On Feb. 15, the Berkeley School Board voted to continue developing a redesign of the ninth grade. Photo: Nancy Rubin

One student’s experience at Berkeley High School can differ markedly from another’s. Between enrollment in small schools, career preparatory programs and advanced classes, some classmates do not cross paths until they walk the stage together at graduation.

A proposed redesign of the ninth-grade schedule and classes would make freshman year “universal,” rather than the current division into small schools and programs from the outset. Under the plan, all students would take the same core academic classes, in small cohorts. Proponents say the shared experience could help decrease the achievement gap by setting all students off on equal footing and giving them the guidance they need to pick the right academic program for the next three years.

A “Design Team” of BHS staff and students began discussing the overhaul in fall 2015. Earlier this year, the group scaled down the proposal, due to budget constraints, to focus solely on ninth grade. In February, the Berkeley School Board voted unanimously to continue pursuing the ninth-grade redesign, which is expected to cost $500,000-$600,000 per year.

The Design Team, co-led by Communications Arts and Sciences (CAS) teacher Hasmig Minassian and Berkeley International High School (BIHS) economics teacher Matt Meyer, will present a final proposal to the board in May, before a likely final vote in June. If the plan passes, BHS will spend the following year preparing for implementation in fall 2018.

Currently, incoming BHS freshmen enroll in an academic program — the CAS, Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS), or Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA) small schools, or the Academic Choice or BIHS programs — by lottery. The proposed plan postpones that process. All freshmen would instead be divided into diverse “houses” of around 120 students and four teachers. The students would take math, science, English and history with others in their house. Students could take two additional classes outside of the program, and could test into an advanced math course outside of their house.

Each ninth-grade teacher, who would only teach within his or her house, would be responsible for four class periods, and one course for high-needs students. Teachers would also have a preparation period to collaborate with other teachers across the grade.

The plan also modifies the ninth-grade bell schedule so classes last longer but meet less often.

Staff members initially were inspired to pursue the redesign after learning about research from the School Redesign Network at Stanford University. The proposal incorporates strategies suggested by the researchers to improve instruction and teacher collaboration in intimate learning environments.

“The small schools model — of a group of teachers rallying around a group of students — is one all students should have access to during their time of transition from middle school to high school,” Minassian said.

Of the three current small schools, CAS is the oldest, founded in 1997. The district later embraced the small school movement, opening three more, including AHA and AMPS (then called the Community Partnerships Academy), in 2005. While some continue to herald small schools and the personalized attention students receive there as the solution to the achievement gap, others say they increase segregation and academic disparities. The Gates Foundation, an early major investor in small schools including Berkeley High’s, backed away in 2009, saying student achievement had not improved in that context.

Inaccurate public perception, along with parental or peer pressure, too often sway incoming students when they select their small learning community or academic program in the eighth-grade lottery, Minassian said. During the universal ninth-grade program, students would attend presentations by all three options — the small schools, AC and IB — before participating in a lottery for 10th grade.

The new structure “provides them with that bridge into a complex bureaucracy,” Minassian said. Freshmen will also learn about career technical education offerings and hands-on training for jobs in various industries.

“There’s a whole Berkeley High that kids don’t even know about in eighth grade,” Minassian said.

The redesign is the latest effort to decrease the racial achievement gap at Berkeley High. District data from the 2012-13 school year showed that, while academic achievement and attendance improved for all students, black students were still far less likely than their white peers to pass AP exams, and more likely to be chronically absent from school and suspended.

In 2016, former BHS Principal Sam Pasarow, when he was on the Design Team, said white students were four times likelier to take an advanced math class than black students, and seven times likelier to take AP science. That difference could be due in part to the disproportionately high population of students of color in small schools, which offer some of their own math and science classes.

At the Feb. 15 Berkeley School Board meeting, BHS science teacher Glenn Wolkenfeld praised the redesign, saying the equity issues will persist without a systemic overhaul.

“Well-meaning people have proposed program after program and the result has been the creation of a school that is fragmented and deeply self-contradictory,” Wolkenfeld said. “Segregation is everywhere you look.”

Last spring, a poll of Berkeley High teachers and staff found 84% supported a redesign, according to Vice Principal Tamara Friedman, a member of the Design Team.

Not everyone, however, is on board. John Tobias, an AMPS history teacher, said he thinks the redesign could be a blow to his and other small schools.

“If we’re seeing kids for the first time in 10th grade, when their GPAs start to matter for college, that undermines our ability to build community,” he said.

Under the proposed redesign, no student would have any of their ninth-grade teachers again in a later grade. AMPS practices “looping,” a strategy also supported by the Stanford research, where teachers work with the same students for multiple years. Tobias said he has witnessed its benefits.

“I know [my students’] strengths and challenges, and I’m going to be there from day one,” he said. “They’re calling this an effort at personalization, and I see some of that. But nobody is going to have the same teacher in ninth grade that they have in 10th, and that’s a problem to me.”

An initial redesign plan kept students in houses throughout high school, and created advisories in ninth and 10th grade. But that plan would have required the addition of a seventh period to the school day, which would have cost $1.3 million to $1.6 million. Ultimately the district could not come up with a way to pay for the new schedule, and decided to redesign ninth grade only.

In a February report responding to questions posed by the School Board, the Design Team said it is assessing funding options for the $500,000-$600,000 annual cost. The group said its goal is to allocate $200,000 from the district’s general fund annually, which could require cuts in other areas. The group is also considering the use of $300,000 in Local Control Accountability Plan dollars and $150,000 from funds dedicated to BHS.

At the February meeting, board members praised the Design Team’s process, which has included several presentations to staff, students and families. The board asked the group to come back in May with a final proposal including a budget, a description of how the new ninth-grade science class will meet the Next Generation Science Standards, details on the academic development course, and information about how small schools will be supported in becoming three-year programs.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...