High Achievers Experience with BHS Universal 9th Grade?

Hello Dear Parents.  I have a middle school kid and grade school kid behind her that currently attend a private school.  The middle schooler is a high-achiever with excellent grades. Our hope for high school is that she be prepared to go to any school of her choosing whether that be a UC, small liberal arts college, or Ivy League.  And, we want her to keep her easygoing well-rounded lifestyle.  And we have a strong desire to have her engage with all kinds of kids and not just upper middle class and rich kids.  We would love to send her to Berkeley High.  But we have concerns.  I did see a presentation recently from the school re the universal 9th grade that outlines curriculum of that year.  The Physics looked challenging but we have concerns about teaching physics before significant math preparation.  But the rest of the curriculum appears to be below my daughter's level.  I'm very concerned she might waste a year.  I'm sure some other parents have dealt with this same issue.  Is there some way to shoehorn this curriculum to make it work?  One idea I had was that perhaps she could start a club that might look good for college admissions.  Other ideas?

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Hello: My children attend Albany HS after k-8 at a private school, so I can't really speak to the BHS universal 9th grade in particular. However, I've been observing the college acceptances in Albany and Berkeley for some time (my own children, friends, etc.) and wanted to say that BHS has a really excellent record of getting kids into all of the UC's as well as the strong private colleges and private universities.   If you took the top 20 kids from BHS and CPS, I bet the same percentage of the class get into UCLA, Cal, Yale, etc.  This might be the only time in your child's life when they are surrounded by other young people from truly diverse backgrounds.   A smart motivated young person can read books in their spare time, explore their interests, learn about friendship and exercise.  It won't be a wasted year.   You can add an academic summer program; one of my children did writing programs during 2 summers, the other one did art and photography programs at our local art colleges.  And yes, starting a club or getting really involved in an existing club is a great idea!  

My daughter’s 1st year at BHS was a waste academically (she felt she might transfer during her first months there) but by winter break she told us that what she wasn’t learning academically, was made up for by learning how to manage with kids so different from her. Her powerful college essay told us more specifically what she encountered there and what she understood from her experience. Like your daughter she came from a private academic school she’d attended since kindergarten. She could have stayed for high school but knew it was an unreal environment and we also knew she’d always be under pressure to compete with kids for whom school came easier or for kids without (in her case) dyslexia. By junior year her courses were more academic and her classmates were more engaged. She took a semester of junior year abroad which was awesome- and somewhat affordable given we weren’t paying for high school. She attended a top 25 (not Ivy) college and was so prepared both academically and socially to live on her own. 

I have a 9th grader and a 12th grader at BHS. The Physics curriculum in 9th grade is not challenging, but it sets them up nicely for AP Physics in 12th grade. BHS is what you make of it. U9 in general is not that challenging, but the program is pretty great. The students don't jump right away into a small school they know nothing about and they get to know their peers a bit. They have multiple classes with the same students. Exposing your children to the diversity at BHS is great, but expecting it to offer private school curriculum is unrealistic. That said, BHS is very solid academicalIy. I can only speak about Academic Choice, but it offers many AP classes and my daughter has really thrived. There are many many clubs to join and your daughter should see what's out there first. Starting a club in 9th grade is a bit ridiculous IMO. Clubs are mostly run by upper classmen who know the system.

My 12th grader knows a lot of kids who came from private schools: Head Royce, Prospect Sierra, Black Pine Circle ... and all have been fine. Some have even preferred BHS due to its size, its less toxic rich kid culture, and the diversity. I will say my daughter's friend from one of those schools was such a total snob, I could hardly stand her. It made no sense why she was at BHS in the first place. Plenty of BHS kids go on to prestigious universities. In some ways, I think the UCs like these public school kids. BHS seems to send a lot of students to Cal. 

I encourage you to rethink what you consider to be a waste of a year. I'm guessing that learning to thrive in an environment that isn't perfectly tailored to her will be a valuable skill for your daughter. Rest assured that plenty of BHS graduates have gone on to UCs, Ivies, and small liberal arts colleges. 

Every family is different but my child attended BUSD k-12 and was admitted to UCs (with Regent’s Scholarships), and most of the privates they applied to. Ended up attending an Ivy. Only did activities they were interested in, some at school, some in the community. The main thing I would advise is to encourage your child to pursue their interests and college admissions will work out. 

Honest thoughts from a parent of a "high-achieving" BHS grad. We were not in the U9 program at BHS, but we were there recently enough that our experience is fresh. (We also entered BHS from a private school.)

