A Hidden Gem of BUSD: Berkeley Independent Study Volunteer Spotlight

“We can spend all our time on just one or two problems, but the students walk away really understanding the concept. There’s freedom in that.”—Tralee Johnson, former BIS teacher and current volunteer

Berkeley Independent Study (BIS) is a program of Berkeley Unified that offers an alternative to the typical classroom environment. When walking onto the Berkeley Independent Study campus, it feels like a magical place that draws in special people. This, of course, applies to the students, the BIS Counselor Linh Le, and our uniquely wonderful Berkeley Schools Volunteers: Peter Newman, Tralee Johnson, and Rachel Edelson

Circumstance, luck, and talent brought Peter Newman to BIS. As a software engineer, he has a flexible schedule and only lives a couple blocks from campus, so it felt like a good fit.  He enjoyed tutoring math and science in college and was happy to prioritize it in his weekly schedule as a working professional as well. Counselor Linh shares that one of her students needed extra math help and, like many students, she was reluctant to receive tutoring. However, after working with Peter for just one day, she has been back weekly to work with him. This student has improved her math skills significantly and her teacher is thrilled with the progress. Peter loves that the BIS environment is personalized, one-on-one, and laid back. “It’s nice to have an option to meet students where they are at,” he shares.

Tralee Johnson taught high school math at BIS 15 years ago and described it as “the happiest place she’s ever worked.” After leaving to get a counseling degree and then starting her own math tutoring business, Tralee returned to BIS. Every student at BIS has wildly different reasons that brings them to independent study. Whether they are studying to be professional cellists or just getting back on their feet after struggling with personal circumstances, they all need to be disciplined with their studies. This requires meeting regularly with teachers, doing homework on their own, and seeking support when they need it. The “independent but individualized” approach to BIS is why Tralee loves it! She gets to be really creative in her approach; she has to tune in to the personality and personal needs of each student in order to make an emotional connection. While the flexibility is one of the parts of BIS that she cherishes, Tralee also models self-respect in her tutoring. She communicates that her time is valuable, just as her students’ time is, and expects students to show up consistently to tutoring. Amidst the rigor, there is still room for joy. One thing that is a must-have for Tralee in every session: “That we have a chuckle!” 

Rachel Edelson describes BIS as a “haven for students forging their own path.”  Rachel can relate to this sentiment as an octogenarian who has always “been an outsider, and sees the value in always questioning cultural norms.” She was trained as a classical pianist in her youth, but discovered that she “lost herself in music, but found herself in teaching.” Starting with earning a Masters in Special Education and then a PhD in Transformative Studies from California Institute of Integral Studies, she has realized that transforming education could transform the world. This informs Rachel’s approach to tutoring students in English and creative writing, and with their college applications. She believes that education has to be anchored by personal growth. Students are not going to remember how they answered the problem but they will remember how they persisted and set goals. Education has personal growth opportunities for volunteers and educators as well. She claims, “when I teach, I reach unreached Rachel.”

Counselor Linh Le describes Berkeley Independent Study as a loving small community that welcomes any students who needs an alternative to traditional schooling. She believes that “volunteers have been a needed addition to our community! Our volunteers have helped us meet the demand from our students.” The Berkeley Public Schools Fund BSV volunteers at BIS want the broader community to know that BIS lowers the pressures of everyday school life for students, which allows volunteers to take their time to focus on connection and true understanding. “We can spend all our time on just one or two problems, but the students walk away really understanding the concept. There’s freedom in that,” says Tralee. A hidden gem, indeed!

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