Forty-three students signed up for the IB physics lab, only to be told it had been cancelled shortly after the beginning of the academic year. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Forty-three BHS students signed up for an early-morning physics lab, only to be told it had been cancelled shortly after the beginning of the academic year. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The physics lab class at Berkeley High School started out this year with a big bang – a sudden burst of students. And then it collapsed, when the course was cancelled without a word.

In the first week of school, teacher Matthew McHugh recruited 43 students in his college-prep physics classes to sign up for the separate lab that meets one day per week. Quite a feat, for a class that begins at 7:23 a.m.

For the first lab session, the students went out to Milvia Street, stationed themselves 15 meters apart, and plotted the positions and times of cars, calculating velocity to see if anyone was speeding. The next week they were to study acceleration and mass by rolling balls down the “Galileo ramp.”

But then something happened that physics can’t explain: the class disappeared. Gone from the students’ online schedules on PowerSchool.

“I was never notified,” McHugh said. “I found out from a student.”

After a month’s worth of concerned letters from parents, meetings, and negotiations, the physics lab is being restored this month. But the whole ordeal highlights a larger issue at the school: how to prioritize when funds are limited, and the need for better communication around class sign-ups.

The lab in question is not related to the AP physics class, which has its own separate lab, 2.5 hours per week. This physics course has labs built into class time – although less than one hour per week — and therefore meets the lab science requirement for admission to the University of California. This lab class is not required, but, McHugh said, “It really helps reinforce problem solving and using the tools we learn in class.”

According to McHugh, about five years ago, extra labs were required for all the science classes, but then the school board decided it didn’t want to require before- and after-school classes, and the labs became optional. The chemistry and biology labs fell by the wayside, but McHugh, who loves the hands-on aspect of physics, pushed every year to keep the physics lab going.

The problem was, the lab was not listed in the same section of the course catalogue as the physics class. And, even if students knew about it, they might not rush to sign up for a 7:23 a.m. class without hearing the teacher’s pitch first. So every spring, few would sign up, and the class would be cancelled. And every fall, McHugh would inspire kids to register, and the class would be re-instated.

The same thing happened this fall, but under a new leader – interim principal Kristen Glenchur, who is now on medical leave. Glenchur said the class was cancelled, and off the schedules it came. Jeremy Thorner, a professor in in Biochemistry and Biophysics at UC Berkeley, was one of the parents who wrote the school expressing his dismay.

“As a practicing scientist myself,” he wrote, “I can tell you from my own experience that science is a hands-on discipline. You never understand the concepts, principles and operations well until you attempt to do them with your own hands.” He offered to pay for the teacher’s salary for this lab class, if necessary. (About $6,000 plus overhead, McHugh said.) “I am happy to donate the funds necessary for McHugh to operate the enrichments labs associate with his Physics course,” he wrote. “… Just tell me what office to go to at the BUSD, whom to see, and where to plop down my check / donation…  If the BUSD does not have adequate resources, then it’s up to the community to rise occasion to preserve the quality of their public schools.”

BUSD Assistant Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi: “We have to own the fix.” Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Can a parent do that? Actually, yes, said Pasquale Scuderi, former BHS principal, now an assistant superintendent, who has stepped in to resolve this problem in the absence of the interim principal.

“We do have things on campus supported largely by private donation — the International Baccalaureate coordinator was one,” Scuderi said. The problem is, he said, “We get caught up in an equity dilemma.”

In other words, parents with means can support classes they want for their students while parents without cannot.

“We have a slew of important and righteous competing priorities,” Scuderi said.

Another part of the problem is budgeting. Because the lab was an optional enrichment class it was not budgeted for. “We were just super-tight this year,” Scuderi said. Hence the decision to cut the class.

Having classes be optional creates other difficulties, Scuderi said. For example, if students decide to drop the class late in the semester, the school has to figure out whether to give them a W or an F.

“There are a host of issues with the way the labs are set up that need to be addressed,” Scuderi said.

For this year, administrators decided to resurrect the early morning, “zero-period” lab. It will be offered October through May. The funding, Scuderi said, was cobbled together from a variety of sources – but not from Prof. Thorner.

“The whole thing was a communication error,” Scuderi said. “We have to own the fix.”

Next spring, he said, the lab will be a “pop-up” in the online catalogue when students sign up for physics. But registration will have to happen in the spring, he said, not at the last minute in the fall.

In the meantime, heads up: the next lab involves a giant slingshot.

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...