Four Years In: Evaluating the Universal Ninth Grade’s Successes and Limitations


Maia Kesler & Gabriella Busansky

In 2015, Tamara Friedman and Glenn Wolkenfeld, then-professional development coordinators at Berkeley High School (BHS), decided that BHS needed to change. 

An achievement gap persisted along racial lines, and students who could have been helped were falling through the cracks. Although Friedman had been focused on closing the achievement gap for years, it was when she and Wolkenfeld attended a Linda Darling-Hammond lecture at the University of California (UC), Berkeley that the idea began to solidify. 

Darling-Hammond’s research focuses on the importance of strong personal relationships with teachers, teaching that facilitates deep engagement, and coordination among teachers to improve support for students. The talk helped inspire Friedberg and Wolkenfeld. Soon after, the Universal Ninth Grade (U9) was born.

There are several accounts of how BHS conceived the U9 program, but this is the story as told by Hasmig Minassian, BHS Ethnic Studies teacher and now the lead teacher of the U9. Minassian recalls that they then formed a working group, which spent a year getting their plan approved by the school board, and another year organizing its implementation — culminating in its creation in the 2018-19 school year. 

At the same time as the idea for the U9 was growing, the 2011-12 Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) report highlighted disparities between SLCs and a need for more common practices across BHS. The report, which was made by the WASC team, a group of volunteers that evaluates public and private schools, suggested the school “continue to strengthen the 9th grade academic program that imparts a strong foundation of knowledge.”

The program is relatively simple at first glance; it puts all eight hundred or so ninth graders together at BHS in their freshman year, instead of immediately placing them into Small Learning Communities (SLCs). Freshmen are now in “hives” made up of 120 students and four teachers, instead of SLCs that range from 60 to 300 students per grade. They still go into the SLCs for the rest of high school, through a complex lottery system that allows them to personalize their high school experience to what they desire – maybe choosing the three “small schools” for a tighter-knit environment, Berkeley International High School (BIHS) for the international baccalaureate (IB) diploma, or Academic Choice (AC) for its plethora of options.

The U9 was created with several goals in mind. Front and center was student support. 

This comes in the form of wraparound support in the hive structure and the new Learn, Engage, Accelerate, Persist (LEAP) program. Minassian didn’t want anyone to feel lost the moment they entered BHS. Minassian specifically wanted to see students’ grades, attendance, graduation rates, and eligibility to apply for UC and California State Universities (CSU) schools improve as a result of the support of the U9.

Universality, as the name suggests, was another important goal. Friedman said that they had wanted every student to enter BHS and take most of the same relatively rigorous classes. A universal curriculum, including the new “Ethnic Studies/Social Living” class, was implemented with the U9. In this way, the U9 was intended to level the playing field for all students starting high school. 

It used to be [that] if you were in one of the bigger programs it was sort of sink or swim, and there was a lot more sinking

Dana Moran

This uniformity also applies to the makeup of each hive and class. Whereas before, students would immediately be sorted into SLCs upon entering BHS, programs which do not all have the same demographics, now they have one year in diverse classes that match the demographics of the entire student body.

Students also are meant to be more informed about what they’re getting into when choosing SLCs, a process that now happens in the spring of their freshman year, instead of during eighth grade. 

With the class of 2022 — the first class that experienced the U9 — graduating imminently, the Jacket has decided to investigate just how fully the program delivered on its initial goals. Through comprehensive interviews with students, staff, parents, and administrators, as well as gathering some data on its effectiveness, the Jacket has been able to analyze the full success of the program.  

Wraparound Support for Students Through Hives

The hive system is modeled on the small school model, where the three small schools — Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS), Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA), and the Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS) — have 60 students in a grade and therefore more tight-knit communities and student-teacher relationships. While hives are nearly twice that size, they try to emulate the wraparound support that comes from the same teachers teaching all the same students.

Minassian, who was a lead teacher in CAS before becoming lead teacher of the U9, said her experience there led her to want to bring a small school-style experience to the whole freshman class.

“To me, if you are providing something and you know its gold, you have to provide it for everyone,” she said. “I knew that what we were providing in CAS — the personalization, kids having a safe landing spot between eighth and ninth grade, kids being known and cared for by a bunch of teachers — I knew that that was gold and we could only give it to 60 kids and that felt unfair.”

CAS lead teacher Philip Halpern echoed Minassian.

“It really heartens me to know that ninth graders get the kind of coherent, coordinated, educational experience that I think small school kids have gotten for a long time but I’m not sure that AC and [BIHS] kids have been getting,” he said.

