woman speaks at podium
Berkeley High Principal Erin Schweng, who’s leaving the district after two decades, speaks at a Berkeley School Board meeting. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Berkeley High Principal Erin Schweng, who’s leaving the district after two decades, speaks at a Berkeley School Board meeting. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

After three and a half years at Berkeley High and two decades in the district, Principal Erin Schweng unexpectedly announced Monday that she will leave Berkeley Unified at the end of June.

In a letter to families, Schweng wrote that she’s “decided to move on to a completely different chapter of life,” but didn’t elaborate on what that chapter will entail. Schweng did not answer Berkeleyside’s questions about why she’s leaving her job or what she plans to do next.

Vice Principal Juan Raygoza will step in as interim principal next school year. 

Schweng, who’s worked in Berkeley schools for 22 years, oversaw the creation of one of Berkeley High’s most significant new programs in years: the universal ninth grade. That equity initiative, which replaced the immediate division into “small schools” with a standardized classroom experience and close-knit “hives” for all freshmen, has been commended by students and teachers since its fall 2018 start.

“Ms. Schweng leaves an extremely positive legacy behind her including strong support for students, teachers and staff; responsive communications; and building a cohesive administrative team,” wrote Superintendent Brent Stephens in his own letter to families.

Asked about her most memorable moment at Berkeley High, Schweng mentioned the “human chain” created by students in response to President Donald Trump’s threats to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“The students organized a ‘hands-around-the-school’ in support of immigrants and uncdoumented people in our community,” Schweng said in an email to Berkeleyside. “I walked around the whole perimeter that day and was moved by the smiles and waves that our students exchanged with supportive community members, and by their determination to make a statement that impacted their fellow students who needed to know that they were supported, and to show our whole community their passion for a cause. That was a good day.”

Schweng will leave after a semester of turmoil for Berkeley High, however, beginning with major student walkouts over sexual harassment and assault in the BHS community and the school and district’s handling of cases. Just as those protests died down, the coronavirus pandemic began, forcing the closure of schools everywhere in March. For all high school students, that means missing graduation and prom, and for many it brings anxiety about college chances or extra child care and familial obligations. An inappropriate intrusion in a Berkeley High Zoom lesson during the second day of “distance learning” was yet another stumbling block.

“None of us could ever have imagined the circumstances of these last months of the school year, but I am particularly sad to have to share this news with our community while we are not even able to be together, or to have a proper goodbye,” Schweng wrote to families.

She wrote that she’s moving out of town and won’t be seeking another principal position for now.

Schweng has worked at all school levels, as well as the district office, in BUSD. She began as a Rosa Parks Elementary teacher, then served as a district math coach before teaching math and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) at Longfellow Middle School. She worked at the district’s central office after that, then became a Berkeley High vice principal in 2016.

Less than a year later, she became the school’s principal after the mysterious mid-year departure of Sam Pasarow.

The principal position at Berkeley High has been a notorious one, with Schweng serving one of the longer tenures in recent memory. Pasquale Scuderi also ran the school for about four years, and before him, Jim Slemp led it during a seven-year stint considered transformational for the famous school. Slemp, who died this year, followed a string of short-term principals and dramatic years for Berkeley High.

Schweng is also not the only high-profile principal to announce that she’s leaving the district this spring: The same day BUSD announced it would close its campuses in March, Stacey Wyatt said she planned to leave Longfellow.

Schweng has developed close relationships with students, often working closely with organizers of campus walkouts and meeting with teenagers during joyous and tough times for the school.

“In my work this year with Ms. Schweng, I have been most impressed with her compassion for others – for students, who go through so many formative experiences in high schools, and for teachers and staff, who experience students’ emotional journey and are there to offer encouragement and patience. Her empathy helps to set a tone at the high school, as does her positivity and her belief in the young people she serves,” wrote Stephens.

In a district statement, senior Estella Hemp, the student representative on the Berkeley School Board, called Schweng “the definition of the person who gives her all to her job – she is genuinely there for any student who comes to her.”

Raygoza will have a lot on his plate as he takes on the top leadership role during a semester which could potentially see students continuing to learn exclusively or partially from home.

Stephens said he didn’t want to launch a search for a brand-new principal during such a complicated time.

“Under the current shelter-in-place orders, it seemed implausible to me that we would attempt a search for a new principal without the benefit of in-person interviews,” he wrote. “Also, in the face of so much uncertainty, Mr. Raygoza is someone well-known to the BHS community, and who can help us find a measure of stability — something we all need right now.”

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Natalie Orenstein

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,...