This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In Mrs. Foster’s Alternative Energy class, groups of five or six students huddle around pizza boxes swathed in tin foil. On the floor sits a heat lamp. On the board is a chart of temperature readings. These, Foster explains, are solar ovens. Later, they will roast hot dogs and marshmallows inside them, the temperature reaching well over 100 degrees.
Down the hall, the Healthy Lifestyles group is filming its cooking show. They rub raw chicken in olive oil, but not before hands are washed. The camera shuts off for a minute and a pre-cooked filet emerges from the oven, is drizzled with dressing and garnished with almonds. Bon appetit!
The Summer Bridge program at Bartram High School is in full swing, warming up students for high school.
This six-week program for rising 9th graders is a growing component of the District’s Summer Learning and More (SLAM) initiative.
Summer programs are a priority in Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 strategic plan, and were ramped up this year, with 117 schools involved and a budget increase from $20 million to $47 million. SLAM provides reinforcement in core subjects as well as enrichment for District students from pre-K up.
This year, every rising 9th grader in the District was invited to participate in the Summer Bridge program to smooth their transition to high school. More than one in three joined in – a total of 4,600 students at 29 high schools, according to District numbers. Last year, a less ambitious Summer Bridge program enrolled 1,300 students.
To achieve this growth, participating schools started recruiting students much earlier, with phone calls and information fairs.
Principals of Empowerment Schools, which are among the District’s lowest-performing, made a strong effort to urge the incoming 9th graders to participate. The District required Empowerment Schools to have 75 percent student participation in SLAM.
This year’s Summer Bridge boasted an hour each day of counseling for all students on making the transition to high school, and then four hours of either remedial or accelerated academics. This was followed by 90 minutes of enrichment in the afternoons.
At schools like Bartram that receive federal Department of Labor grants earmarked for programs to improve climate, the Bridge program was extended a week, with the extra days focused on college awareness and trips.
Tanya Ruley, who oversees the Department of Labor grant program, said the administration hopes students will learn that school is fun and will build their academic skill set and relationships with future teachers.
The idea is to inspire and prepare students for what could be the toughest year of their schooling so far.
“Ninth grade is really the make-or-break year for students,” said Ruley. “Typically if a student isn’t successful in 9th grade, their chances for dropout significantly increase.”
For students and teachers, the enrichment portion was definitely the draw.
At Bartram, this enrichment had a “green” focus; accelerated students studied Alternative Energy or Healthy Lifestyles, and remedial students studied gardening, beautifying the campus by planting a garden with fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
“When we started this program, the thrill was that I got to help decide the curriculum. There’s just no room for that kind of project-based learning [during the school year],” said Summer Bridge science teacher Marie Scearce, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and teaches chemistry at Bartram during the year.
But with two hours each assigned for math and reading, the five-hour block of scripted curriculum each day was taxing, according to students and teachers.
Scearce said she and others were disappointed when the District changed the schedule in favor of these long periods, cutting the enrichment period from two hours to an hour and a half.
But teachers sought to remedy this imbalance by incorporating enrichment activities into reading and math.
Basing her lesson around the recent Gulf oil disaster, Scearce had her math class calculate how much oil it would take to fill up Bartram High. Tara Carter, who teaches 9th grade English during the year, assigned articles about the spill during reading.
Students couldn’t get enough of the project-based work. “I would like more hands-on activities where I could be creative…. I would also add art classes,” said Jordan Yarborough, a student in the Alternative Energy group, who will attend the Charter High School for Architecture and Design.
All Summer Bridge students took pre- and post-tests measuring thinking skills. They had midterms and finals and had to receive passing grades and no more than three absences to earn the half-credit promised to them.
The motivation for some students was not just catching up or getting ahead; 83 students at the Bartram program were paid for coming to Summer Bridge. A federally funded stipend enabled students to attend who would otherwise have to work a summer job. Most Summer Bridge students qualified for the funding.
But paid or not, students were learning how to deal not just with high-school-level academics, but also with the new expectations and procedures that accompany the transition to the upper grades.
In Carter’s accelerated reading class, there was frequent homework as well as high expectations.
Carter explained, “I made it clear to them, ‘Some of you are going to be in my class next year, and this is how my class is run.’” Her class rose to that expectation, she said. “This group of kids really excelled. They are on task, on time.”
In the first period of the day focusing on the high school transition, students met with counselors and teachers to address issues of behavior, good habits, learning, and diversity. The District used Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for Teens to direct these discussions.
“When I came here, I was very hyperactive,” said Yarborough, who dreams of becoming an architect. “But then I saw the older kids at summer school who are quiet in the hall, and I realized I had to change my behavior.”
The hope, however, that students would begin to develop relationships with their future grade teachers proved somewhat unrealistic because the program was not offered at every high school. Many of Bartram’s Summer Bridge students are heading to other schools in the fall.
And, explained MeiMei Kwong, turnaround principal at Bartram, “Because Summer Bridge was extended another week this year and the days are longer, most of the 9th grade teachers didn’t want to participate in the program.”
Despite some shortcomings, students said that Summer Bridge has given them a definite advantage over those who opted out.
Yarborough admitted, “If there was no Summer Bridge, I would have just watched TV and slept the whole summer away.”
The program also got students thinking about academic success even beyond high school. The last week included trips to the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and Community College of Philadelphia. At the end of the week, students were rewarded with trips to the National Aquarium, Bartram’s Garden, and the Statue of Liberty.
Dieliah Franklin, who will attend Parkway Center City in the fall, was most excited about the trip to New York but appreciated the opportunity to visit Temple. “If I was at home watching TV, I don’t think I would be thinking about college,” she said.