Public Comment

Commentary: Independent Study Program at Risk

By Wendy Walker-Moffat
Friday March 16, 2007

The Berkeley Independent Study program is an exemplary educational program that currently educates 140 high school students. However, because it is so well run, Berkeley Independent Study is rarely in the news. And like many quietly successful programs, Berkeley Independent Study is at risk of losing the essential element that lends to its success, its proximity to Berkeley High School. Located on Derby and Martin Luther King, it is a 10-minute walk to the main Berkeley High campus and it is immediately adjacent to the Alternative High School. 

As an independent college advisor and educational consultant, I work with students throughout the United States to help them make the best possible decisions with regard to high school and college. One of the groups of students that I specialize in includes students who need an independent study program because of the rigorous demands of their sport or performing art. Two ballet dancers and 12 alpine racers are among my current students. What distinguishes Berkeley Independent Study from the other independent study programs is its location. Because of its close proximity to Berkeley High, the parent campus, BIS students can take up to two courses a semester at the regular high school and participate in athletics, clubs and other large school activities easily, without having to overcome a social hurdle. Combined with a wide breadth of academic course offerings and highly motivated teachers in the Independent Study program, this enables Berkeley Independent Study students to take the most challenging courses possible. In comparison, most independent study programs that I have looked at throughout northern California offer few AP and honors courses, and their students have fewer choices and less chance of attending highly selective colleges as a result. 

Beyond academics, the problem of isolation and alienation cannot be underestimated. In my experience, it is the number one problem of students on independent study. Regardless of personality type, the structure of independent study lends to loneliness, and loneliness in adolescents can be destructive. At Berkeley Independent Study the proximity to the high school and the Alternative High School allows students to interact with others at lunchtime, after school, or meet in the library, in addition to attending regular classes. 

The faculty, administrators, parents and, most importantly, the students, are happy with the location of Independent Study Program. Yet, it appears that the Berkeley Unified School District cannot leave well enough alone. Currently, the plan is to move the independent high school students out of the current location, possibly to Willard Middle School, in order to move 7th and 8th grade students who are at risk into the Independent Study Program space. This does not make sense—moving high school students out, possibly to a middle school site, in order to move middle school students into the high school site. Few studies suggest that middle school students benefit from being integrated with older students. Moving the high school students out to a middle school, or removing them from walking distance to the high school, will be detrimental to their education. Students will be unable to take AP Biology, AP Chemistry or photography, which are not offered in the Independent Study Program. What would make more sense would be to educate middle school students with other middle school students and allow the Berkeley Independent Study program to remain at its home site where it has a compatible and healthy relationship with the Alternative high school. Adding mobile classrooms could resolve the space issue. 

In 2002 the Berkeley Daily Planet reported that Superintendent Michele Lawrence recognized that her original proposal to move the independent study program to the adult school was not a good idea, in part because of concerns about “the wisdom of putting young children alongside adult students.” Yet, this suggestion has been bandied about more recently for reasons that do not reflect the best interests of the students. It is still not a good idea. Hans Barnum, a 2005 graduate from the Alternative High School, wrote in the Jan. 14, 2005 Daily Planet “Alternative High School and Independent Study students, who share a campus a few blocks from Berkeley High School, have worked hard to survive and thrive in school, expecting to graduate at the Greek Theatre graduation ceremony, attend junior and senior prom, have access to needed services on BHS campus, and be welcomed to attend rallies, games and have other opportunities that are available to their peers at BHS.” The new baseball field on Derby across from the Alternative High School and Independent Study program will contribute to the students feelings of belonging. Nothing is more important for teenagers.. Berkeley Independent Study is a program that the Berkeley Unified School District, Administrators, School Board members and the community can take great pride in. Surely there is a better solution than jeopardizing a successful program by forcing it to move away from where it is thriving, isolating it, and the students. 


Wendy Walker-Moffat is a Berkeley resident.