Teachers and staff relax in their new lounge, funded by the Berkeley High School Development Group. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Three months ago, the brand new staff lounge at Berkeley High School was an ordinary classroom, but with the addition of colorful rugs, couches and sleek black walls — not your traditional blackboards — the function of the space has clearly changed.

The Friday before Labor Day weekend, a couple dozen teachers and staff members came to a small lunchtime party to celebrate the opening of the space, a momentous occasion for employees who have not had a designated place to take a break in more than a decade. Some of the people at the event had advocated for one for quite some time.

“It’s probably 15 years in the making,” said English teacher Allen Miller, one of the early advocates. The last lounge burned down along with the rest of the building that housed it in an arson fire in 2000. The new “M Building,” built in 2014 and home to a new gym and classrooms, was supposed to include a lounge, but it never materialized, employees say. One room on campus is reportedly still labeled as a staff lounge even though it never was used as one.

The new lounge, in the “H Building” on the west side of the campus, was funded by a $15,000 grant from the Berkeley High School Development Group, a nonprofit organization run by current and former parents. Visual Jill, an interior decorating company in Berkeley, donated the design work. The Development group leaders say Principal Erin Schweng was a proponent of the project and helped identify the space, and facilities manager Jeff Snow coordinated the construction.

For Miller, the lounge plays an important role on a sprawling campus where the 150 or so teachers rarely meet as a unit. Having space where teachers and staff can mingle, and people from different departments can gather together “could make us more aware of the special burdens and resources spread throughout the school,” Miller said. He was among a group of teachers who began turning various classrooms into pop-up break rooms at lunch to raise awareness of the purpose a lounge could serve.

At the opening party, Nichelle Pete, who works as an instructional aide, said she imagines she will spend time in the lounge a couple times a week: “It’s a way where I can see certain people I never see throughout the day.”

Teachers and staff celebrated the opening of a long-anticipated break room on Friday, Sept. 1. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Other teachers and staff members there said the lounge will offer them a place to work in peace, or to take a rare break. All teachers have a “prep period” to work on lesson plans and a duty-free lunch break during which they are not obligated to do any work. Sometimes that is easier said than done.

“I don’t have an office and I teach in a room that’s fully booked all day,” said computer science teacher Ira Holston, who said the new lounge could be a “lifeline.”

In an impassioned speech to the party attendees, math teacher Masha Albrecht, a strong advocate for the lounge, told others not to “give up” the free lunch hour that “was won by our union brothers and sisters in the past.”

“Here you can relax and build community,” she said.

Some teachers said they enjoy opening their classrooms to students or leading clubs during lunch. Others said working straight through the day without time to recharge can ultimately do a disservice to students.

“For me, it improves productivity to take a break,” said Josh Austin, who teaches special education and helped create the lounge. “Although it seems like working through lunch is getting more done, by the end of the day you’re just burnt out.”

The Berkeley High School staff lounge. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

At the party, the employees munched on snacks and admired the décor. The top of one wall is covered in a mural by BHS art teacher Eric Norberg, who painted an ocean sunset scene to “open the space and help folks to relax.”

Jill McCoy and Lauren Hamner from Visual Jill said they were eager to work on a community project and aimed to create a calming yet “hip” space with an aesthetic and color scheme that set it apart from the rest of the school. McCoy’s daughter graduated from BHS so she was familiar with the site.

Christine Staples, co-president of the BHS Development Group and outgoing PTA Council president, said in an email that the organization was happy to provide a grant after teachers came forward with the request about a year ago. The $15,000 covered the furniture, paint, rugs, a refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker and dishes, as well as the mural supplies, she said.

She said the Development Group was dismayed to learn about the lack of a common break room and believed supporting one would in turn help teachers support their students.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...