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Building BU’s Next Generation

After a year on the job, BU Academy headmaster Berkman looks toward future

Jim Berkman, headmaster of BU Academy. Photo by Fred Sway

One year ago, Boston University named Jim Berkman head of BU Academy, a coeducational day and college preparatory school for grades 9 through 12. Berkman, the former head of the Hawken School, outside of Cleveland, is a graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University, and Harvard Law School, with more than 22 years of teaching and administrative experience in independent schools.

At Hawken, Berkman helped introduce foreign language classes and financial aid programs at the elementary school, raise faculty salaries, and forge partnerships with major Cleveland-area institutions. When he arrived at BU Academy last year, he said he hoped to make the school a national model by building on a classical curriculum, exposing students to a wider range of topics, increasing fundraising, and recruiting students from more diverse cultural backgrounds. Recently BU Today asked him about his first year as head of BU Academy and his goals for the school’s future.

BU Today:
Describe your first year as head of BU Academy.
Berkman: It’s been wonderful. I came with high expectations, and they’ve been exceeded. The kids have just been amazing — they’re not only bright and articulate; they’re fun and sweet and interesting. They’re just unusual people, and I’m glad to get to know them and their families. The faculty is fabulous. And the icing on the cake is being part of a big research university. There are no other schools like us: a distinct blend of independent school and major research university. I’ve enjoyed the colleagues I’ve met in the wider university and the access to intellectual activities. I really appreciate the pace and flow of being on a big campus, even though we’re a small school. 

How big is the school?

We have about 155 students. If it were a stand-alone school, I might think it was a bit small, but because we’re on a 16,000-undergraduate campus, it’s just right. Our new five-year Strategic Plan does discuss modest growth, and over the next several years we might get to 192. Before we make a formal commitment to that growth, we must monitor admissions over the next year to see if we have the momentum to fill a class of 48 every freshman year, as opposed to 39. We don’t want to jeopardize quality. We also have to research space.

What are some other goals of the Strategic Plan?
We have seven goals. The first is to continue to hire and retain the best faculty possible to develop a core of master teachers. Second, as mentioned earlier, we hope to grow modestly in size. Third, we will define and craft a curriculum that is rooted in the influence of ancient Greece and Rome by focusing on primary texts and critical thinking, while also increasing attention to public speaking, the arts, citizenship, service, scientific method, writing, and philosophy. Fourth, we will begin a capital campaign to fund an endowment in support of the strategic plan. Fifth, we will collaborate with Boston University to enhance and improve the flow of intellectual and cultural resources between the academy and the University. Sixth, we will expand our opportunities to share the academy’s unique strengths through communications. And last, we hope to attract and support students and faculty from underrepresented populations in the city of Boston and its neighboring communities.

What changes have you made in the past year?
I wanted to watch and listen and learn for a year before jumping into any major changes, but I did implement a few. We did some analysis of our tuition and financial aid policies and made some improvements, where we are allocating more of the financial aid budget to need-based requests and less to discretionary merit-based requests — which is consistent with the University’s work. In doing the Strategic Plan and in looking at structure, there have been a number of personnel transitions, and around those transitions I’ve been able to do some restructuring of staff.  

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as head of BU Academy?
There were a few staffing shifts that occurred in the past year, which in turn required some administrative restructuring. So I ran some searches and hired some people who will hopefully help move us into the next level. I jokingly say that the academy is the same age as our students — it’s an adolescent institution — and this strategic plan and these new hires will help us grow into young adulthood. By August, we will be fully staffed again.

What has been most rewarding about your position?
It’s been satisfying to use my past experiences as head at independent day schools in ways that are different to the academy, but still welcomed.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.