The minute they step out of this school, they’re going to encounter a world that is not going to be all Black people, all brown people, or all white people. … That’s one of the best things that the U9 has done

Susi Lopez

Teachers meet in their hives usually once a week to coordinate lesson plans and pedagogical strategies. 

“Before the U9 … I had that 180 hours with my kids. Now I have those 180 hours plus the time spent talking about those kids with other adults,” said U9 math teacher Leah Alcala. “I think that I just learn other things about my kids from the adults that I’m talking to.”

Even teachers outside of the U9 can benefit from the coordination of the hive structure. Spanish teacher and co-lead teacher of the World Language Department Susi Lopez said that she appreciates being able to easily contact all of a student’s hive teachers if she senses a problem.

Lopez also said that the structure of the U9 helps students feel supported and known.

“Anonymity is a big deal with teenagers. It’s very easy to feel invisible, especially in a school this big. I think that being a part of the U9 is being part of a particular group of people with a particular set of values with a particular set of practices and expectations. It’s like being part of your family,” she said.

Dana Moran, U9 Ethnic Studies teacher and co-leader of the LEAP program, agreed. 

“Having the U9, I think, is a huge step forward for BHS, and I feel very confident in saying that no ninth grader falls through the cracks at BHS anymore,” Moran said. “It used to be really easy to just not go to class or get bad grades and nobody noticed because everybody had too many kids and there was this big shuffle and teachers didn’t talk to each other. If you were in one of the bigger programs it was sort of sink or swim and there was a lot more sinking.” 

In terms of more concrete effects of this support, it’s really hard to say how well the U9 is working. 

The quantitative markers of goals that Minassian laid out are, for the most part, not being measured by the school. The Jacket has been in discussion with the school since February in efforts to gain access to recent data on GPA, attendance, and other benchmarks, but the school has not been responsive to the requests. In addition, some of the data pertaining to this year’s graduating class is not available yet. 

The Jacket is in the process of filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the data from the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), and has not yet heard back. Even if the Jacket did gain access to the data, it would likely be skewed by the pandemic.

Anecdotally however, some teachers expressed particular admiration for the classes that went through the U9 program, especially the class of 2022. 

“They’re some really, really impressive seniors and I really believe that they had such a good foundation, such a good grounding, that U9 year that we’re seeing the dividends for that,” said AC English teacher Matthew Carton. “I’ll be interested to see what happens once the current group of sophomores have a full year under their belt.”

[In U9, students] might have to defend their humanity to some European American kid … That’s volatile. In AMPS that does not happen

John Tobias

Are students themselves feeling supported? It depends. Students the Jacket spoke to have mixed feelings. Some felt more supported after the U9, when they entered small schools; some had good experiences; and others had drastically different freshman years because of the pandemic.

BHS Principal Juan Raygoza said he is mainly hearing positive feedback.

“When we do look at survey data, we have found that students coming out from ninth grade are letting us know that they believe they have adults that care about them. And that matters to us,” he said. “For example, they’ll identify their intervention counselor as that person, or their academic counselor, or a teacher within their hive.”

When asked, Raygoza did not provide said survey data to the Jacket.

Diversity: A Double-Edged Sword

One of the most contentious aspects of the U9 has been its way of diversifying the freshman classes. Students now choose their SLCs a year later, which some see as a strategy to diversify the SLCs, and also lose one year within the SLCs. 

AMPS, for example, is made up of predominantly Black and brown students, and some teachers the Jacket spoke to said they see it as harmful to take students out of this “empowering” space and put them into a predominantly white space. 

While he did say he has come around to the U9, AMPS history teacher John Tobias worried about the challenges students who would have been in AMPS face in the U9.

“Now [students] might have to defend their humanity to some European American kid who just hasn’t learned enough,” Tobias said. “That’s volatile. And in AMPS that does not happen. It never happened under my watch. Because no European American kid would dare, and that was because of the demographic and the culture we’ve built here.”

One AMPS sophomore the Jacket spoke to corroborated Tobias’s views. 

“[The U9] made me feel like I didn’t fit in,” said the student, who didn’t want their name to be used. “I was always in a group of people who didn’t know me at all, who didn’t understand me. The people who I’m with right now work towards understanding me.”

AMPS English teacher KZ Zapata thinks AMPS is being compromised in the name of diversification.

“Why is a program that is sort of a sheltered space for Black and brown students being upended by a larger effort to diversify and address a problem that, in some ways, you could argue wasn’t the fault of those students?” Zapata said. 

