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Independent-Public School Links Breaking Down Wall of 'Elitism'

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San Francisco--Son Lam's life changed after he met the visitor to his public junior high school here four years ago.

Then a self-described shy student who had emigrated with his family from Vietnam several years earlier, Son learned about a summer program for gifted and other highly motivated students called "Summerbridge.'' The program was offered at San Francisco University High School, an independent school here.

He enrolled in the rigorous academic program and showed such promise that its organizers helped him win a scholarship to a private middle school, where he attended 8th grade. Last year, he earned a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy, the private boarding school in Exeter, N.H. Had he attended his local high school here, where he feared exposure to drugs and gangs, he would never have been so academically challenged, he says.

Now Son is back at the Summerbridge program, teaching math and writing to its new crop of students, many of whom come from economically disadvantaged families like his own.

Breaking Down 'Elitism'

University High School is one of a growing number of independent schools nationwide that are forging stronger ties with the public-school system, through such means as public-private school partnerships and special summer or weekend programs for disadvantaged students in the surrounding community.

"I have been delighted to see the independent-school movement break down the sense of elitism it has," said Peter T. Esty, headmaster of San Francisco University High School. "It is a very big wall between public and independent schools. Public schools don't want to give in to the idea that they can learn from private schools. And private schools can still be smug."

In addition to Summerbridge and a handful of other programs in the San Francisco area, collaborative efforts between public and independent schools include these:

In New York City, 25 partnerships have been established between private and public schools in all five city boroughs, said Gardner P. Dunnan, headmaster of the Dalton School in Manhattan.

The Dalton School is paired with P.S. 130 in Chinatown, where 90 percent of the students have arrived from mainland China within the past four years, Mr. Dunnan said. The partnership has included joint staff training and student exchanges.

"It's a partnership, not an act of philanthropy," he said. "It's explicit that all sides have something to contribute."

At Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn., more than 100 public-school students from throughout the state come each summer for five weeks of advanced study in math, science, and the humanities.

Choate Rosemary Hall was also the co-sponsor last year of the first national forum on public-private school collaboration.

The Horizons-Upward Bound program at the Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., marked its 25th anniversary this year, making it one of the oldest public-private school collaborative efforts. The program supports public high-school students from low-income families in the Detroit area, who receive teaching and counseling in the summer and on weekends.

"A good independent school must have something to offer for the public good," said Ben M. Snyder, director emeritus for the Horizons-Upward Bound program.

John C. Esty Jr., president of the National Association of Independent Schools, estimates that there are some 200 to 300 collaborative programs of varying types between public and independent schools.

Many established programs have been copied by independent schools around the country, often when teachers take new jobs and attempt to replicate the collaborative efforts they have seen elsewhere.

Alec Lee, for example, arrived at Lick-Wilmerding High School, another independent school in San Francisco, and began "Aim High," a program modeled on Horizons-Upward Bound but designed for middle-school students.

Aim High serves about 85 at-risk students in grades 7 through 9, 90 percent of whom are from minority groups. The students take an intensive five-week summer school, then meet bimonthly during the school year.

"Our mission is to strengthen academic skills for at-risk middle-school students and to give them options," said Mr. Lee. "We really push kids to go on to strong academic high schools. We have a lot of kids who go to Lowell High School who wouldn't have gotten there without Aim High." (Lowell is a public high school in San Francisco with highly competitive admissions.)

This year, the Aim High program was expanded to a second campus--that of the Urban School, another independent school in the city.

Not Just for Gifted

Unlike Lick-Wilmerding, which sits closer to some of the impoverished city neighborhoods where many students in the Aim High program live, San Francisco University High School is nestled between the posh Victorian homes of the affluent Pacific Heights neighborhood here.

Opened only 15 years ago, it has acquired a reputation as one of the city's best private schools, and its graduates go on to Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, and other well-regarded institutions.

Summerbridge was created in 1978 as a summer-enrichment program for bright 6th- and 7th-graders from throughout the city.

"We created Summerbridge to intersect with the city more directly," said Dennis A. Collins, the founding headmaster of University High.

When Summerbridge is in session, the school's classrooms and courtyards take on a new look. The preppy, upper-middle-class students whose parents can afford the $9,200 a year tuition give way to about 100 public and parochial middle-school students, who attend the program free of charge.

The students take five academic classes each day during the six-week session, plus two electives. They are also given homework assignments that add two to three hours of work each night.

"I had a choice of either Summerbridge or day camp," said James Fogarty, a 13-year-old who was in a gifted program at a public middle school. "You learn so much more so quickly here."

Next year, he will attend University High School on a scholarship.

Summerbridge is open to the "best and the brightest" students who might not otherwise get a taste of rigorous private-school academics, its backers say. But that also means admission to the program is not be limited to the economically disadvantaged.

"This gives students in the program the chance to be with all different kinds of students," said Thomas Malarkey, co-director of Summerbridge. "The public-school population is not just poor people."

Public- and parochial-school students generally find out about Summerbridge through presentations to gifted and talented classes at their schools, or by word of mouth. Any student may apply, but the program is highly selective. Some 250 6th-graders applied for just 50 places this year. (Students make a two-year commitment to the program. A third year, called Newbridge, costs $625 in tuition, with some financial aid available for needy students.)

Racial and ethnic diversity are key goals of the admissions process. The breakdown of students has generally been 25 percent white, 25 percent black, 20 percent Asian, 18 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent Filipino, roughly representative of the city at large.

Students as Teachers

Summerbridge has gained national attention for its most unique characteristic--the use of high-school and college students as its regular teachers. After a one-week training workshop, the young teachers are let loose to design their own curriculum.

Using student teachers means more can be hired, so classes average just six pupils each. The Summerbridge students seem to relate well to teachers who are their elders by only a few years.

On a recent day, Daniel Handler, a student at Princeton University, presided over a lively discussion of Shakespeare with his class of a half-dozen 8th graders. He sympathized with their difficulties in wrestling with the text, then urged that they "read 'MacBeth' out loud in the bathroom. It's great. Your family will think you are crazy, but it works."

The high-school student teachers mostly come from University High, while the college slots are sought by students from around the country. This is not because of the pay. The college students get a stipend for the summer of only $500, despite workdays that typically run 12 hours or more.

"I felt I owed a huge debt," said Son, explaining why he returned to teach instead of taking a more lucrative summer job. "I look at it as if I am passing along information to my younger brothers."

Son is typical of the success the program has had in its principal goal of getting students into academically superior high schools. Since the program began in 1978, more than 90 percent of participants have enrolled in top academic high schools, including public schools like Lowell, local private schools like University High and St. Ignatius College Prep, and boarding schools such as Exeter or Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

The issue of whether such programs exist to skim top students from the public schools is a sensitive one, but Summerbridge officials say that is not their purpose.

"The public schools here are competitive already," said Lois Loofbourrow, director of Summerbridge. "We only try to transfer kids into private schools who we feel would benefit."

Public-school officials in the city have not always been firmly behind Summerbridge, but Ramon C. Cortines, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, is unequivocal in his support for both Summerbridge and Aim High.

"I think they are outstanding," he said. "I think through collaboration we can strengthen all of the educational system. Isolation and 'turf' are just unrealistic."

The Summerbridge concept has already spread beyond the bounds of the Bay Area. Under a grant from the Interpacific Foundation, program officials developed a modeling packet that has already been reviewed by numerous independent schools throughout the country.

This summer, the Isadore Newman School in New Orleans began its own Summerbridge program for 46 students.

"In New Orleans, it is still basically educationally segregated," said Jay Altman, the program director there. "This program is trying to address that. It is somewhat the ideal of what education can be."

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