2017.  BUSD is one of the best funded districts in the state thanks to local taxpayer support.  BUSD receives $12,400 per student compared with the average California unified school district that receives $9,000 — almost 40% more!

Achievement in science at BHS

  • Since elimination of double period science in 2003, achievement has declined.  For example, in chemistry the percent of students proficient declined from 48 % in 2003 to 37% proficient in 2009.  In order to maintain the quality of the current program existing labs MUST be retained.  Students need more time in class/labs, not less.
  • Science labs provide weekly enrichment and satisfy UC and CSU requirements that college prep science classes offer 20% of instructional time for hands-on lab activities.  Extra lab periods provide additional time to support struggling students.
  • Elimination of these labs will reduce instructional time in science classes by more than 21% (30% in AP classes).
  • Each year Berkeley High offers over 60 sections of lab science courses to 1,700 students, almost 20% of those sections are Advanced Placement courses that offer the students the possibility of college-level credit.  This is a major portion of the college preparatory academic program at Berkeley High.

Funding from BSEP parcel tax

  • In December Berkeley taxpayers are paying their tax bills and the BSEP tax levy.  BSEP stands for Berkeley Schools Excellence Project.  The BSEP tax averages $500 per year ($.228 per square foot) per household.  Berkeley voters supported the tax with 74% approval.  Berkeley taxpayers deserve the promised oversight that spending is in accordance with the tax measure.  It does not appear that unspecified “equity” grants proposed by the Principal are appropriately being taken from BSEP “expanded course offering” funds.
  • In total BSEP contributes about $22 million to the BUSD total budget of over $108 million. Local tax funds are integral to educating Berkeley’s children.  At Berkeley High, BSEP funds:
    1)  25% of the classroom teachers (34-35 FTE) $3.0 million (Smaller Class Size Funding)
    2)  expanded course offerings (6 FTE) $500K (Expanded Course Offering Funding)
    3)  and educational support/school enrichment and instructional materials (13 FTE) over $700K  (Site Discretionary Funding)
  • BSEP also supports the Berkeley High School library, as well as parent outreach, professional development, evaluation and technology. Almost 50 teachers and classified staff at Berkeley High are supported by BSEP. Why is Principal Slemp targeting to eliminate 4-5 science lab FTEs?
  • Since Berkeley High ended double-period science in 2003, science labs in addition to classroom time have been consistently funded from BSEP funds for expanded course offerings.  Principal Slemp has coerced the SGC into eliminating science labs (4-5 FTE) in favor of unspecified “equity” classes.  No data supports the undefined use of these critical classroom teachers.
  • BSEP Planning & Oversight Chair Julie Holcomb stated, “In any case, according to the [BSEP tax] Measure, those FTE have to be used for classroom teachers teaching courses to students (they couldn’t be used for counselors, for example), and they have to ‘expand course offerings.’  The ‘Equity Grants’ would have to comply with the Measure if they are being funded by it.”
  • The Berkeley community supports the BSEP parcel tax (Berkeley Schools Excellence Project) in order that Berkeley High can offer enhanced academic learning opportunities for all students.  A substantial amount of BSEP funding is site discretionary spending.  Almost $700K already is allocated to a range of educational support and enrichment services including: tutors, academic support coordinator, college counselors, student learning center, after-school teacher tutorials.  In fact the site discretionary fund supports the AP Project that works with first-generation college-bound students in gateway classes such as geometry and chemistry, and in small schools and programs in the most rigorous classes offered.
  • BSEP through its class size reduction money allows Berkeley High to offer Algebra I (normally taken in middle school) to struggling high school students with a class ratio of 20:1 rather that the overall average of 28:1.  Many upper level math classes enroll over 28 students (some math classes have over 40 students) in order to allow for an overall average of 28:1.
  • Additionally, BSEP class size reduction allows for the existence of an Accelerated Reading class for students who struggle with basic literacy skills in an atmosphere of less than 10:1.

Importance of science education at the state and national level

Note the comments made by President Obama regarding math and science education in announcing the Educate to Innovate campaign two weeks ago:

Leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today, especially in those fields that hold the promise of producing future innovations and innovators.  And that’s why education in math and science is so important… I’m committed to moving our country from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math education over the next decade… To meet this goal, the Recovery Act included the largest investment in education in history while preventing hundreds of thousands of educators from being fired because of state budget shortfalls… Today, we are launching the “Educate to Innovate” campaign, a nationwide effort to help reach the goal this administration has set: moving to the top in science and math education in the next decade.

  • As a country, we lag in math and science, and minorities are significantly underrepresented in math and science in undergraduate and graduate programs and ultimately in those scientific and technical jobs in the work force.  Math and science must be strengthened at the high school level in order to fill the educational pipeline and achieve educational equity. Data from the National Science Foundation show that African Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans are significantly under-represented in the sciences.  For example, African Americans represent only 1% of PhD scientists.
  • According to UC Berkeley, “In California, our most underrepresented minorities in the sciences are African-Americans, and Hispanics are the second most underrepresented group.  Thus, the bulk of our [outreach] efforts are directed toward developing a better pipeline to both our undergraduate and graduate programs for students from these communities.”
  • How is Berkeley High doing in preparing all of our students, but particularly African-American and Latino students, in math and science?  How many of our African-American and Latino students graduate from Berkeley High having completed successfully the UC/CSU-required lab science and math courses?  Doesn’t this suggest that more time in college-prep classes, not less, is where we should be targeting our increasingly scarce public resources?
  • The fastest growing occupations in medicine, healthcare, technology and the green economy all require excellent high school level science and math preparation.

