At Berkeley High, Struggling to Find the Balance Between Excellence and 'Equity'

Students taking lab science courses at Berkeley High School in California face loss of a substantial amount of instructional time next year, in order to free up funding for unspecified “equity programs.”

“Equity,” as it’s used in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, seems to mean whatever the speaker believes will close “the achievement gap,” which is virtually an obsession in the district. After all, no one wants to be seen as hostile to “equity.”

Supporters of the current system, in which lab science classes meet for six periods a week (and Advanced Placement lab classes for seven), cite the school’s outstanding performance on AP exams, and the opportunity to use the extra time to help struggling students.


Some critics, on the other hand, feel that not enough of the right kind of people are taking the courses that benefit from additional lab time. Some even come right out and say it: too many whites take those courses.

Disputes over “equity” ultimately arise from the high school’s demographic mix. The school is very diverse, not only with respect to race and ethnicity, but also in socioeconomic status. And it has all the “achievement gaps” one might expect, only more so. Hemphill said on the Forum program that the gap is larger at Berkeley than in Alameda County as a whole, or in the state.

It’s the only regular high school in Berkeley Unified, with slightly more than 3,300 students. So it mixes a large contingent of children from families associated with the Berkeley campus of the University of California with children who have no connection with the university, and are more likely to be low-income, minority, or still learning English. Many come from outside the district, something seldom mentioned in mainstream media coverage.

Enrollment this school year is 14 percent Latino, 26 percent African-American, 34 percent white, 16 percent in a category the district calls multi-ethnic, and approximately 8 percent in a variety of Asian groups. But students make very different academic choices. Berkeley has six component schools, four of them officially designated “small schools,” averaging around 200 students each; about 500 in the International High School; and the rest, a majority, in a fairly traditional program called Academic Choice. For instance, one of the small schools, called the Community Partnerships Academy, has 51 percent African-Americans and only 7 percent whites. Another, the School for Social Justice and Ecology, is 44 percent African-American and 20 percent white. In contrast, the international program is 21 percent African-American and and 44 percent white.

These choices play out in the science classes as well. The AP science classes are only 10 percent African-American and 53 percent white, while the science classes without additional lab time almost exactly reverse the proportions, with 51 percent African-American and 9 percent white.


Berkeley biology teacher Nick Pleskâc told the student newspaper, the Berkeley High Jacket:

If you look at who all this extra [lab] time is going towards, a lot of it is going to AP and IB students. That means that already more time is being given to students who are on the higher end of the achievement gap.

Lab classes are now taught in extra periods before and after the regular six-period school day. Funding for faculty time to teach these additional sessions, which replace part of their standard teaching load, comes from a dedicated parcel tax.

In early December, Principal Jim Slemp presented, and the School Governance Council approved, a proposal to adjust the school schedule. Among other things, the proposal would eliminate that funding and use the money for “equity programs,” according to the Web site maintained by the International high school. It also reported that Slemp said the proposal didn’t need approval from the district school board. As word got around, however, and major media outlets finally began to take an interest in January, the board has apparently taken a different view.

A community Web site,, reported on Jan. 11 that Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Bill Huyett was to appear at a meeting for parents Jan. 19, to explain “why the Board Policy Subcommittee is examining alternative governance structures for Berkeley High” and to solicit parents’ views.

The most contentious aspect of the new schedule is the elimination of before- and after-school time for science labs. The extra funding that goes to science will be used instead for unspecified “equity grants”, aimed at reducing the achievement gap in the school.

BHS science teachers have written an open letter to the school community. If you’re concerned about the future of science at the school you should read the whole thing…

And Karen Hemphill, president of the School Board, said Wednesday (Jan.13) on KQED’s Forum program that an alternative proposal could come before the board Feb. 3.

Under Slemp’s proposal, labs would be taught during the regular school day, and thus crowd out some of what is now class time. In an open letter signed by 18 members of the school’s science faculty, a majority, they said instructional time would be cut by 21 percent, and 30 percent for AP classes. They wrote:

This flies in the face of the current push for equity. It is the very students Principal Slemp wants to serve who will suffer. To close the achievement gap, students require more instruction, not less.

Mardi Sicular-Mertens, the senior science teacher at the high school, and a co-signer of the letter, said on KQED, “We want to offer quality instruction, and this has a track record. Putting it into something we know nothing about is like taking money for blue chip stocks and buying lottery tickets.”

No one doubts the importance of efforts to close achievement gaps by improving the performance of low-achieving students. The dispute is whether taking resources away from high-achieving students is also a legitimate way of closing the gap.