By Doug Oakley
A lot can happen in four years. Just ask Berkeley school superintendent Bill Huyett who recently announced his retirement after 38 years in education.
Huyett, 61, said he will leave June 30.
Huyett said he originally came to Berkeley to focus on California's largest disparity in test scores between white students and nonwhite students.
What he got was oh, so much more. And he's still smiling.
While he helped make progress in kindergarten through eighth-grade test scores, Huyett, who earns $238,000 a year, faced a number of controversies and crises during his tenure that brought national attention to the city a number of times.
In most instances he earned praise from people he worked with as someone willing to listen to those outside his inner circle, something not all his predecessors could do.
Earlier this year, he presided over a crisis at Berkeley High School and its alternative counterpart, Berkeley Technology Academy, where no less than seven students were arrested for bringing guns to school. While one shot was fired at Berkeley High, no one was injured in any of the incidents.
Since the district began making security changes and spending money on the problem, the gun incidents have ceased.
"We had a cluster of gun incidents, and it worried everyone," Huyett said. "The steps we took have made students and the community feel more secure. Sometimes out of bad comes good. Now we're working on a bullying policy that came out of that whole discussion."
Huyett also came into and presided over a district that seemed unworried about chronic truancy.
"In the high school they just didn't have the people or the systems to do it right," Huyett said. "Now we have a dean of attendance and three employees working on that."
Both the gun issue and the truancy issue earned criticism from different members of the Alameda County District Attorney's office. In both those instances, things have turned around.
Teresa Drenick, head of the Alameda County District Attorney's truancy office and the department's spokeswoman, once publicly called out the district for failing to keep kids in school where they could stay out of trouble. Her comments on the issue came after hearing years of excuses but no action from Berkeley schools.
"He owned up to it right away, and they worked really hard to put something in place to deal with problems in chronic absenteeism and now it has become a more visible priority for them at all grade levels," Drenick said.
Drenick said after the district was criticized by the district attorney's office for failing to keep track of high school students with criminal records and for attempting to cover up some on-campus crimes, the administration listened and came around.
"The superintendent has been open to working with members of the DA's office on issues including campus safety and truancy," Drenick said.
When administrators at Berkeley High School tried to cut advance placement science lab time and put the money into other programs for lower achieving students, angering parents of well-achieving students and grabbing headlines nationwide, Huyett stepped in.
"I felt we had a pretty good compromise on that issue," Huyett said. "We kept the lab science programs and offered an elective program for all the other students. When I saw the idea to cut out the labs, I said 'that's not good.'"
If voters are any indication of how a person is doing in his job, Huyett seemed to have gotten the thumbs up when he managed to get a property tax and bond measure passed by city voters that brought in about $210 million. As a result of that and previous measures, the district now has about $250 million of construction projects planned for the next 10 years. Julie Sinai, former chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates who worked with Huyett on the achievement gap issues, said Huyett is the kind of guy who allowed input from people outside the school district, which is not always the case with educators, she said.
"The difference is he came to the table ready to partner, versus ready to brace for an attack," Sinai said. "He encouraged partnerships with people in the city and others that hadn't been done before. He really wanted to work together."
Sinai said that was evident when Huyett stepped in and helped revise and downsize a plan to fix up the abandoned school district building on University Avenue called the West Campus.
"The district was all over the map with the administrative building there, the neighbors were freaked out and he came in and re-engaged the community, scaled back the project and it happened," Sinai said.
All that has happened in the district since Huyett took over didn't stop him from working on what he was most interested in: closing the achievement gap.
He said students in kindergarten through eighth grade have seen "significant point gains since 2007" because of work done with his staff and community members. That was done by revising curriculum to make it more clear and consistent, making it accountable to recognized standards, making the curriculum build on lessons from the previous year, tracking students and fostering more teacher collaboration.
While that has worked in the lower grades, the high school is still a problem.
Huyett said part of the reason that Berkeley has the largest gap in test scores between white and nonwhite students, called the achievement gap, is that the white students do so well. And he's not sure the test results are accurate because it's been hard to get the high school students to even take the tests.
"In the high school we've unfortunately gone through a phase where we didn't get the students to participate in the tests," Huyett said.
While Huyett emphasizes the quality of the teachers, the principals and the district staff as being key to some of his successes and compromises, others in the community say it couldn't have been done without a good leader.
"I definitely want to say something good about him," said Bates. "He's been a fantastic superintendent. The cooperation between the city and the school district has never been better. Working together we've made tremendous strides in working on the achievement gap and health disparities. It will be very difficult to replace him."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.