Colleges LOVE Berkeley High. High-achieving kids tend to get very high GPAs at BHS, made even higher by AP or IP classes. These AP/IB classes are all geared toward teaching to the test, but they make for an impressive GPA. It's easy to start a club at BHS, and that also looks fantastic on an application. Every year BHS kids get into a huge range of competitive colleges -- we knew kids accepted at Ivy Leagues, small LACs, and all the UCs. (My kid had great success with college applications.) The sports and student organizations are top-notch (teams, newspaper, jazz band, etc.) Plug into those activities for sure -- that is where BHS really shines. 

Re: 9th grade, your concerns are valid. My kid found that the 9th grade workload was not very challenging. The upside: lots of time for all those great extracurriculars!

That said, the BHS core curriculum is dismal, particularly in the humanities. My kid was in AC and went through 4 years (including 2 years of AP English) only needing to read a handful of books total for English class. Barely any writing was assigned, and the English & History courses were taught to the lowest common denominator. The math program is also awful as it doesn't map to a traditional math progression. Teachers use their own grading standards so some of them are really easy graders and some are impossible -- luck of the draw. My kid had, on average, 1 excellent teacher every year, but then there were... all the rest.

We loved the diversity at BHS, but found that kids from similar backgrounds tended to stick together.

If your kid is confident, mature, and social, with a hobby or talent that maps to a BHS team or club, BHS can be a great place. But the school itself has endless intractable problems. Each class moves on and kids are accepted to great colleges, so changes never happen even if parents complain. (See issues with the math program here, still in use:  https://www.berkeleyside.org/2018/10/18/opinion-the-math-crisis-at-berke...).

Focus on BHS's strengths: sports, music, student organizations. Be ready for uneven academics.

I wish I had known some of this before we started at BHS. Hope this is helpful in managing expectations. 

It is true that academically the U9 curriculum is not challenging for high-achieving kids. But there is so much else going on at BHS to keep them interested and that first year is a period of acclimation and transition, especially for kids coming from small private schools. And there are many rich and rewarding ways kids can get involved outside classes in that time. I have a senior at BHS and have seen what a gem the school is for kids who are academically focused and want to be challenged. Starting sophomore year they can self select more challenging and AP classes and then, especially in the IB program, junior and senior years are as challenging academically as any private school, depending what courses your child chooses. BHS kids regularly get into the UCs, ivies, and top-tier liberal arts schools, and the experience along the way, of learning to manage dealing with people from all different backgrounds and walks of life, is the most valuable part. 

I wanted to add to what others posted by suggesting that kids choose activities based on their own interests, not solely to “look good for college admissions.” If they don’t know what they like, let them figure it out. Your kids are young, so much will change before they even figure out what they want to pursue and whether they even want to go to college. I suggest stepping back and giving them space to explore their own interests and not pushing them to take classes and engage in activities for the sole purpose of getting in to the college of your dreams. 

I have a 12th grader at BHS who went through a well-known private school for K-8 and got into a top academic private high school for 9th grade. We transferred to BHS at 10th grade. So I feel that I can directly compare the academic and other aspects between the top private high school and BHS. The bottomline is, depending on your kid, the strong academics at top private high school may not be what it advertised to be. The private school's curriculum assumes that your kid is not very self-disciplined and not a super strong academic kid and is designed for above average students but not for the top outliers.  They do not teach thinking but do feed a lot of content (this include Physics, which should be about thinking but not about memorizing content).  What it did do is to fill up your kid's time with endless homework.  For many parents, huge amount of homework are evidence of learning. But in reality, if your kid is a high academic achiever, the relentless and highly repetitive homework kill the creativity and effectively dampen the enthusiasm for learning, while not really learning much. Of course the homework at BHS are the same types of busy work, but at least they are not that much and your kid will have time for extracurricular activities essential for college admission. BHS offers many high caliber AP classes at 10-12 grades. The quality of the teachers for AP classes tend to be better, but they are also hit-or-miss.  In order to do well in national AP exams, your kid needs to be academically very independent, meaning that she will have to be capable of learning by herself through reading textbooks and watching online AP classes. Everyone criticizes the math curriculum at BHS, but my kid actually loved the advance math series at BHS, which for once, teach to the very top. For the first time in life, my kid was challenged academically in AP Calculus BC because the teacher not only taught them formulas, but made them do proofs on all these formulas so that they understand where the formulas come from. In advance math classes, there are always a few "little math geniuses" who are at levels higher than those in private schools. So BHS does provide academic challenges to high achieving students , but these challenges may be different in nature from that in private schools. Your kid has to be very independent academically and already has excellent learning habit and skills in order to do well in BHS AP classes. Academics aside, BHS makes your kid mature and grow up really fast (in a good way) and offers many outstanding extracurricular activities. Its diverse student body also means that your kid will likely find a group of friends with similar interests and goals in life and can help and motivate each other. Finally the college counseling at BHS is the outstanding that can be matched with private schools, if your kid is able to actively seek assistance from them. We are super happy that we left the private high school to come to BHS.