Some think that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks of this diversity. 

“Part of our job as educators is to give our students some training for the time they leave high school,” Lopez said. “The minute they step out of this school they’re going to encounter a world that is not going to be all Black people, all brown people, all white people. We live in a multicultural world, of multi-races, ethnicities, and practices. … I think that’s one of the best things that the U9 has done for kids, that we start the training for after high school really early on.”

Ultimately, Minassian thinks it’s a tradeoff. 

While she said she is “on the fence” as an educator about the demographic differences between SLCs and their effects, she said they “decided to sacrifice what was good about [AMPS] for 60 kids to provide all the rest of this for 800.”

Raygoza said he sees pros and cons as well.

“There’s value in that kind of diversity, that if you walk into a class you don’t already make assumptions about the class, that it looks representative of the city of Berkeley,” he said. “And there is also value in AMPS having a higher proportion of students of color, that choose for many different reasons that they might be more successful in AMPS… I think there’s value in both of those.”

In terms of diversification of the SLCs in the following three years, Minassian said that wasn’t a direct goal. 

“Now AMPS will tell you that we created the U9 to diversify AMPS, and BIHS will tell you that we created the U9 to diversify BIHS, but that wasn’t the main focus,” she said.

If it has had those consequences, whether good or bad, they were unintended. 

SLC Choice and Informing Students

Before the U9, the process of choosing their SLCs was relatively uninformed. Incoming ninth graders had to rank their learning communities of choice after receiving presentations about each of the SLCs. However, false rumors circulated through middle schools, sometimes even perpetuated by teachers, counselors, or family members.  

Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, who also helped plan the U9, explained the consequences of forcing incoming ninth graders to choose so early. 

“Kids were forced to choose [their SLC] without ever stepping foot on campus between eighth and ninth grade,” Meyer said. “Where are they getting the information from and who is telling them? There were a lot of issues around what kids know when they make those choices. How much of that was rumor?” 

Alcala, who used to teach eighth graders, felt she was an inadequate resource for her students’ questions about SLCs, describing the process as “the blind leading the blind.”

The Jacket spoke to numerous students and got a wide variety of answers as to how informed students felt about their SLC choice. Some felt well informed, and others still made choices based on stereotypes or family members’ advice. 

It is hard to reach  a consensus on whether the U9 worked in this regard without data surrounding student happiness in SLCs and transfer rates between the SLCs. Despite the Jacket’s requests for this data, the school has been unresponsive. 

LEAP and Extra Support

The LEAP program was an integral part of establishing support for incoming students. LEAP is an elective course in which groups of 10 to 15 students receive academic support and academic skill development. Crucially, whereas similar programs like Bridge or RISE are seventh-period classes, LEAP takes place during the six-period day.    

“If you’re an athlete it might conflict with your Bridge or RISE time,” said Alex Day, LEAP co-coordinator and U9 Ethnic Studies teacher. “If you’re someone who gets thrown into socializing sometimes it’s hard to get to seventh-period support classes, unlike LEAP because it’s there and you have to go.” 

The LEAP curriculum focuses on study habits, organizational skills, self-advocacy, and self-esteem. Time to make up work and receive tutoring for homework is also built into the LEAP curriculum. 

“The idea is they spend two days a week doing math and the other days doing about 20 minutes worth of LEAP curriculum,” Moran said. The rest of the class is a study hall for students to do schoolwork.

Nayo Polk, an AMPS senior, said LEAP was “the only reason why [she] passed some of [her] classes.”

Phillip Beasley Jr., also a senior in AMPS, said LEAP was helpful during his ninth grade year, and he wished it was offered through twelfth grade. Unfortunately, this is not possible, as the only way LEAP is able to function is because of the hive structure.

What was being considered, however, was increasing the size of LEAP classes and removing some teachers, due to budget cuts BUSD faced this year. While it is no longer on the table, at least for now, it would change the fundamental structure of the program. If some U9 teachers were forced to take on other classes outside of the U9 instead of LEAP classes, they would be obliged to split their time between the U9 and other programs during professional development time. The U9 relies on teachers being “all in” in the program.

“I’ve been teaching for 21 years and it feels like every year we have a budget cut,” Alcala said. “We know that kids deserve so much support and nurturing and we keep cutting money from the things that are meant to support. So I’m just sad about it. I think it would really mess up the U9. I think it would pull some of the structural pieces away and make it so that it did not function at all.”

