Bell redesign considers deeper learning

“59 percent of our students happy here,” said Yasmin Navarro, a college counselor at the College and Career Center, regarding a survey given to juniors.


“59 percent of our students (are) happy here,” said Yasmin Navarro, a college counselor at the College and Career Center, regarding a survey given to juniors. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have happier students? … What does it take to have happier students?” 

These are the questions that the Bell Schedule Redesign Committee, a self-selecting group of Berkeley High School staff, hopes to find answers to. 

When in-person learning was postponed, the pandemic-altered world provided a platform for the reconsideration of the bell schedule. The Bell Schedule Redesign Committee formed in August 2021 in order to discuss possible ways of reshaping the way BHS’s bell schedule dictates the rhythms of its students and teachers.         “We believe (in) constantly assessing our effectiveness and working to improve the way that we … can reach our goal of educating and inspiring our children,” said Berkeley International High School (BIHS) Vice Principal Harrison Blatt, the administrative liaison on the committee. 

The committee has conducted surveys of the student, teacher, and parent populations, investigated model schools around the Bay Area, and conducted reviews of studies on the effects of different schedules on student mental health, with the ultimate goal of producing a decision by the 2023-24 school year. 

“During distance learning, we learned that rethinking the way that we organize our classes could offer a more sustainable or a more effective way of delivering content,” Blatt said. “When school was able to happen on-site again, the teaching community felt a galvanization to make their return to learning be as effective as possible.” 

What a redesign could consist of is varied and still up for debate. The baseline keeps with what BHS is already doing — a six to eight period day with a late start Monday — but Navarro doubts that the pace of the school day at BHS is ideal for student success. 

“We only have a certain amount of willpower during the day,” Navarro said. “By the end of the day, you could be fried, absolutely exhausted … (having) navigated so many spaces, and … so many rules.” 

In a survey the committee conducted with BHS teachers, 79.5 percent supported a potential bell schedule that has them meeting with fewer students per day. The current process, said Blatt, is “unsustainable.”

“It’s challenging to focus on deeper learning (and) to do things like project-based learning experiences, longer discussions, and more extensive collaboration between students,” he said. As a solution, the committee is considering implementing a block schedule for BHS.

A block schedule can take many forms, but is characterized by longer class periods. This ideally results in fewer mental shifts from moving throughout different environments. Supported by a slight majority of students, according to another committee survey, is the idea of having three to four classes meeting each semester for longer amounts of time, allowing students to finish half their classes in the winter and the other half at the end of the year. Though this poses a concern on the effect on specialized classes, like APs. 

“Wouldn’t it be terrible if you took your (AP) class the first semester and your AP test (was the) second semester?” Navarro posed. She offered the idea of Saturday “boot camps,” helping refresh student memory, but at the cost of requiring weekend investment from students. 

Another option for a block schedule would — rather than switch classes once a semester — switch them every day. A similar approach is the “snaking” schedule, where the classes a student has cycle through the periods of the day, so one week they might have math third period and the next fourth. The snake structure aims to minimize the damage when a student arrives perennially late or leaves consistently early.     The committee is also considering adding time to school for things like breaks or advisory periods, similar to the advisory model in Berkeley Unified School District middle schools. 

“Theories of learning are constantly evolving, and our society is constantly evolving,” Blatt said. “So in order to serve our students best, we need to evolve as well.”