Advice about Science at Berkeley High

Parent Q&A

  • Which Small School for the most Science Classes?

    (8 replies)

    My daughter will be starting at Berkeley High next year and is pondering "small school" choices. She wants to choose the school that will allow her to take the most science classes, as she is currently passionate about becoming a surgeon (but she's 13, so who knows if that'll stick ;). So far, she likes what she's read/heard about the social justice focus of CAS and the academic rigor and international focus at BIHS. They seem like pretty different programs, but if they'd both give her equal opportunity to choose advanced and interesting science courses, she'd probably prefer the social atmosphere of CAS.

    As a parent, my concern is that she hasn't always been very engaged and challenged in her classes in middle school, so I am hoping for a more focused and challenging learning environment for her in high school. She's been annoyed by behavior issues that have distracted from learning in many of her classes at King, and has developed a somewhat jaded attitude about the quality of her school as a result.

    My son is a freshman in CAS, which was his first choice bcs he is very interested in social justice and wanted a smaller school with chance of getting to know his classmates and teachers more. He is also very academically inclined (BIHS was his second choice). He's really enjoying CAS greatly, finds all of his teachers to be quite good (except perhaps the non-CAS teacher of one of his electives), and especially loves his science class with Mr. Douglas. He says it is the best science class he has ever had and feels like he is learning tons (eg. recently did a lab looking at antibiotic resistance). He has never been that interested in science before, but now he's really fascinated with it. I think he feels pretty challenged overall, and is also happy to have time left over for other activities besides homework. He says there are indeed some kids in his class who do not seem as interested in learning and sometimes disruptive, but this doesn't seem to bother him at all. I think he likes the diversity of students and less pressure overall. He is also taking advanced math with lots of non-small school students which he also enjoys, but he has no regrets about choosing CAS. My son also went to King, which he liked overall, but he says he is enjoying Berkeley High much more.

    I would recommend Academic Choice for your daughter, as that would allow her the most flexibility in her schedule to take as many science classes as she desires, especially at the AP level. BIHS, while academically rigorous and expansive, doesn't allow as much room in a student's schedule for multiple science electives outside the IB curriculum. As for the small schools...My experience is that while the teachers are equally capable and dedicated, the classes themselves are not as rigorous as BIHS, and you'll find a mix of passionate, motivated students, and students who just don't care about doing the work or showing up for class.

    With the new school redesign, it look as though BIHS will not be the same program that is currently being offered by the time your daughter enters BHS, so you might want to look into that.

    If she wants to go into the medical field, especially in California, your daughter should also consider taking Spanish (if she doesn't already speak the language).

    Disclosure--I have/had two children attend(ing) BHS, one in BIHS and one in a BHS small school.

    My son is in BIHS. He had a great freshman biology teacher (until his wife had a baby and he was stressed and spacey all the time, which is understandable given BHS teaching loads). He also has Matt Bissell for chemistry. His experience so far has been that the tests are not always representative of what was taught, especially the free response, and that the grading is very hard. He appreciates the opportunities for extra credit and uses all of them and thus has a strong grade. He wonders if taking AP chemistry would have been better (since he puts the work in anyway), however, at the parent meeting the BIHS staff strongly discouraged having our kids sign up for it. He is really looking forward to AP anatomy and AP Environmental studies next year.

    I have a current Junior at BHS and one who graduated in 2016.  They both chose AC.  It has the most flexibility in terms of being able to choose what courses you take.  For science, AC students take Advanced Biology in 9th grade and Chemistry or AP Chemistry in 10th grade.  In 11th and 12th grade there are more choices:  Honors Anatomy & Physiology, AP Environmental Science, AP Biology, Biotechnology (a two year program), Physics, or AP Physics.

    There are also Computer Science electives available for everyone.

    The other learning communities have various requirements that take up some of the course slots, so if your daughter wants to take more than 4 science classes, AC would probably be the best choice.  If she will be happy with one science class per year, CAS or BIHS would probably be fine.

    My son is a sophomore in AC, and his limited experience has been quite good so far. He's not a super motivated student, but he does like science. Freshman biology was outstanding for him; he had Glenn Wolkenfeld, a science lead for AC, and my son loved him. He has Matt Bissell for standard Chem this year, and it's a lot harder, mostly due to the many labs they do each week, and the amount of paperwork associated with each lab. It's a lot of work, and not as interesting as bio was for him. But my son likes Mr. Bissell a lot -- he thinks he's fair and moderately engaging. And he's very interested in taking AP Bio next year, which is supposed to be excellent [and really hard...]. As for the other classes and the other small schools, it's probably like anywhere: some teachers will be great and some won't - you can't really control that. But it's likely the case that any AP class will be a challenge and mostly full of motivated students, and since there are a lot of AP Sciences, your daughter may really enjoy herself. I don't think CAS opens up AP science options until senior year though, whereas both AC and BIHS start with AP Chem for sophomores, so keep that in mind.

