Berkeley High School, February 2018 Photo by Nancy Rubin
Students leave Berkeley High School before the pandemic shuttered schools. Credit: Nancy Rubin

Berkeley High will not move forward with a block schedule for the upcoming academic year, instead reverting to the long-standing six-period day.

At a June 2 board meeting, Berkeley High Principal Juan Raygoza proposed a new bell schedule that attempted to address student and educator needs, but the proposal received mixed reviews from the community, with some calling the planning process rushed.

“After our presentation to the Board last week, I had the opportunity to reflect further with the Superintendent about the changes we have been considering,” Raygoza wrote in an email to Berkeley High staff today. After an exhausting pandemic year, Raygoza said it would be too much work in too short a time to gather additional input from students and parents and research the impact of the schedule change on academic outcomes before classes resume in August.

“Given that it is the summer and that all of us are going to get the rest we need, resolving these items has become more challenging. The Superintendent has asked that we finish our planning in the Fall,” he wrote.

Under the proposed block schedule, students would have taken three 100-minute classes four days a week, with an additional “Flex” period devoted to academic support and socio-emotional learning. Wednesdays would have had six 41-minute classes and featured an early dismissal as an alternative to the late start on Mondays. The schedule would also have created longer passing periods.

Planning for the new schedule began in late April. “We can’t go back to normal, because normal wasn’t working for so many of our students and it wasn’t sustainable for so many of our educators,” Raygoza said at last week’s board meeting. The group drafted a few options and solicited feedback from teachers and a focus group of 15 students, including students with IEPs, several of whom said that the six-period day felt overwhelming.

Liam, a 10th grader who has an IEP, said that the block schedule would have been less stressful for him to manage, though he added that going back in person matters to him more than any scheduling changes.

“Is that in the best interest of the students?” asked Liam’s mother, Cheryl, of the decision to keep a six-period day. Cheryl thought that the block schedule would have allowed more time for students, especially those had fallen behind during distance learning, to catch up.

Amanda Toporek, a government and economics teacher in Arts and Humanities Academy who helped solicit student input on the schedule proposal, said she thought adding a Flex period could help improve students’ mental health. “We want the time to be able to serve the crises that we know our youth are facing,” she said. “This may have been a missed opportunity, as I do think we will feel the limitations of our current schedule.”

But some students, parents, and teachers said the process for designing the bell schedule was rushed and poorly timed, creating chaos in a time when students longed for predictability.

block schedule sparked controversy

Miles Fleisher, a 12th grader at Berkeley High, conducted an informal poll of his peers through a post on the popular Instagram account BHS Memes (@bhs_memes_). The post asked respondents to weigh in on whether the proposed block schedule was better or worse than the six-period day. Of the 571 responses, 130 (23%) said they preferred the new schedule and 441 (77%) said the new schedule was worse.

The high school conducted its own survey of the community, but as of press time had not released responses to Berkeleyside.

“After about a year and a half in distance learning, I think that most students are just looking for a functional, familiar school experience, and this bell schedule provides neither of those things,” Fleisher said.

Aaron Glimme, who has taught chemistry at Berkeley High since 1995, said he was part of a minority of teachers (he estimated about a third) who wanted to keep the old schedule, while other teachers were split over the block schedule and a term schedule closer to the one students had during distance learning, in which students only took three classes at a time.

“My main concern is the rushed nature of implementation timeline that we have,” said Glimme, adding that the evidence around the impact of different schedules on student outcomes is not definitive. “The type of change you make is one of the least important parts and the most important part is the implementation and staff buy-in.”

Berkeley High has considered changing the schedule several times in the last 24 years, each time engaging in a yearlong planning and research process before ultimately deciding not to modify the schedule due to a lack of consensus, according to Glimme. In the early 2000s, Berkeley High did actually implement a block schedule, but it only lasted one year: Teachers and students alike did not like the change, Glimme said.

Fleisher’s mother, Emily Baldwin, who has grown suspicious of “the good will of teachers” over the past year, said she worried that the schedule was “an effort on the part of the teachers or their union to somehow work less or to make their lives easier at the expense of students.” Back when Baldwin was a teacher, the block schedule was an excuse for some educators to play entire movies during class. Now a psychiatrist at Herrick Medical Center in Berkeley, Baldwin saw a lot of students struggle with mental health this year, exacerbating her frustration.

Glimme, who opposed the schedule change, said he believed those pushing for the change did so because they felt it was “best for the kids.” But he said it would take a tremendous amount of work to rewrite a curriculum to fit a new schedule.

By reverting to the old schedule, the high school will not be able to offer an additional period devoted to exclusively academic support and mental health, which the proposed Flex class aimed to do.

“If we are back to a six-period day, our community will say, ‘How can you address the mental health crisis? How can you address the learning crisis? How can you address the social emotional crisis?'” Toporek asked.

Nevertheless, she acknowledges the schedule is one piece of the puzzle toward achieving equity, and she’s committed to “all the other ways we can work together to provide our kids with the support they deserve going into next year.”

A new schedule is not off the table for future years. In his email, Raygoza said the work of researching and planning a schedule will pick back up next school year.

Correction: Under the proposed block schedule, classes would have lasted 100 minutes, not 140 minutes.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...