Students Speak on Independent Study: Lonely or Liberating?


If you ask a Berkeley High School (BHS) student about Berkeley Independent Study (BIS), you may draw blank stares. The BIS program allows BHS students to study and work outside of school while still getting the necessary credits to graduate.

“I joined BIS because I’m able to wake up later and do stuff on my own schedule. I started in my freshman year and just never ended up leaving,” said senior Leo Merrill-Woodward.

Other students, like junior Maya Jones, transferred into the BIS program. Jones changed to BIS in the third quarter of the year, and doesn’t regret her decision.

“I transferred to BIS because I have ADHD and it was difficult for me to do six classes at once. Also, I don’t live in Berkeley, so waking up every morning to be out of the house by 6 AM to get to Berkeley started to become really difficult,” Jones said.

For Merrill-Woodward, BIS has generally been a positive experience. “I think that BIS has taught me some things that I might have struggled with if I had gone to in-person classes. I’ve become very self-sufficient. I know how to manage big independent projects, and I can manage my time really well too,” he said.

Jones echoed these benefits. “The first thing I noticed about BIS was the workflow. It was a lot more straightforward for me. It’s sort of like tunnel vision learning, where at in-person school it’s kind of more spontaneous. I like how BIS focuses on one unit or one lesson at a time, instead of sometimes being thrown off course,” Jones said.

Despite the positives of the curriculum, BIS students don’t get a full in-class experience. “You don’t really get that experience of working with a group on a project, or presenting your work to a class, which is something I miss,” said Merrill-Woodward.

Heidi Weber, the principal of BIS, emphasized the community within the program.

“Because our school and the class sizes are so small, our community is very close-knit. Most of our teachers have been around for many years, which contributes to stability [in] the lives of our students. The students at BIS frequently take the same classes as each other, which gives them the opportunity to develop strong friendships,” Weber said.

Since they are not in school for the majority of the day or week, BIS students have specialized schedules so they are able to complete their work on a given day while also participating in extracurricular activities.

“I probably wake up at 10 AM. … I’ll do six units of math, which takes me a little over two hours. Then, if it’s early enough, I’ll go to BHS for their lunch and hang out with friends and keep up those social connections,” Merrill-Woodward said.    “After I get off of work at about 7 PM, I’ll go home and do homework until maybe 11 PM, and then it’s just rinse and repeat,” Merrill-Woodward said.

“I’m doing much better now compared to when I first started,” said Jones. “When I first transferred, it definitely wasn’t easy because it was in the middle of the quarter. I had to get used to things pretty quickly, but after I got it, I started to enjoy BIS a lot more.”

BIS students go to the Berkeley Technical Academy campus once a day for about an hour to collect their materials. Merrill-Woodward explained, “I meet with my teacher for 40 minutes on Tuesday, [and] first I talk about anything I struggled with in the last week. My teacher will walk me through all the things I was confused about. Then, I’ll get whatever sections I have to complete by next Tuesday.”

“If I’m having trouble with a math problem or I don’t understand an English class, I can just text or call my teacher and figure it out on the spot,” he said.

Merrill-Woodward continued, “I don’t think BIS is for everyone and it’s super different from taking in-person classes, but I’ve enjoyed my experience and I don’t think I would change that.”