The Berkeley School Board approved major changes to Berkeley High’s ninth grade on June 14. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

With little fanfare Wednesday night, the Berkeley School Board unanimously approved a proposal to restructure the ninth grade at Berkeley High School, paving the way for a “universal” freshman year beginning in 2018-19.

The plan introduces a standardized first-year curriculum at Berkeley High, meaning students will no longer enroll in small schools and academic programs from the start. The small school enrollment lottery will be postponed until tenth grade. All freshmen will instead be divided into 120-student houses, where they will take English, ethnic studies, math and physics. Students can still test into advanced math, and those who need extra academic or behavioral help can enroll in a new support course called Learn, Engage, Accelerate, Persist (LEAP).

Ninth-grade teachers will only teach within their assigned houses, and will have a common period to prepare and collaborate with other teachers in the grade.

The new endeavor is expected to cost $550,000 annually, a significant investment given the minimal wiggle-room in the district budget.

Wednesday’s vote capped a two-year development process involving a number of teachers, administrators and students. Leading the charge were Vice Principal Tamara Friedman, teachers Hasmig Minassian and Matt Meyer, and Principal Erin Schweng, who replaced former Principal Sam Pasarow. They looked to Stanford research on “redesigning” high schools to promote equity for guidance.

Ty Alper, president of the School Board, said he was “particularly proud” to vote for the ninth-grade redesign, calling it the product of a thoughtful and deliberate process.

“It’s a process that was initiated because many of the professional educators in the Berkeley High community were willing to say, ‘We need to rethink what were doing because we’re not serving all students,'” Alper said at the June 14 board meeting.

He noted that he is not “under the delusion” that everyone at Berkeley High is enthusiastic about the change.

Emotions occasionally ran high at public meetings on the redesign proposal. Supporters said a common ninth-grade curriculum would offer an antidote to segregation and stratification at Berkeley High. Parents noted that many incoming freshmen currently select a small school based on minimal information or misguided stereotypes. But the redesign also had critics, who cautioned against removing a year from small school programs, which they said provide supportive learning environments for many of the school’s more vulnerable students. Others said the new freshman program offers a new course for those who need extra help, but nothing new for advanced students.

Berkeley High staff will spend the next year developing the new program before it goes into effect in fall 2018.

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,...