    My child was in AMPS. If your daughter was annoyed by behavioral issues at King and wants to become a surgeon, she should most definitely avoid the small schools (AHA, AMPS, CAS). Their academic standards are significantly lower and their behavioral problems more extreme than anything you'll find at King. The vast majority of small school students are below grade level in math and until BHS figures out a way to address that issue, there is no way these classes will be able to prepare kids for university level math or science classes. The math proficiency level at King is about 70%. In the BHS small schools it is in the 2% - 7% range. CAS can be a very welcoming and accepting place for kids with a combination of on-going substance abuse problems and learning disabilities of the behavioral sort who need an alternative to a regular high-school education -- but if your daughter wants a focused and academic environment, do not consider a small school. Please don't be fooled by BHS's literature and presentations about the small schools - it bears no resemblance to what happens in the classroom. Instead, go and visit the CAS math and science classes (if BHS will allow you to) and form your own opinion. Also consider asking the teenagers at the park across from Berkeley High which ones are enrolled in CAS and get their feedback on the academics. 

    I have an 11th grader at BHS who just switched from BIHS to independent study.  Although she was in BIHS, she took AP science classes her sophomore year (chemistry) and her junior year (physics).  They have been plenty challenging, even for very strong students.  I also recently heard good things about AP biology, which she plans to take next year.  Ninth-grade biology was a bust (rotating cast of substitutes), but once she got into the AP science classes, they've been good.

    My daughter is finishing up at BHS and has loved some of the advanced science courses that she's been able to take (especially AP Chemistry).  She's now planning to be a STEM major.  

    Unfortunately, what I've heard is that if she had been in one of the small schools she wouldn't have been able to take those classes - or at least not at the pace that she did. So you have to be careful about the implications of the lottery choice you make (I really wish they would do away with that 9th grade lottery system as they've been discussing!). I believe that one option is to take classes at the local community college, but that could be difficult for a high school sophomore or junior. That said, I should also say that my daughter thinks that CAS is a wonderful school with a very supportive cohort of kids and teachers, based on what she's heard from her friends.

    My daughter chose BIHS, and while the international focus and many good teachers has been nice, it's been very difficult to meet all the requirements, and she wishes that her high school years had been less stressful. Segregation is also a major issue at Berkeley High, and BIHS has many more white kids than the general school population, which is alienating for many students of color and anyone who is seeking to learn in a diverse environment. If we had to do it over again we would probably chose AC.

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  • Sciences at Berkeley International High School

    (5 replies)

    My daughter is an incoming freshman at Berkeley High school within BIHS. She wants to take the most challenging math and science classes available to her, and also go for the full diploma. I now realize that within BIHS, no science is offered at the higher level, and only biology or chemistry are offered on standard level. Moreover, physics is not offered at all within the IB program (but was a few years ago). It looks like she could take AP physics C in senior year on top of all the IB requirements BUT without having had any physics high school courses in prior years. Can someone who has had students interested in the sciences at BIHS tell me what they did? The IB organisation provides a science option within the IB program but it looks like that Berkeley High school did not implement it. 

    -Interested in sciences within IB 

    In California, any high school may give permission for a student over the age of 14 to concurrently enroll in a Junior College. California State policy provides double funding for the student. Please check out the Peralta College System, they have fantastic Science courses. Currently the ENVMT program is actively seeking high school students for enrollment in its environmenyal science program. Target population in CA for dual enrollment is intended to provide enrichment for students who have special academic or vocational needs. Admission requirements are set by the secondary school. So in other words, your high school  administrator just needs to approve and sign off on the concurrent enrollment form and the parent also needs to sign off, then the student may attend the college courses and even earn transferable college credit to a 4 year university. Both institutions get the funding for the enrollment, so there is no reason for the high school to oppose the enrollment as long as everyone agrees the student is ready. To get more details on this, please attend Creek to Bay Day on Sept 17th where BLC will be hosting an event along with Merritt College, dual enrollment consultants will be happy to field your questions at this informational event. RSVP at his link:

    I am really excited to read this question! But here's an option outside of the BIHS box to consider. 

    I took a community college math class when I was in high school and it was a great experience. When I attended Community College as a college student, I met a lot of high school students who were taking college courses. I discovered recently that middle school and high school students could take college courses for free and I thought: we need to have a program at the library to let people know about this option and get someone from Peralta Colleges to explain all the requirements. So that is what we are doing!

    This Saturday, August 27th, 3-4pm, Tamika Brown, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Enrollment Management at Peralta Colleges, will be at Berkeley Public Library North Branch to talk about how high school students can take college courses, as well as many other options available to all of us through community college. As someone who benefited greatly from my community college education, I wanted to let other people know about this great resource. 

    Your daughter might be a great candidate for this option, or maybe you know someone who is interested. Fortunately for me, a school guidance counselor let me know about this option. 


