special report

BUSD Alternative High School Programs Struggle with Distance Learning

Berkeley Technology Academy and Berkeley Independent Study have had to adapt to increased enrollment and changes in teachers’ hours.

Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the sacrifices and shortcomings of distance learning at Berkeley High School (BHS), and within Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) in general, are clear to all involved. What is less discussed, however, is how the changes necessitated by distance learning affect students in the alternative high school programs in BUSD. 

Berkeley Technology Academy (BTA) and Berkeley Independent Study (BIS) serve Berkeley students who, for a variety of reasons, are not best suited to learning at BHS. The Jacket explored differences between distance learning at BHS and these programs, and whether the students at these alternative learning programs feel supported. 

BTA is a credit recovery program that allows students who may be falling behind in their classes to make up credits and graduate on time. Whereas BHS only offers the A-G diploma of 220  credits, which is required by most four year colleges, BTA also offers the California Diploma of 130 credits, making it possible for students to graduate in less time. 

BIS is technically a program within BHS that shares a campus with BTA. It allows students to take many BHS classes on a more flexible and self-determined schedule. At BIS, students take two to three classes a semester, instead of the six at BHS. The classes meet once or twice a week in small groups, and students are expected to do 10 hours of homework for each class. Students attend BIS for a variety of reasons – from wanting more time to devote to their passions to wanting more individualized attention from teachers. 

One primary problem for both schools is the economic and practical effects of the pandemic; many students are pulled away from focusing on schoolwork to take care of siblings or earn money for their families. Even though BHS students also face these problems, the situation is more extreme at BTA, where 78.7 percent of the students were considered socioeconomically disadvantaged in 2018-19, compared to the 31.2 percent in BUSD overall.

While these obligations pose significant challenges, according to BTA and BIS guidance counselor Sophina Jones, they have not been too detrimental because administrators, counselors, and teachers have been continuously supporting students. “We have a small community so you can’t go missing with us….You don’t see students walking to class every day but they’re still a text message away, they’re still an email away,” said Jones.

However, that too may be changing. Because more students across the district are dealing with these and similar pressures, more students are entering BTA in need of credit recovery, according to Jones. 

Despite these increased numbers, Jones is not worried about stretching staff too thin. “It’s not necessarily about the growing number of students, but it’s more about how much care each faculty member and each staff member has in maintaining their relationship with the students,” said Jones. 

At BIS, class sizes have also increased, but not because of increases in enrollment, rather as a result of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers’ contract with BUSD. The contract restricts teachers to teaching no more than 11.25 hours a week on Zoom, compared to their previous 30 classroom hours. Classes that used to be taught in pairs or small groups now have 4-10 students.

Some students have found it difficult to go without that individual attention from teachers. One such student is Andrea Morales-Mendoza, a senior in BIS, who joined the program, in part, for its class sizes. 

“Before we went into distance learning, a lot of us were doing great – especially because we had those strong connections with our teachers and we were able to ask for help a lot more. But now, for me, I see myself over-stressed and kind of all over the place,” said Morales-Mendoza. 

Jones said she sees the problem students are facing but doesn’t see a simple solution. “Students are struggling with any and everything because of distance learning – it’s the bigger class, it could be the smaller class, it’s online, it’s not that much of a connection,” said Jones.

What solutions can be found to these problems? Some students and staff members suggested that BIS and BTA might be able to begin in-person or hybrid learning sooner than BHS, given their smaller campus and class sizes, but this is not likely to happen in the near future.

In the meantime, both programs are trying to support students as best they can through things like the on-campus food pantry, distribution of computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and even desks, for students in need.

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