Building a Highway To High School

Summer program gets urban middle-schoolers motivated to learn

Making kids go to summer school is usually synonymous with pulling teeth, but 140 middle-school students in St. Louis are chomping at the bit for a chance to go.

The attraction is an academic and cultural enrichment program called "Aim High." Held at the John Burroughs School in the affluent suburb of Ladue, it was created six years ago to help reduce the high school dropout rate of almost 50 percent among African-American students.

"We're trying to start with the kids right after elementary school and form a bridge to high school," says Richard Sandler, the program's director. "Our long-range goal - way down the road - is to get them to college."

Aim High targets those students in Grades 5 through 8 who are often seen to be "at risk" and easily influenced by drugs, alcohol, and gang activities. Ninety to 95 percent of the student body is African-American and comes from the most racially polarized areas in St. Louis. Half of the faculty comes from public schools, the other half from private.

To participate in the tuition-free Aim High program, students must have at least a B average and a good attendance record. They also must score 70 percent or higher on a standardized test and receive the recommendation of their teacher and principal.

"We are trying [at Aim High] to show them what behaviors and attitudes will help them get to goals in adulthood," Sandler says.

Many of the students admittedly don't come to the program with long-term goals in mind, but once they discover viable opportunities, their goals and academic aspirations grow.

"I wasn't even thinking about college and possibly getting a scholarship," says Robin Tramble, an Aim High teacher's assistant who graduated from the program two years ago. "I was like - hey, I never get to do anything in the summer. And now [after taking part in the program] people notice me and recognize my intelligence."

The curriculum during the intensive five-week program includes courses in language, history, math and science, performing arts, and interpersonal development.

Many of the students see the program as their ticket to success. "I want to be a writer," says 14-year-old Tasha Lorthridge, "and I thought Aim High would help me get to my goal. And here I could learn a lot of things."

"The students are eager for an enrichment program," says English teacher Ron Charles. "Aim High rewards and encourages them to stay on the straight and narrow path."

Mr. Charles explains that the students are already intelligent and inspired. Aim High is just providing an environment devoid of drugs and violence in which they can learn, he says.

"[Mr. Charles] teaches us to be more specific about what we're writing so the writing is more visual," Tasha says. "Our teacher has helped me do that."

So far the results of the program have been positive: The students' grade point averages have remained high, while those of other students have dropped. Sandler plans to expand the program throughout St. Louis. But more important, the students are raving about their experience.

"It has built my character and motivation," says teacher's assistant Vanessa Blackmun, who received an all-expenses-paid trip to Mexico through participation in the program. "I can set a goal and reach it."

Tramble agrees: "Aim High has built me up in so many ways emotionally, with values, self-esteem, and confidence - I've gotten a sense of pride and self-respect."

Every Friday during the program, Aim High sponsors a "career day" to expose the students to corporate figures and businesses in various fields.

Professionals, including computer programmers, photographers, architects, nurses, lawyers, and pro football players have visited the program to answer questions and provide inspiration. These informal meetings are designed to help students define goals and work toward meeting them.

"A lot of doors have been opened for me," Tramble says. "I've met a lot of professionals and gained experience. I've gained a way to speak with people in the corporate world and speak with them in a way they would understand."

The program doesn't end after the summer either, but continues throughout the academic year with monthly meetings.

"They never forget about you," Vanessa says. "There is so much love."

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