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Back to March Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 290 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS MARCH 2010

School May Cut Science Labs for 'Equity' Programs
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President Obama has called for "a national commitment to science education and training" that will position the U.S. to compete globally. Berkeley High School could provide some pointers on how to achieve those goals. Last year 82% of Berkeley High School's Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry students passed a rigorous exam that gives college credit to high school students; nationally, only 55% of students passed the exam. The school's AP physics and biology students do even better.

Such exceptional success leaves some parents and teachers asking why the school's principal and others now want to cut science labs to fund 'equity' classes such as note-taking and study skills for struggling students. The science program would lose the equivalent of five teaching positions and about 65 lab sections for college prep and AP classes.

The proposal is part of a school restructuring plan put forth by principal Jim Slemp to rectify Berkeley High's "achievement gap" between higher-performing white and Asian students and lower-performing black and Latino kids. "Our community at Berkeley High School has failed the African Americans. We need to bring everybody up — that's what this plan is about" (Oakland Tribune, 2-3-10) Berkeley High's achievement gap is the widest in the state, with just 31% of black students proficient in English, and 31% in math.

Part of the disparity, according to parent Peggy Scott, is due to the unique mix of students at the town's only high school. Kids of dot-com professionals and University of California professors mix with children living in poverty. "So many students at Berkeley High are from academic families," said Scott. "The high end is very high. The low end is the same tragic achievement gap that exists all over the U.S. What's wonderful here is that our kids all go to school together. . . . Taxpayers showed we care about all kids by approving the local education tax measures." (The Berkeley Daily Planet, 12-17-09)

Berkeley residents voted for a parcel tax in the 1980s to provide additional education funding to bridge the achievement gap. Most of the money is used to reduce class sizes, but about a third goes toward enhanced science and arts programs, and academic help such as tutoring. But the extra funding has done little to close the performance gap.

Parents opposed to the cuts argue that equity should not be sought by eliminating classes for high-performing students, but by improving classes offered to those who don't do as well. These parents and a group of science teachers have started an online petition and spoken out at school board meetings.

Mardi Sicular-Mertens, science teacher at the school for 24 years, said the potential cuts would also harm minority students. She noted there are 12 black males in her AP courses, and her environmental science classes are 18% black and 14% Latino.

Amy Hansen, a longtime biotechnology and AP chemistry teacher at Berkeley High, said in a letter to the school board that Principal Slemp and others who had lower expectations of black and Latino students were exhibiting "racism, plain and simple."

No final decision on the proposal is expected until April or May. (Los Angeles Times, 1-24-10)


 
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