“Of all the bad things that COVID has brought to light in our education system, the only good thing (it has shown there is) are children who can thrive in an alternative learning environment,” said Tamara Mays, mother of Berkeley Independent Studies (BIS) students. “We need to move away from (a) one-size-fits-all approach and really put resources, time and effort into developing programs that these children thrive in.”
For a growing number of families, BIS is the program that allows students to do just that.
BIS is a program where students can receive academic credit outside of the traditional classroom setting, complete assignments independently, and meet weekly in small groups with schedules they design themselves.
Although it involves a lot of work, “If you can structure your time and have good motivational and time management skills, then this is a very good option,” said BIS senior Louise Fitzsimmons. .
Mays, who runs a support group for incoming BIS families, which she started earlier this year, said “…This year I’ve seen a great influx of parents who are very interested in (BIS).”
BIS Spanish and Physical Education teacher Holly Nelson has also noticed an increase in student and family awareness of the BIS program. This has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “…Many students and families…are looking for alternatives to returning to crowded classrooms. Learning in an individual or small group environment is now much more appealing to students,” Nelson wrote in an email to the jacket.
BIS students take three courses per term and complete 10 hours of homework per class each week. During the COVID-19 pandemic, non-BIS students had a similar schedule, with three online classes per day cycling throughout the week.
“I really liked having three classes at once,” said Logan Thompson, a junior who transferred to BIS this school year. “I feel like distance learning (for me) proved that (BIS) could work.”
The pandemic was also a big factor for Fitzsimmons, who transferred to BIS last year. “I decided to (change to BIS) because I felt so exhausted at the end of each school day, and especially coming out of quarantine, I realized… the way school was structured didn’t was benefiting me (not),” Fitzsimmons said.
The burnout students can experience during a traditional six-hour school day comes as no surprise to Mays. “Can you imagine if you’re an adult and you have six different bosses every hour and 30 different co-workers?” said Mays. “That’s basically what high school is. It’s a great social structure for a lot of people, but it’s not for everyone.
Students also often transition to BIS because of the freedom it gives them to play sports, have a job, and pursue their passions.
Calder Fritz, a CA senior, previously transferred to BIS in order to “pursue personal interests in more specific subjects… (and have) more flexibility in my schedule. I’m a rower, so it’s very time consuming, and being able to structure my classes around that…has been really helpful.
For Thompson, BIS frees him to do his job at his own pace.
“A lot of school time was lost (for me), I did all my work and then I sat in school for the rest of the day. In BIS, I can do all my work much faster and have a lot of time doing things that I want to do, like (training for) the mountain bike team…and riding a bike,” Thompson said.
The atmosphere at BIS mirrors that of higher education, where students take three courses in both fall and spring. college,” Mays said.
The increasing number of transfers to BIS since the pandemic has raised questions about whether BHS needs to change its current school environment to better suit students.
“Being able to learn remotely showed me that…you don’t have to go through the standard six-period-a-day process to go to school from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.,” Fritz said. For Fritz, if BHS allowed more flexibility in their schedule and curriculum, all BHS students could feel more involved in their education.
To improve the student experience, BHS and the Berkeley Unified School District can learn from the BIS structure, Mays said. “(We) have a program where (flexibility and student-focused curriculum) is the structure, and it works,” Mays said. “It’s not something that can’t be done.”