Many things set Berkeley High School (BHS) apart from other schools, and one is the Small Learning Communities (SLCs), in which students can learn in specialized environments based on their passions. Another is the school’s diversity and its commitment to providing equal opportunity to students of all socioeconomic classes. But making these two things work together has always been a challenge.
For longer than any BHS student can remember, this system has led students to self-segregate, often ending up divided in SLCs based on not only interest, but also race and privilege.
Many solutions have been discussed, but last year, BHS put the most drastic one into action. Instead of choosing their SLCs in eighth grade, freshmen were placed into a system called the Universal Ninth Grade (U9), made up of seven “hives,” each with 120 students and four core teachers.
While the main goals of the U9 were to provide students with more support, offer more consistent education across the whole grade, and build community, the restructuring was also aimed at diversifying the SLCs. Giving students more information before they selected their SLCs should result not only in higher satisfaction for students but also in each SLC serving a wider variety of learners.
Yet, students from last year’s U9 may not be as happy as might be expected. In part, this is because it is still high school, and students are not going to be ecstatic about it. However, some have genuine concerns.
The biggest issue is that the U9 prevents students from tailoring their learning to their needs immediately. This can be troublesome for high achievers, as well as for students who learn best in a smaller, tight-knit environment. But even if the first few months of the year felt chaotic and anonymous to some, that may be a small price to pay for perfecting the next three years of high school. By the end of the year, more than half of the grade reported in a survey that they felt being in a hive improved their year.
While having a common curriculum across the grade leaves no room for specialization, that can be a good thing. Classes like Ethnic Studies and Social Living are taught to every single student in their first year at BHS. This levels the playing field for students across BHS and gives everyone a solid basis on which to begin their high school careers. Students in the U9 still have the choice of many classes matched to their interests and abilities, including languages, math, and electives.
The U9 aims to lessen the achievement gap and to give students some autonomy in the classes they take. This is a difficult line to toe, and some long-term effects remain to be seen. However, so far, the U9 has proven to be amazingly effective. Now that it is well into its second year, administrators will soon have enough information to evaluate the U9’s successes and failures and hopefully determine this system to be a force for good in the BHS community.