BUSD school board approves BHS universal 9th-grade redesign

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The Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education voted Wednesday to approve a universal ninth-grade program for all incoming Berkeley High School freshmen, which will take effect beginning fall 2018.

The universal program, projected to cost about $550,000 annually, will assign incoming ninth-grade students to “houses” of about 120 students, each with a core group of four teachers. Currently, incoming BHS freshmen choose one of five learning communities to focus their studies through a lottery system. The redesign will postpone the learning community lottery until the tenth grade.

The redesign is intended to address several issues in the current system, including “segregation or isolation for students of color, a lack of personal attention for all students and a lack of intentionality to the overall structure of the school,” according to Berkeley Parent Teacher Association Council President Christine Staples.

“The new design … has the potential to make a huge difference … by building school community, welcoming students and incorporating them into school culture, and giving them a greater set of tools to embark on their high school careers,” Staples wrote in an email.

Staples added that under the current ninth-grade system, misinformation or insufficient space in certain programs often results in students choosing a learning community that may not be the best fit for them.

The change is the result of a two-year process which involved the input of students, parents, teachers and administrators, according to BUSD School Board President Ty Alper.

Hasmig Minassian, a BHS teacher and co-lead of the BHS ninth-grade redesign, said the universal ninth-grade program — based off of research on comparable large, urban high schools and “elements of success” from the current system — is intended to help students with the transition from middle school to high school with more personalization and stronger collaborations among teachers.

The main changes of the ninth-grade redesign, according to Minassian, are the implementation of core teachers, school houses and LEAP, an academic development program designed to support struggling students.

Minassian added that students will no longer have any choices to make in eighth grade besides their electives and will have an opportunity to adjust to BHS before deciding on a learning community for their remaining three years.

“I don’t think (the redesign) will solve all of our problems — I don’t think this is a panacea,” Minassian said. “It would be silly to think of this as a ‘be-all-end-all,’ but we do believe that it will make a difference in the areas we’re intending it to.”

Some students viewed the ninth-grade redesign as an attempt to rid the “unfairness” of the current lottery system, according to Marielena Rodas, a BHS rising senior.

Rodas said in an email that she is “hesitant to accept” the restructuring because BUSD is “constantly putting new programs to the test, instead of just consulting students.”

She added, however, that she believes BUSD’s “intentions are honorable” and that some students will benefit from the longer class periods, increased classroom engagement and smoother transition from middle school to high school that the redesign offers.

“By eliminating all the learning communities for incoming freshmen … I think the school is trying to squash the stereotypes around (the learning communities) and create a unified experience,” Rodas said in an email. “The hope is then that students choose a learning community that suits them, not one they hear has more field trips, or gets you into college.”

Minassian said the effectiveness of the ninth-grade redesign will continue to be evaluated moving forward.

“We have plans down the line to assess how this is going and if there would be value in applying it to more grade levels,” Minassian said. “It’s what all good programs should do, which is assess yourself and decide what worked, what didn’t and what could be applied to other areas of your institution.”

Contact Valerie Hsieh at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @valhsieh.