School Governance Council decision process out of compliance with Education Code, BUSD Board policy, and BSEP tax measure

  • The Berkeley High School Governance Council is out of compliance with California Education Code, board policy, and the BSEP tax measure in terms of the composition of the voting membership.  The public is entitled to 50% voting membership, or parity, with school/administrative staff.  The current composition of the Berkeley High SGC is 27 teachers and staff, only 8 parents/students.
  • The majority of teachers on the SGC are affiliated with the 4 small schools that represent only 26% of the total student population at Berkeley High
  • The public is entitled to transparency and accountability of the SGC.  The entire process of the Berkeley High redesign has been secretive and dismissive of legitimate public comment.
  • The SGC and the school board are elected to oversee public education at both the site and district level.  Neither the SGC nor the school board has enforced provisions of the Brown Act (open governance laws) or the provision for 50% public representation on the SGC (parity requirements of the Education Code).  Note: All other 15 SGCs in the school district comply with the parity requirement. Berkeley High is the only exception.
  • The school board has a policy subcommittee meeting on the issue of the non-compliance of the Berkeley High SGC, yet neither the school board nor the superintendent has required the Berkeley High SGC to  comply with the Education Code and board policy.

Our BSEP tax dollars are being redirected at Berkeley High without appropriate oversight or accountability guaranteed by the tax measure.  The decision to eliminate science labs and five science teachers was made by the principal, staff and non-science teachers on the SGC.  The fate of quality science education at Berkeley High deserves a broader discussion.  Let the school board know of your concern. Email:

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  1. Finally, I should add that if Berkeley had tax revenues anywhere near commensurate with the amount of economic activity and property values within it boarders – which it could have with only slightly diminished capital expenditures by Cal and LBL – our problems re BHS would be entirely political ones of administrators fighting over and abusing too much of a budget. That the current BHS crisis is being framed around science teaching – an area in which Cal and LBL are strong by international measures – lays bare the injustice we’re living with. All California and federal tax-payers subsidize those institutions but some animals are more equal than others and Berkeley pays (in real costs and lost opportunity costs) the most.

  2. I should add that I am not at all convinced that a solution to the problems of BHS under-achievement exists within the range of options of how to run BHS. Nor do I think it is a viable solution to say “parents should do more”. This is a community problem and the solutions should involve the whole community (in more ways than just taxation).

  3. Irene, I’m so very glad that an LBL research scientist showed up to this debate here on Berkeleyside (aka, at least to me, for short, “BS” (a short-hand I use fondly and with irony)). Cutting to the point:

    What will it take to created expanded and fairly open access extra-curricular, credit-earning, hands-on lab and science class-room opportunities for BHS students at LBL and Cal? (Perhaps there are already some? If so, are they enough and if not what would take to expand them?)

    My rationale for asking is that many at Cal and LBL have had and/or are great teachers… and that, I won’t believe the denials, both institutions have the capacity. What your institutions won’t pay in taxes they ought to give back in community service.

  4. As a Lawrence Berkeley National Lab research scientist and trainer of undergraduate UCB students, and as a contributor to the additional property taxes required to support Berkeley schools, I strongly support science education and in particular lab courses of sufficient length at Berkeley High. I thank Priscilla Myrick for her informative overview of the situation, and also thank Lee Trampleasure for his comments. While I empathize with highschool instructors in their dilemma of learning how to teach in limited time, Mr. Trampleasure fails to note that opening a book in English class is less complex that setting up to do a wet lab experiment, and it is this difference that justifies a longer time period for science labs. There is no substitute for hands-on science labs, and we cannot afford to weaken the science education currently offered in our nation at any level or at any location.

  5. I’ve been meaning to weigh in on this topic, but with finals coming up haven’t had much time, but some comments can’t be left un-answered:

    Ms. Myrick wrote:
    “Since elimination of double period science in 2003, achievement has declined. For example, in chemistry the percent of students proficient declined from 48 % in 2003 to 37% proficient in 2009. In order to maintain the quality of the current program existing labs MUST be retained. Students need more time in class/labs, not less.”

    I taught science at BHS from 1996 to 2004. I taught both double-period and single-period “college prep” courses (Integrated Science 3-4 was BHS’s only single period UC lab science at the time). I left to write curriculum at Lawrence Hall of Science. I am now teaching in another Bay Area high school.

    When we moved from double-period science classes to the current single-period plus one lab/week schedule (I was still at BHS at this time), many science teachers claimed that we could not possibly teach the science curriculum in that amount of time. My response was “ask a social studies teacher, as an English teacher, ask any other teacher if s/he can get through the state mandated curriculum in a single period, and if they would like double periods.” Clearly, the more time you have with students, the more they can learn. But to say “we need more time than other disciplines” does not take the entire school into consideration. Everyone could use more time, and if science classes get more time, it comes out of students other times.

    So, yes, if you take away time from students in one discipline, you should expect their achievement to decline. But that does not mean that you must keep the imbalance of time in that discipline.

    Most high school science teachers teach their curriculum in single periods, and manage to fit in a significant amount of lab time. In fact, the proposed bell schedule I saw posted included 58 minute classes, thus allowing more time for labs than the traditional ~45 minute class periods. I know there are teachers who don’t do many labs during their “normal” class time, and this is a shame. The state requirement that 20-40% of class time is in hands-on lab is there because students learn and retain more when they get their hands on materials in well-designed lab. And it does not require an additional lab period–I have been complying with this requirement for 15 years, and I am not the only teacher in California doing so.