On Monday, April 20 at 3:06 PM, Berkeley High School’s (BHS) Principal Erin Schweng announced that she will not be returning to BHS after the 2019-20 school year. “This is something that I think about every single year since I became principal,” said Schweng. “I always give myself permission to think about whether or not I want to do it one more year because it’s such a difficult job and because it requires a lot,” she continued.
In an email sent to all BHS students, Schweng explained that Juan Raygoza, the current vice principal of Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) and Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA), will be stepping in as the interim principal for the coming school year. He will assume his new role beginning on July 1, with carrying everyone through COVID-19 in an equitable way as a priority. “Everyone is going through a challenging time, and I do know we are affected inequitably — this must inform what we do, how we do it, and how I lead BHS,” explained Raygoza.
The email to students also included a message from the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Superintendent Brent Stephens who said, “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.”
In her email, Schweng did not explain why she is choosing to leave BHS at this time, although she has told BUSD that she is moving towards a “completely different chapter of her life,” according to Trish McDermott, BUSD’s public information officer. McDermott added that Schweng’s departure was a very recent topic of conversation.
The 2019-20 school year has been unusually hectic. In November, BHS’s Unity Day, known to students as “Rally Day”, resulted in violence amongst students and disruption to local businesses. In February, hundreds of students participated in a two-day walkout in protest against sexual assault at BHS. In the midst of an already intense year, BHS closed abruptly on March 13 due to health risks from COVID-19, following recommendations from health officials. Teachers had to quickly adjust to distance learning while the BHS administration coordinated the distribution of chromebooks, free breakfast, and other critical services. BHS has yet to reopen, and the status of next school year is currently unknown.
“There have been different times throughout this year that have been some of the most stressful moments and weeks of my entire life,” said Schweng. “February was certainly one of those very high stress times. … I think the position of BHS principal in particular is one where everyone in the community is looking to see what you are going to do, what you are going to say, and then really analyzing everything that you do and say,” she continued.
Schweng explained that there was not just one factor that influenced her decision. Even though she has regularly evaluated whether to continue since becoming principal, Schweng said that the positive parts of her job always kept her from leaving. However, she decided that this year “just felt like the right time to make the decision to move on.” She added that she will miss seeing students every day.
The BHS principal position has historically had a high turnover rate. Schweng replaced Sam Pasarow after his mysterious mid-year departure in 2017. Before him, Pasquale Scuderi served for four years and Jim Slemp was principal for seven years before Scuderi.
While Raygoza will be serving as the interim principal for one year, a formal selection process for a permanent replacement will begin in January 2021. The delay in searching for a new long-term principal is due to the shelter-in-place order, which Stephens pointed out would greatly complicate the interview process. “This will give us time to work together to form a selection committee, recruit thoughtfully, and have time to engage our community in this process,” Stephens said in his email.
During his year-long role, Raygoza will lead BHS through the COVID-19 crisis and the gradual transition back to a normal school year. While no one is completely certain of what the fall semester will look like, Stephens said that possibilities could include “social distancing conventions, or using some new combination of distance learning and limited on-campus time.”
Raygoza emphasized the importance of being flexible in navigating the coming school year. “We must be responsive to our current realities, whether that be by informing new ways of school and classroom community building or curriculum,” he said. Raygoza added that he is “committed to listening deeply to the campus community to learn about people’s experiences, ideas, and needs.”
Following the announcement, teachers have expressed appreciation for Schweng. Hasmig Minassian, a lead teacher for Universal Ninth Grade, has worked closely with both Schweng and Raygoza. “Ms. Schweng’s departure is a sad one for the community, but her strong leadership is evidenced by the fact that the BHS community won’t fall apart in her absence. A good leader sets up structures, relationships, and systems that are meant to survive after they’re gone,” said Minassian. She is very confident that the transition in leadership will be smooth and seamless during this critical time.
Angela Coppola, who teaches history in Academic Choice (AC), also shared her appreciation for Schweng. “Schweng is a leader with a lot of heart, and contributed a great deal to my professional development. She was invested in the community, and cared so much about serving the students,” said Coppola. Of all seven principals that Coppola has worked with during her nine years at BHS, she feels that Schweng made the best impact on both her and the school.
Raygoza also voiced his gratitude for Schweng’s work and mentorship in her time as principal. “I have had the honor of learning from Principal Schweng’s leadership over the past three years, and my hope is to help lead BHS through this crisis,” said Raygoza. He views the future in an optimistic light, promising, “Together, with compassion and grace, we will rise to the challenge of any new ways of doing schooling we must adapt to.”