While LEAP is structurally supportive for students, there is room for improvement in terms of teacher organization and communication. According to Day, teachers receive little to no support from their coworkers and have no time to discuss what is and is not working in the LEAP curriculum. 

“We don’t have any professional development time … we never have meetings … which is one obstacle to LEAP becoming all that it could,” Day said.

LEAP will continue to adapt as teachers and administrators learn what works best. Going forward, Minassian explains the main goal of the U9 will be focusing on LEAP. 

“We’re working on LEAP,” Minassian said. “We’re working on codifying and structuring LEAP in such a way that it really meets the needs of kids and takes the most advantage of its time. … LEAP is where the majority of our funding is going and now that we feel like we have our curriculum set in all of our main classes we’re going to spend a lot of our summer professional development [focusing] on LEAP.”

Unintended Consequences: Teacher Training and School Culture

The U9 has also had several unintended consequences, specifically its use as a teacher training program and possible effect on school culture and unity.

The hive structure with professional development time built into the school day, fewer students, and fewer types of classes to teach creates a supportive environment for teachers to join at BHS. Receiving advice from fellow hive teachers also makes it a more welcoming program. 

According to Raygoza, BHS deliberately puts some new teachers into the U9. 

Michael Teasley, a math teacher who began teaching three years ago in the U9, expressed his gratitude for the U9. 

“I can’t imagine not teaching in the U9 for my first years as a teacher. … I really love working at Berkeley High because of the teacher benefits of working in the U9,” Teasley said. “I have felt supported by my colleagues because not only do we get structured time to meet but there is just a lot of communication between teachers.” 

Lucy Griffith, a freshman in the U9, expressed her frustration with the U9 being used to train new teachers. 

“[The] U9 should be preparing students, not a training ground for teachers,” Griffith said. “Ninth graders are a mess to be frank. We are not a great group of students who want to learn. In my experience my classes are chaotic and the amount of work we get done is minimal and with a teacher who can’t control that, it’s very difficult [for them] to help facilitate a good learning environment.”

Some teachers also said the U9 has unified the grades across SLCs, possibly leading to a shift in school culture down the road. 

While the SLCs did lose a year of community and togetherness with the U9, something AHA lead teacher Devon Brewer expressed some sadness over, students gained a year of time with people they otherwise may not have met. 

Tobias said that this has changed the culture of AMPS a bit. 

“There used to be a problem in AMPS, when kids started in ninth grade and went all four years, [they said] they felt disconnected from the rest of the school,” Tobias said. “I think kids are in AMPS and they love that but they also feel more connected to the school. I think we saw more kids … from AMPS joining the Jacket, joining student leadership.”

Sakiko Muranaka, an English teacher in BIHS and AC, believes that if students feel known at BHS, events such as Rally Day might be less destructive. 

“If you feel that way then you wouldn’t want to disappoint those people,” Muranaka said. “I feel like the whole group-think mentality or mob mentality is because you feel like nobody can see you.”

Conclusions and Next Steps for the Program

So, four years in, has the U9 been a success? 

Based on the anecdotal and qualitative data the Jacket has collected, for the most part, yes. Of the students the Jacket spoke to, many feel supported through LEAP and their hives, and teachers definitely feel that they have more capacity to help students.

The diversity of the program seems to be a trade-off, and greatly depends on what one values in a school. 

For SLC choice, it’s hard to imagine that spending a year on campus doesn’t help students feel more informed when ranking SLCs, but stereotypes and rumors are still perpetuated.  

And now, with the U9 fully implemented and working relatively smoothly, the school has several more goals. 

U9 Vice Principal Tonia Coleman would love to see more support for the Math 1 classes all freshmen take, possibly in the form of smaller class sizes. While it is unlikely to be implemented in the near future, Coleman suggested having two math teachers in each hive to drastically decrease class sizes. 

Another possibility for the future of the U9 would be expanding it into a U9 and 10, or a “universal tenth grade.”

“Let’s do it,” said Coleman, on a possible U10. 

Raygoza said he’d never considered it in depth, however.

“A conversation like that would need a lot of time … and that’s just a conversation that I haven’t been a part of,” he said.

No matter what’s in store for the U9 in the future, whether it be expanding its goals or continuing to make efforts to deliver on its current ones, the program is here to stay.

“I’m proud that as a school we have teachers and staff that are really committed to supporting kids from the beginning, and also they recognize that we can always do better,” Raygoza said. “We just continue to reflect and do better, reflect and do better.”

Minassian has no regrets.

“I would do it again, but not in this lifetime,” she said.