‘He brought trust back to the school’: Former Berkeley High School principal Jim Slemp dies

Mark Coplan/Courtesy

Former principal of Berkeley High School, or BHS, Jim Slemp died in Oregon on Jan. 7.

Slemp left the Eugene School District in Oregon in 2003 and was the principal of BHS for seven years until 2010. During his time at BHS, Slemp was an avid advocate for smaller schools and addressing the achievement gap of students of color, as well as racism, at BHS. Slemp felt it was important that schools were smaller to allow for a more caring experience and to address the achievement gap.

“He was the first principal I know that had parents and teachers shadow students in their day,” said Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, director Beatriz Leyva-Cutler in an email. “This for everyone made a difference.”

According to Leyva-Cutler, Slemp opened up discussions on racism and the achievement gap with parents and students.

Former BHS science teacher Evy Kavaler added how Slemp helped improve BHS.

“When he came to Berkeley High, Berkeley High was a mess. We had a lot of different principals, pretty much every year, some of them didn’t last a year,” Kavaler said. “He put a lot of time and effort into the school and made it into a better place.”

Slemp made a significant impact on BHS by connecting with students and bringing the BHS community together. Both Leyva-Cutler and Kavaler said Slemp’s presence and policies during a period in which BHS had many short-term principals helped change that environment.

According to Kavaler, Slemp would often talk to students in the courtyard and invite people into his office, where they would discuss new ideas about the school.

“He was a very approachable person, he was very personable. He talked to students, he talked to teachers,” Kavaler added.

Slemp was involved in programs such as the BHS Development Group, a group of parents that raise money to help set up tutoring programs for students and additional programs for underserved populations at BHS. Slemp also made efforts to support students’ voices.

Leyva-Cutler said she saw this in her experiences with Slemp at meetings. “He also opened up the space for students’ voice at the table with respect and that it wasn’t just to have them at the table, but to also be open about what their and their classmates’ experience was at BHS,” Leyva-Cutler added.

According to Kavaler, Slemp made the school safe educationally, physically and emotionally for everyone and the school became a better place because of him.

“He brought trust back to the school climate and mentored the next principal of BHS that continued this legacy,” Leyva-Cutler said in the email. “He modeled how important it is … (to) create trust in their leadership style with their school community.

Contact Robson Swift at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @swift_robson.