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Why Can’t Berkeley High Retain a Principal?

The recent announcement of the departure of Berkeley High School’s (BHS) principal, Erin Schweng, has brought to light the fact that within memorable history, BHS seems to have not had a principal last longer than a graduating class. Even before the mysterious departure of Sam Pasarow, BHS was unable to maintain a principal for more than a few years; be it Pasquale Scuderi, who served BHS for four years until 2014, or his replacement, interim principal Kristin Glenchur. Before her, Jim Slemp managed to last 7 years, after a two year search for a principal which briefly appointed Patty Christa, before she resigned after two weeks. All in all, BHS has been shown to have a disappointing inability to maintain a head of the school for long enough to create a sense of stability for the community. Although there are many potential reasons for this phenomenon, including the unprecedented amount of student activism, multiple highly publicized sexual misconduct cases, high teacher turnover, and large student body, the pressure placed on BHS admin by the larger Berkeley community makes the position considerably complicated and demanding. If Berkeley wishes to maintain a principal for an extended period of time, there needs to be an increased environment of support for admin. While this includes accountability, the larger community must be conscious of  allowing room for them to run the school without constant interference. 

Schweng recently announced her decision to leave BHS by the end of June after three and a half years as principal, following a year which involved two climate justice walkouts and an especially eventful Red and Gold Day resulting in students blocking a police car and shutting down several Downtown Berkeley streets. Additionally, in February, BHS admin dealt with a widely publicized lawsuit about an incident of sexual assault on campus as well as two walkouts and several student demands related to the rape culture perpetuated at BHS that drew attention from national news outlets. The school year was also cut short due to the global coronavirus pandemic forcing all day-to-day business to shut down and BHS to proceed online. When complications like these are added to the already demanding job of running the school, it’s understandable that BHS has struggled to find and maintain principals, especially with all the pressure placed on them by the community. 

BHS thrives under leadership that cultivates a sense of trust and consistency within the community. With so much changing on our campus and in the world around us, administrative transitions can create a sense of chaos and disorder. In the face of a global pandemic, our community must stop casting blame on our educators and administrative staff, and start thinking of ways to create an environment that supports and maintains a BHS principal. Due to Berkeley’s unique culture of activism and engagement, parents, students, and other community members often find themselves involved in administrative business. While it can be productive for the larger community to ensure accountability of BHS leadership and make their voices heard by admin, it can also be hard to balance the demands of the parental community with the growing independence of BHS students. The undeniable culture of entitlement and privilege in our “Berkeley bubble” often leads to people criticizing and belittling BHS administration about how they handle every situation, from major events like lawsuits and walkouts, to minor issues like lunchtime supervision and class period length. It’s already extremely difficult to balance the many demands that come with being any high school principal, but to add in all the extra factors from the Berkeley community creates a position that is unsurprisingly hard to maintain for longer than a few years. Our community must learn the difference between an appropriate level of administrative accountability and unnecessary criticism and degradation. Administrators and community members share the same goal of keeping our students safe and educated, and it’s imperative that we stop behaving under an “us against them” mindset. 

Schweng has served our community with immense dedication during her time as principal, and although it is upsetting to see another BHS principal leave, we believe the transition will be as smooth as possible, and we hope to see our next BHS principal last as long or longer as Schweng did. We thank her for her open-minded approach to problem solving and her enthusiastic support of the BHS community. Despite the criticism she may have received during her years at BHS, Schweng’s dedication and service are greatly appreciated by our community.