The history of BHS’s current Small Learning Communities


Rebecca Birenbaum

In 1985, the California Partnership Academies (CPA) was started by the state, in part to support kids struggling in school. The academies were programs inside schools that students could participate in, and were focused on specific topics. 

When the Berkeley High School vice principal at the time went to visit one of the CPA programs in Oakland, they came back proposing that BHS create a program of its own. Flora Russ, who was in charge of all computer classes at BHS at the time, said, “They came to me, and they said we’d like to have this academy, this California State Partnership Academy, and we think computers would be a good fit. Do you want to write a grant?” 

BHS wrote a grant for the new Computer Academy they received, and in 1990, they got their first class of about 40 to 45 sophomores. From there, the institutions known as Small Learning Communities (SLCs) at BHS began to form. 

Eight years after the creation of the Computer Academy, the SLC Communications Arts and Sciences (CAS) was officially created, but the idea had been around for a while. Plans to create another SLC with a media-based focus that was different from the Computer Academy were discussed. However, it was a lot of work. 

“We tried to get (CAS) started and the principal was against it,” said Rick Ayers, a former BHS teacher and one of the original creators of CAS. “The administration was against it because they felt it would be a real hassle for them.” 

Eventually, though, the school board passed the design. There was a lot of interest in a media-based school at the time, and CAS grew quickly.

Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA) was the next small school to be created. In 2006, a group of BHS staff consisting of Linda Carr, Miriam Stahl, denise brown, who prefers her name left uncapitalized, and Ray Cagen all created a proposal to create an art-focused small school. 

“We initially wrote the proposal to become a (small) school because we had students in our classes that were really excellent students but didn’t do too well across the board,” Stahl said. “We wanted to see arts and academics bridge, so students can achieve at higher rates in academic classes as well as they were doing in their art classes.” 

The art-focused classes that kids take in AHA were intended to allow students to express their knowledge on the material through art. 

Around the same time, Academic Choice (AC) began to be tested at BHS. AC was created for students to choose their own paths and focus on their interests.

Alex Day, a current Universal Ninth Grade BHS teacher, attended BHS from 2002 to 2006 and said, “I remember my history and English classes were in AC but I wasn’t all the way in AC since I wasn’t in Honors Math.” Before Berkeley International High School (BIHS) was created, students could choose to be in none of the SLCs. After BIHS was established, that option went away.

The final SLC, BIHS, was created by a team of teachers, students, and parents in the fall of 2005, intended to be larger than the other smaller communities. Miranda Thorman, who was part of that team of founders and is a current middle school principal in Alameda, said that the motivation to create BIHS “was to explore it as a rigorous academic program that was not the standard kind of AP curriculum AC offered.” According to Thorman, Jim Slemp, the principal at the time, wanted to create another rigorous option for students that had a little more structure than AC.

During the 2013-14 school year, Computer Academy detached from the California Partnership Academy, and rebranded itself to be what is now called Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS). Since Computer Academy was leaving CPA, “We needed to attach ourselves to something specific, like arts or media, but given those were taken we went with public health and medicine. That’s how we rebranded into becoming AMPS,” said John Tobias, current co-lead teacher of AMPS.

  In 2015, the administration started to discuss the option of creating a Universal Ninth Grade, not requiring students to choose SLCs until tenth grade. This change was in an effort for all BHS ninth graders to learn about the SLCs during their freshman Ethnic Studies classes, and make a more in-depth choice in terms of which SLC they join. Day believes that this change was very beneficial. 

“I think students are way more informed about their SLC choice now that we have (Universal Ninth Grade) instead of having just a 30 minute presentation on it in eighth grade, we get to educate the students on it during class,” Day said. 

In the middle of ninth grade, BHS students make an important decision about which SLC they would like to attend. They rank their choices and their names get put into a lottery where they hope to get their first pick. Currently, there are five small learning community options for students, but it hasn’t always been this way.