Aaron Glimme’s Advanced Placement chemistry students straggle in, sleepy. It is 7:30 a.m. at Berkeley High School. The day doesn’t officially begin for another hour. They pull on safety goggles, measure out t-butyl alcohol and try to determine the molar mass of an unknown substance by measuring how much its freezing point decreases.
In the last school year, 82% of Berkeley’s AP chemistry students passed the rigorous exam, which gives college credit for high school work. The national passing rate is 55.2%. The school’s AP biology and physics students are even more successful.
Most districts would not argue with such a record, but Berkeley High’s science labs are embroiled in a debate over scarce resources with overtones of race, class and politics.
Campus leadership has proposed cutting before- and after-school labs -- decreasing science instruction by 20% to 40% -- and using that money to fund “equity” programs for struggling students in an effort to close one of the widest racial and ethnic achievement gaps in the state.
The racial and ethnic makeup of science classes was considered when crafting the proposal to shift money away from science instruction.
White students predominate in the science classes that require supplemental lab time, according to an analysis by a lead teacher in the Berkeley High math department. Her study also showed that three-fourths of the students who take less-rigorous science classes -- those that do not require extra lab time -- are African American or Latino.
“There’s a big fear of taking away from high-end achievers,” said Linda Gonzalez, co-chair of the school governance council, which crafted the controversial proposal. But “why are we having science classes with two or three labs when there are kids in science classes with no labs?” wondered Gonzalez, a parent who supports the shift.
Response to the proposal was swift. A group of science teachers sent a letter to Berkeley residents protesting the move and seeking support. More than 250 people have signed an online petition in support of the labs. The story ricocheted around the Internet with headlines like, “Berkeley High may drop ‘white’ science labs.”
In this famously liberal college town, which prides itself on having one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in the country, the debate has revealed deep disagreement over how best to help underachievers, pitting haves against have-nots, whites and Asians against blacks and Latinos.
“This became a race issue, because just about everything that happens in Berkeley is fundamentally viewed through that lens,” said Glimme, who acknowledged that “there’s a very clear difference by race as to who shows up to the lab classes.”
In Berkeley’s 10 square miles, multimillion-dollar hillside homes with sweeping views rise above working-class bungalows and apartments in the flatlands. The percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree is more than twice as high as in the state as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while the percentage of residents living in poverty is nearly 1 1/2 times the statewide level.
Or as Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, an assistant professor in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, puts it: “Because of class differences, you can claim all of the benefits of being progressive without living the complex reality” of Berkeley. “You can live in the hills.”
Such inequality translates into a stark achievement gap. Only 30.8% of African American students at Berkeley High are proficient in English and 31.3% in math, according to the state Department of Education. Just over 90% of white students are proficient in English, 87.1% in math.
At Claremont High School in Los Angeles County, which has a demographic profile similar to Berkeley High, the gap is much narrower: 52.5% of African American students are proficient in English and 46.7% in math. Just over 80% of white students meet English instruction standards, and 79.5% meet math standards.
Berkeley residents voted for a parcel tax in the 1980s to shore up funds for education and help erase the gap. Two-thirds of the money is used to reduce class sizes, but much of the remainder goes to enriched science and arts programs and academic support such as tutoring.
But the extra money has done little to help narrow the difference.
So in December, Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp and the school governance council decided, as part of a wider school redesign, to take the parcel tax money used for before- and after-school science labs and redirect it to a pool of as-yet-undetermined “equity grants” that would focus instead on struggling students.
Under that initial plan, the science program would lose the equivalent of five teaching positions and about 65 sections of science lab for college prep and AP classes, at a price tag of nearly $400,000.
Just what the money would fund has yet to be decided. But Berkeley Unified School District Supt. William Huyett said possibilities could include “a course on supporting kids’ scholarship -- note-taking skills, how to study -- and helps them apply those things to the courses they’re taking.”
Philip Halpern, lead teacher in Berkeley High’s Communication Arts and Sciences school, supports the shift of resources.
“A significantly lower percentage of students of color are enrolled in science classes with labs,” Halpern said. “A public school like Berkeley High has an equal obligation to students who have struggled. We shouldn’t be continuing to allocate resources to students who have had them all along.”
As Halpern notes, “Berkeley High is the only high school in town. You get the professors’ kids, the dot-commers’ kids and the kids of the working class.”
Parents, teachers and students on both sides of the issue -- some waving hand-lettered signs proclaiming “Save Science Labs!” and “We ♥ Science Labs” -- took over the public comment period at the Jan. 13 Board of Education meeting, even though the matter wasn’t on the agenda.
Parent Jon Marley, who favors shifting funds to underachievers, wondered why science labs were held before and after the school day, which “especially affects our African American students and Latino students,” young people who care for siblings while their parents work or who hold down jobs themselves, he observed.
But Amy Hansen, who teaches biotechnology and AP chemistry, said that the supplemental science labs meet only once or twice each week and that students of all abilities and backgrounds could make such a commitment. To say otherwise shows an “underlying attitude . . . that while white students can be expected to make this commitment, black and brown students cannot.
“How is the lowering of expectations of African American and Latino students equitable?” she asked the school board.
“Expecting less from those who are most at risk cannot possibly begin to close this achievement gap,” she said.
Slemp, the principal, declined to comment on the controversy, but Supt. Huyett agreed that requiring students to attend science lab outside of the regular school day “is an access issue” for all students.
Huyett, Slemp and a group of science teachers have been working to figure out how the science lab money might be redistributed without damaging the science program.
According to a letter from Huyett sent Thursday, a compromise proposal will go before the school board Feb. 3. If approved as currently written, it would leave the AP science labs intact but cut 20% of instruction time for college prep science classes.
“Some of us feel like we’re saving as much as we can,” said Glimme, who was part of the negotiating team. But “there’s a bunch of people who still feel this is a very bad plan. . . . It’s still unacceptable to people on both sides.”