Art classes at private and public schools: Differing experiences


While Berkeley High School is the only comprehensive public high school in Berkeley, there are 148 private schools in Berkeley. Various factors distinguish student experiences in public schools from those in private schools, such as funding, technology, location, and class size. These differences may be particularly notable in art elective classes.

Bishop O’Dowd is a private high school located in Oakland, with 1,300 students on campus. At O’Dowd, art classes fall into one of three main groupings: Visual/Digital Arts, Music, and Drama. Their motto is “Finding God in all things,” which is reflected in student plays like “Godspell” which are performed through the drama elective, differing greatly from BHS’s non-religious drama productions. 

Adele Shulman, a freshman at Bishop O’Dowd, takes drawing and design for both of her art electives. According to Shulman, the average class size is 26 people, and the student-to-teacher ratio is 14 to one. 

“For my elective, class size doesn’t really matter,” said Shulman. “I think (the art materials) we have are good because we all get a bunch of different pencils and pens and kneaded erasers. We also each get a shared box of Prismacolors and lots of materials.” 

Shulman shared that she has  found the difference between public and private school art classes to be noticeable. “It’s better (at O’Dowd) because when I was at public school … (we) barely had enough pencils for everyone. Now I have a lot of pencils all to myself – it’s great,” she said.

Willa Bender is a freshman in the Creative Arts elective at BHS, and she says her classes have been fun. “I really like my teacher,” said Bender. She shared that in terms of quality material, she feels like her class gets really good funding. “We have a lot of equipment: paint acrylics, markers, (and) expensive paper, and have pretty good equipment in general.” She said there are roughly 35 people in her Creative Arts elective, but she thinks a smaller class would be more productive. “I think in smaller classes, the teacher can connect with the students more and teach them one-on-one. In bigger classes, more kids need to be taught, and that results in less personal time with the teacher.” 

Film photography is an art elective at BHS, and there are around 30 people in each class. Linnea Kalar, a BHS freshman enrolled in film photography, said, “(My) photography teacher has been a really good teacher,” and added that “they are helpful and they clearly want to be teaching (their students).” Regarding her preferences towards class size, Kalar said, “I think that in some cases, having a smaller class helps learning. But in art classes, it can be helpful to have a big class because there’s more inspiration.” 

While one-on-one student-teacher conversations were something that Bender wanted more of in her class, Kalar said she gets individual attention. “Mx. Laroia-Nguyen usually has enough time to give individual help if you need it.” Regarding the quality of tools, Kalar added that, “not all of our equipment works perfectly, but we always have enough film and paper. Everyone gets cameras, so I think we have good equipment.” 

Kalar went to Prospect Sierra Middle School, a private school with around 60 people in each grade, and graduated in 2023. Kalar said, “I think that art class differs from school to school. Berkeley High (School) is so big that I think we actually get offered good art options.”

Kalar finished by saying that “at (her) private school, art was mandatory, and it was also important that you tried and put a lot of effort into the classwork. (At BHS), if you want to seriously do art, you have to take the initiative. And that isn’t necessarily bad.”