Berkeley High’s ninth-grade program could look quite different in a couple years. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Berkeley High’s ninth-grade program could look quite different in a couple years. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The proposal to dramatically restructure the ninth-grade program at Berkeley High School has garnered high praise from many who say it will reduce disparities, and sharp criticism from those who say it neglects advanced students and harms small-school programs.

The Berkeley School Board dedicated the bulk of its meeting on Wednesday to a staff presentation and public hearing on the final BHS redesign proposal, the product of a two-year planning process involving several community and staff meetings. Board members were generally complimentary of the proposal and plan to vote on it June 14.

If adopted, the plan would create a universal ninth grade beginning fall 2018. Currently BHS students enroll in “small learning communities” — small schools with different academic focuses — when they begin high school. The proposed redesign would postpone that process, starting every single freshman off with the same four core classes before they pick their small school in tenth grade.

The redesign would establish six “hives” of 120 students, who would take physics, math, ethnic studies, and English together with four teachers, who would only teach within their hives. Students could test into an advanced math class. The program also introduces a support class called Learn, Engage, Accelerate, Persist (LEAP) for students who need extra academic or behavioral help. The course would be optional, but teachers would recruit students who could benefit from it. Students would take two — or one, if they are in LEAP — electives outside of their hives.

The redesign is expected to cost $550,000 annually, a significant expense for a district heading toward potential budget cuts.

Proponents of the plan say it’s worth it, as the overhaul would set students off with a shared academic foundation, helping curb the achievement gap and the social segregation evident across all grade levels at Berkeley High. The movement towards dividing students into small schools was driven by the same goal — the desire to reduce disparities, in that case by allowing students to pick a program that supported their particular needs, with more focused attention from teachers. Small schools tend to have higher percentages of students of color, spurring allegations that they perpetuate segregation — or, according to others, provide an important refuge for at-risk students.

The new redesign plan is designed to curb the achievement gap and the social segregation evident across all grade levels at Berkeley High. Photo: Nancy Rubin
The new redesign plan is designed to curb the achievement gap and the social segregation evident across all grade levels at Berkeley High. Photo: Nancy Rubin

“It has been 10 years since the beginning of the small schools movement,” said School Board member Karen Hemphill on Wednesday. “Any movement that is 10 years old needs to do some self-evaluation — no shade.”

In recent years, early advocates of small schools have withdrawn their support, citing questionable success at reducing disparities. Other research suggests efforts to close the achievement gap must start much earlier than high school.

Advocates of the BHS redesign plan say all freshmen would benefit from the increased personalization made possible by the teachers who could focus exclusively on students in their hives. All ninth-grade teachers would get a common prep period to collaborate and make sure they have shared expectations for all students, as they will all be teaching the same courses.

The following year, tenth-grade teachers “will know exactly what happened in ninth grade. They won’t be guessing, and it won’t be dependent on which teacher you had,” said Matt Meyer, BHS economics teacher. Meyer headed the design of the proposal, along with Hasmig Minassian a history teacher in the Communications Arts and Science small school; Vice Principal Tamara Friedman; and Principal Erin Schweng, who replaced former Principal Sam Pasarow.

“The idea here is that all students get some of that personalization as they enter ninth grade,” Schweng said. “We want to maintain a consistent and coherent pedagogy across all ninth grade.”

“You’ll be gentrifying my ninth grade”

During a public comment period at the School Board meeting, parents and teachers expressed strong feelings, both in support and in opposition to the plan.

Science teacher Glenn Wolkenfeld, who helped lead the short-lived Green Academy small school and has taught outside the small-school system for years as well, said there are racial discrepancies between the large and small schools — and even so, plenty of high-needs students and students of color who could benefit from a small school do not find their way into one. His small school failed because eighth-grade students did not know enough about it to enroll in it, he said.

“We’ve created life rafts in a ship that is unsound,” Wolkenfeld said. “We should desegregate.”

Several small-school teachers spoke passionately against the redesign proposal, cautioning that losing a year of their programs would threaten some of their most successful elements.

John Tobias, a history teacher in the small school Academy of Medicine and Public Service, challenged the idea that programs with high representation from students of color constituted “segregation.”

“My biggest fear is this autonomous space for black and brown students in AMPS will start to go away, and essentially you’ll be gentrifying my ninth grade,” Tobias said.

The redesign proposal would divide all freshmen into 120-student houses. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Shannon Erby, a history teacher in the small Arts and Humanities Academy, who has taught outside the small school system as well, said four-year programs allow teachers to offer an unusual level of support.

“It’s really powerful to have ongoing relationships with kids from the moment they walk into high school to their commencement,” she said. Erby said she wrote a letter of recommendation for a graduating student she had taught since freshman year, and heard back from a college that was impressed by how well she knew the student. That student felt comfortable enough to come out as transgender to his tenth-grade teachers in AHA, who helped him come out to the other students in the program, she said.

But many students leave or enroll in new small schools midway through high school. Some parents said the redesign would provide relief for eighth-grade students who are currently expected to choose the course of their high school career before even stepping foot on campus.

“There’s a great deal of misinformation,” a parent said. “Many eighth graders choose the program their parents have heard is the only good choice at Berkeley High. Others have little or no direction or support in the process.” In the redesigned ninth grade, students would be introduced to each small school throughout freshman year.

Other parents said the universal ninth grade is designed to support students at risk of falling behind, but offers no new support for students performing beyond their grade level. Although the new ninth-grade program would not eliminate any advanced courses currently offered to students, parents said they wished it would include new programs for advanced learners as it does for those struggling.

One parent noted that her son has taken “every opportunity he’s had for advanced learning, and he’s gotten all A’s, and he’s dreadfully bored” at BHS.

Along with the changes to the ninth-grade program structure, new courses and curricula are in the works. The School Board has approved a shuffling of the science program at Berkeley High so that all freshmen will take a new physics class beginning fall 2018. Currently only about 20% of seniors end up taking physics. A new full-year ethnic studies course is also being developed.

Some pieces of the redesign are still being hashed out. The proposal puts forth options for modified block schedules where students do not take each class each day.

The ninth-grade redesign proposal was scaled down from an initial plan to restructure the entire BHS program, merging the two “large school” programs and implementing longer-term hives and advisories. Budget constraints put the kibosh on that plan for 2017-18, but staff say they hope a more elaborate overhaul will be possible in the future.

See the BUSD webpage on the redesign proposal and process. 

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Natalie Orenstein

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,...