Some school officials are cautiously optimistic that the latest round of reforms proposed for Berkeley High’s ninth-grade curriculum will make being a freshman less overwhelming than it has been in years past – particularly for students who arrive at the school at risk of failing.
Nearly 200 freshman were failing two or more classes at the end of the first semester this year.
Under the curriculum change, world history, traditionally a ninth-grade class at Berkeley High, would move to the 10th grade. This would free up staff to create a new “freshman seminar” combining elements of the traditional ethnic studies and social living curriculums.
While both ethnic studies and social living are part of the ninth grade curriculum under California’s statewide academic standards, world history is considered part of the 10th grade curriculum under those standards.
But the shift proposed by Berkeley High School Principal Frank Lynch last week does more than bring the school into better alignment with state standards, said Berkeley school board president and former Berkeley High teacher Terry Doran. It allows ninth-grade teachers to redesign the freshman curriculum in a way that makes it easier for them to work together as a team.
Under the new plan, the freshman seminar will be held back-to-back with a freshman English class. The classes’ curriculums will be made compatible, so that the study topics in one class relate to the study topics in the other during any given week.
The hybrid formed by the blending of these two classes will be known as a freshman “core,” and each core will consist of 40 students (since the English and freshman seminar classes, at 20-to-1, will have lower student to teacher ratios than other freshman classes.)
Within the core, it is hoped, teachers will work together more closely than ever before, assessing the progress of students on an ongoing basis, and hashing out strategies to help those students who are struggling.
It is further hoped that students will come to relate to their freshman “core” as a kind of “home room” – a place where the teachers are looking out for them and working to ensure their overall success at the school.
“It’s being designed almost like a homeroom, to allow teachers to play a role of mentoring and working with the students,” Doran said. “I see it as complimenting what (the school guidance counselors) are supposed to do.”
Doran and others said the freshman cores, by creating a place where specific groups of students are closely monitored by specific teachers, goes a long way toward creating the more “personalized” education experience found in Berkeley High’s small learning communities, such as Common Ground and Communication Arts and Sciences.
Plans for how the cores will work are not completely finalized, but Doran said it was his expectation that, if a student gets in trouble, academically or otherwise, core teachers would intervene immediately. They would work to improve a student’s study skills and refer the student to tutoring and mentoring services at the school for extra help. They might even hash out something like an “individual learning plan” for each of the kids in their core, spelling out clearly what they need to do to graduate, or what they need to do to be prepared for a specific career after graduation.
Mary Lee Cole, the educational programs’ expert who launched the popular Writer’s Room volunteer tutoring program at the high school this year, said the opportunities for teachers to collaborate under the “core” system could make a significant difference in the way freshman experience Berkeley High School.
Core teachers are already meeting over the summer, designing their core curriculums for next year, Cole said. This means “teachers will have a good working relationship” from the get-go next fall, Cole said, “which is vital if you’re going to identify kids who need help.”
Also new at the high school next year, all English teachers will be trained in the latest techniques for teaching reading to teen-aged students, based on the assumption that 200 or more of 800 freshman who enter Berkeley High next year could arrive with reading skills far below grade level.
“At risk” students will attend a second, “back-up” English class focused exclusively on racheting up their reading skills as quickly as possible, so they can engage more successfully in the rest of the freshman curriculum.
Cole, who provided dozens of trained writing tutors to work one-on-one with Berkeley High students this year, said in many cases the tutors helped students complete assignments they simply could not do on their own because their reading and writing skills were insufficient.
“I think this is really facing reality and seeing the problem clearly and beginning to respond to it,” Cole said of the school’s decision to make literacy a integral part of the freshman curriculum for many students next year.
Taken together, Doran said the reforms Berkeley High Principal Lynch and his staff have proposed for next year are very substantial steps towards combating the racial “achievement gap” so often criticized at Berkeley High.
“There are members of the community who say we are doing nothing, and it bothers me, because I think the professionals at the high school are really trying to do something,” Doran said.
“Whether it’s enough is another question.”