Independent Study Program Offers Model for State By ANNIE KASSOF

Special to the Planet
Friday December 17, 2004

On a balmy December morning, a student with dreadlocks and headphones sits in a sun-dappled courtyard, reading a book. Another student, with a green backpack and hair to match, strolls into a nearby classroom where a handful of kids sit at computers. Others work at round tables or talk quietly with teachers.  

Welcome to Berkeley’s Independent Study and Home School Program, whose high school operates under the umbrella of Berkeley High School. 

Sara McMickle, the energetic director, is passionate in her belief that Berkeley’s Independent Study model is an effective alternative for self-directed students, or for those who might otherwise slip through the cracks in a traditional school setting. A former English teacher at both BHS and Independent Study, McMickle, whose minuscule office is dominated by comfy chairs and crowded shelves, took over as administrator in 2002 after former director Carl Brush retired. 

McMickle describes Berkeley’s Independent Study program as “a small school with a strong commitment. People work here because they believe in the value of alternative education.”  

With 15 credentialed instructors who teach only the subjects they are proficient in (as opposed to some independent learning programs where, for example, an English teacher might also teach math), Berkeley Independent Study is gaining statewide recognition in the rapidly growing small schools movement. 

McMickle laments the misconceptions many have about nontraditional education and is quick to point out the numerous “bright, talented” kids who truly shine when given the chance to take more control of their education. The range of students in Independent Study is broad. From students who hold jobs–even full-time ones, to students whose involvement in athletics, music or theater takes precedence over regular class attendance, Independent Study provides a viable way for youth to take charge of their education and learn through life experience.  

McMickle urges people to see beyond the assumption that Independent Study is just an easy way out for kids who don’t want to be in school, and describes the dedication of students who have been accepted at Ivy League universities, including Yale and Harvard. 

The tiny campus, situated at the east end of the Berkeley High Alternative School on Derby Street, consists of two airy classrooms filled with tables, computers, and books. Here, high school students (there are presently 165 enrolled, and there is a waiting list) have weekly meetings with teachers, and may also use the classrooms to study and complete assignments during the week. 

In addition, the program includes resources and support for about 15 homeschooling families with children in kindergarten through eighth grade. (Children in these families participate in teacher meetings with their parents.) 

The Independent Study high school curriculum meets all the course requirements for graduation, including advanced placement science, and even physical education. (A P.E. student can get credit for taking, say, a martial arts class, or a swimming class at the YMCA, or may also be required to write about health and fitness.)  

Studio art classes are offered, and students can take lab classes at Berkeley High, or attend classes at local community colleges. They are not permitted to take more than two classes at BHS, but are allowed access to its resources, clubs, and activities. 

Students are given weekly assignments which they must complete before their next teacher meeting, and just as in a regular classroom, quizzes and tests are administered, or sometimes small group seminars are held. Socialization opportunities abound, with monthly museum trips and other educational activities. A trip to Mexico to study Spanish is in the planning stages.  

Although criteria for acceptance in Independent Study is based on a genuine belief in alternative education and an understanding of the way it works, teachers, who work closely with students to design appropriate lesson plans, view unexcused absences or failing grades harshly. They can result in reassignment to Berkeley High, or support to find an education plan that will work better.  

Sometimes life’s circumstances play a role in acceptance into the program. 

“We have many teen moms,” says McMickle. Being in Independent Study allows the young mothers more time to spend with their babies while completing high school graduation requirements. 

McMickle also emphasizes that, although considered a program of BHS, Independent Study is a small school with its own community and its own philosophy. Course work can be as academically rigorous as at the regular high school. But a crucial difference for many students is the level of individual attention they get from teachers, who give out their e-mail addresses and sometimes even home phone numbers. Students who felt lost and alone at BHS are supported to recognize strengths or skills they may never have known they had. 

The Berkeley Independent Study Community handbook is an invaluable resource in its own right. Filled with student artwork, it’s packed with a wealth of resources: websites, organizations, and volunteer opportunities through which students can get involved to help shape their futures. Some volunteer positions even offer class credit. And it’s chock full of inspiring quotes, from people like Mark Twain, who declared “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,” or Gandhi, who said “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” 

Debates over the pros and cons of independent studies programs parallel arguments over the success or failure of homeschooling. Opponents wonder if lack of a socialized learning setting and little contact with instructors will adequately prepare kids for the rigors and routine that lie ahead, in college and as adults. They worry that kids won’t learn enough. 

Proponents argue that the discipline required for self directed learning can increase productivity and self esteem, with less of the peer pressure and “pecking order” inevitable in traditional school settings. They reason that students can learn more than they would sitting in a classroom with thirty or so other restless teenagers, and benefit from the one-on-one attention like the kind that Independent Study students get.  

The pressures of adolescence can be tremendous. For some–not all–programs like Independent Study can make the difference between a positive, rewarding educational experience, or dropping out. 

The philosophy of the Berkeley Independent Study program is perhaps best summed up by the quotation on a plaque in the reception area outside McMickle’s office: “If you can conceive it and believe it, you can achieve it.” 


Annie Kassof is a writer and a parent of a student in Berkeley High School’s Independent Study Program. In a subsequent article she will profile some Berkeley Independent Study students.