First Visit to the Universal 9th Grade (U9) at Berkeley High

Berkeley High School is big. With 3,200 students and a campus covering four city blocks, navigating your way through Berkeley High School is an intimidating prospect. I was there to learn about the Universal 9th Grade, which some people liken to a “soft landing” at Berkeley High, and it already seemed like a good idea. It took a while to find my way to Stephen Salser’s ninth grade Physics 1 class. However, when I got there I felt a welcome calm.

Students were sitting in groups at tables with lab equipment: an adjustable track, a toy car, and two photogates that electronically record the speed of the car as it rolls in between them, already set up by Mr. Salser. They were working on the Warm-Up questions that prepared them for the lab experiment. Students confidently answered the Warm-Up questions during the review and seemed eager to start their labs, with many of them already curiously moving the small car on the track. In the vastness of the school, here was a small hive of students who felt at ease with each other and with the task at hand.

The Schools Fund awarded a Strategic Impact Grant to create a state-of-the-art, technology-rich laboratory for the new Physics 1 class for  9th grade. Physics 1 was designed to be full of lab experiments to offer students “a hands on, minds-on course that emphasizes inquiry and investigation.” Our Strategic Impact Grant supported “60 labs that are designed to hook students and cultivate enthusiasm for science that will not only lead to success in Physics 1, but also reverberate into chemistry, biology, and the science electives that students will take in their sophomore, junior and senior years,” explained Berkeley High science teachers.

Some of the 60 labs that the students will be conducting throughout the school year involve using Spring Sets, Super Pulleys, and Marble Launchers. On the day that I visited, students were either adjusting the height of the track or the distance between the photogates to observe the effect that it has on the speed of the car. Students chose the variable they would be changing while keeping the other variables constant, and created a hypothesis as a group. Then they conducted the experiment.

With the “hands-on” portion of their experiment done, it was time for the “minds-on” portion as students reflected upon their lab. Questions such as “Why did you do multiple trials for each chosen value?” and “Why was it important to only change one variable at a time and leave the others constant?” led to thoughtful discussions amongst the group members and with other groups as well.

It was encouraging to see students not only working intently on their labs but with each other. The impetus behind the new Universal 9th Grade (U9) was to create a smooth transition from middle to high school, build a stronger community and critically, provide early support and resources for students who need them.

The U9 aims to achieve these goals by organizing 9th graders into “hives” of 120 students who share the same 4 core academic classes and teachers, and by making the curriculum hands-on, like the experiment-rich Physics 1 class. Having invested over $100,000 to the U9 restructuring, we were proud to see the principles clearly in action in the first month of the U9 and we’re excited to see how its impact unfolds for this first class and in coming years, for the the school as a whole.


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