    I have a senior and a sophomore in BIHS. The eldest is on track for the diploma and the sophomore intends to get it too. So far the science department experience at the school has been good. My eldest had 9th grade bio and 11th grade IB Enviromental Science with the same teacher. Mr. Campisi is the only IB teacher teaching IB Enviro and is both a good teacher and an incredibly enthusiastic one. He really cares about the kids succeeding. The IB Bio teacher, Nick Plescak (sp?) is reputed to be just excellent and the course is supposed to be quite hard. It is true, there is no longer an HL level IB science course and that is really too bad. My eldest is going to take AP Physics during the senior year regardless of not needing science for the diploma at this point and that will be on top of three other HL level courses. It is a big load. I have heard that IB SL Bio combined with HL level math the junior year is onerous but the right path for some kids. I am grateful that BIHS offers a range of difficulty levels for the students so they can be in the program and complete it, diploma or not, at the appropriate level of intensity for their learning styles and interests. My child chose not to continue with HL math and found SL math super easy. Just one student's experience of course but it was one way to balance everything out and still participate in lots of activities, take some courses that were more challenging and try to keep some sanity during junior and senior year. Good luck!

    I can't speak for BHS, but I did IB in a similar situation (no high-level sciences, a standard IB Physics program, and a separate AP Physics C option), and at least there me and my peers skipped straight to AP Physics C (in addition to other normal IB requirements) and did just fine without a prior physics class. The only catch was making sure you either had calculus under your belt or were simultaneously taking calculus (since this was a common choice, our school structured the IB Calculus class in such a way that we hurried and covered the important basics [basic derivatives and integrations] so that we could do AP Physics C just fine).

    Hope things work out for your science-interested kid!

    Hi there,

    I have two kids in BIHS, an incoming senior and incoming sophomore. There absolutely is higher level science offered in BIHS. Please check out the BHS Course Catalog (available on the BHS website) and look at the BIHS course progression. Courses labeled IB are (relatively) equivalent to AP courses, and are very challenging. If your student is interested in challenging science courses, they can take AP Chemistry their sophomore year, and then in junior year they can take two IB science courses, and more in senior year if they wish. Also, not every student in BIHS chooses to go for the diploma. For those who do, the IB diploma requirements do not begin until junior year. As long as they are fulfilled, a student can organize their schedule any way they wish. For more information, I urge you to check out the BIHS website:

    For more in-depth information about IB diploma requirements, go here:

    I also urge you to contact Chris Young, the IB coordinator, with any questions: chrisyoung [at] and to consider joining the BIHS Etree and the Parent Action Group.

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Archived Q&A and Reviews

Questions & Advice  

Next class in science progression at BHS

Feb 2014

I'd like some advice from you parents whose high schoolers have gone through the progression of science classes at BHS. My son is a sophomore in BIHS and will be choosing his classes for next year very soon.

Currently he is enrolled in AP Chemistry. He chose that class largely because that was what his friends were choosing; however, he is interested in the sciences and is enjoying the class. He studies with a tutor weekly and got a C grade at the end of the first semester. My take on his grade is that the course material is challenging, but he could have put more time into studying. He does OK in math. His grade at the end of the semester was a B.

He has an interest in anatomy and was thinking about taking the anatomy and physiology class (it is an honors class in IB) next year. However, many of his friends want to take AP Biology next year as juniors, and then take honors Anatomy/Physiology in their senior year, so again, he is also considering doing what his friends are doing.

Do you think this is a good science progression, to take AP Bio before Anatomy/Physiology, or should he take Anatomy/Physiology first, if he is interested in it?

Also, my high school science progression (back in the mid-80s) was biology-chemistry-physics-AP level bio/chem/physics (I took AP Bio). It seems that BHS doesn't require physics. How important do you think it is for one to take a physics class before graduating from high school?

Thanks. BHS parent

I am glad you are checking this now. It's been two years since my son applied to engineering schools, but I think most, if not all, wanted him to have physics along with chem and bio. A fourth science often was recommended. You may want to check with the college counselor and get online to a number of potential schools to find out the requirements for physics for his possible majors. Anon.

Hi! I don't have experience with BHS, but I don't think physics is necessary for the student that does not want to take it. My son (Sophomore at USC) went to high school in Marin and took 9th grade- Biology, 10th grade- Chemistry, 11th grade- Honors Biology, 12th grade- AP Environmental Science (score 5). He was not at all interested in taking physics. (He took Calculus & felt that was enough; he's a history/Poli Sci type). I don't think a lack of physics mattered at all in the college admission process. A lot depends on plans for college major. If your student is planning on taking 4 years of science & wants to take an honors anatomy/ physiology class, I personally think it's better for the student (and reflects interest to college admissions) to take senior year classes that he's really committed to- Parent of Poli Sci major

I think kids who are considering a science/engineering/medicine future would do well to take 4 years of science, including physics (or AP physics if they can handle it). That said, I don't know one kid who took it before senior year. It is very hard and taking that junior year seems a bit brutal. Also remember AP Environmental Science, which didn't exist in our day (says the dinosaur). It is fun, fascinating, and I know an unusual number of kids who decided to major in it in college after taking it at BHS. It is not brutally hard, making it a good choice for junior year when other classes are, and when college grades are so important. My very non-science daughter was glad to have one AP science on her record. I don't know anything about the anatomy class so no comment there. But my 2 cents is, save physics for senior year. former BHS mom