Berkeley High’s new A Building, home to its visual and performing arts programs, opened in early January after three years of construction. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Three years after construction began, a gleaming new A building at Berkeley High opened to students at the beginning of the spring semester. The Berkeley Community Theater is slated to open sometime this year.

The theater, which once hosted bands like the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin, has been seismically retrofitted, renovated and made accessible for people with disabilities. Many of the renovations happened on the stage itself or backstage, rather than in the front of the house. It is expected to reopen either late this spring or by the start of the next year school year.

In the A Building, home to visual and performing arts on campus, students are already taking classes like sound design and rehearsing for the BHS Jazz Band in the modern space.

The project to renovate the A Building broke ground just before March 2020. It cost $60 million to renovate the building and the theater. It was paid for with Measure I, a 10-year, $210 million facilities bond that passed in 2010.

In addition to the arts, many of the classes in the A Building also belong to the high school’s career and technical education program, which prepares students for jobs with concrete skills in courses like fire science. The renovation will bolster the program’s offerings in the arts.

Berkeley High students take a Jazz Band class with Sarah Cline, the school’s jazz director, on the top floor of the new building on Jan. 25, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
The project included renovation work on the Berkeley Community Theater, a city landmark, which still has months of work ahead of its reopening later this year. The 3,491-seat theater was seismically retrofitted and renovated for accessibility purposes. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“In the best of circumstances, 40% of our graduates have four-year degrees, six or seven years out,” said Wyn Skeels, who supervises the career and technical education program at BUSD. “What are we offering the other 60% of our students?”

Last Thursday, students in Amanda Marini’s video production class walked around the building in pairs, experimenting with the new microphones and audio recorders. Many of the students were girls, a change that Marini found inspiring.

“I didn’t feel comfortable going into the [film] industry when when I was that age,” Marini said. In the past, her film theory classes have been majority boys, but she is noticing that changing with classes like video production, which are offered through the international baccalaureate program. “To know that it’s shifting and that more girls can have access is heartwarming.”

The Berkeley Community Theater is a city landmark that has hosted artists like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as well as speakers ranging from the Dalai Lama to Bernie Sanders. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Inside the building’s scene shop, students can build stage sets for theatrical productions. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Students attend a Jazz Band class on the third floor of the new A Building on Jan. 25, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Down the hall, students were filing into Sakima Williams’s sound design class, pulling state-of-the-art equipment like audio interface machines out from lockers that lined the wall. “It’s so much more than just making beats with keyboards,” said Williams, who infuses his lessons with music theory and history.

In addition to working as a teacher and counselor, Williams is also a musician and produces for local Bay Area artists. Recently, his students toured the middle schools, sharing the beats they had designed in Williams’ class.

The walls of the A Building are decorated with murals of Berkeley High graduates in the arts, including a portrait of Daveed Diggs, who is famous for his Broadway performance in Hamilton.

Three flights of stairs up, students in the Berkeley High Jazz Band were practicing for an upcoming show. Down the hall, brand new booths sat waiting for students to practice individually or in small groups. There is also a black box theater that students are already using.

Amanda Marini, a video production teacher, photographed inside one of the building’s new classrooms. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Students in Marini’s video production class test out video and audio recording equipment beneath a mural of famous BHS alumnus Daveed Diggs. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“I’m excited about kids in the performing arts being in a space that they deserve,” said Harrison Blatt, vice principal of the visual and performing arts school at BHS. “I’m excited for the collaboration that can happen now that everybody’s in one space.”

The renovation is a long time coming. Before construction began, there were years of discussions about what should be included in the bond and in the project itself. “I just remember all of the endless meetings to plan it,” said Stephanie Allan, a parent of a Berkeley High graduate who has worked on every BUSD facilities bond since 1990.

Parts of the building are still in progress. On the first floor, a room that will house the stagecraft program sat accumulating materials like saws and laser cutters. By next school year, students will be able to use a host of industry-standard tools to design sets for BHS productions.

“You’re not just thinking about what it might look like. You actually get to engage, create design, iterate your design, and then realize it in 3D, and then actually do the work,” Skeels said. “It’s a learning laboratory for students.”

A piano inside a practice soundproof booth on the building’s third floor. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Sakima Williams chats with one of his sound design class students, Jan. 25, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the funds Measure I brought in to BUSD. It was $210 million, not $2.1 million.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...